All writers have a process. It may seem chaotic—it may be chaotic—but there must be something that holds the work together or the work never gets done. Readers and fledgling writers are often interested in process as if there’s some alchemy that takes place at some point in the process. I know enough good writers to be able to safely say there’s not. Ultimately it’s just ass in seat until you’re done.
“But what happens while your ass is in the seat?” All I can speak to is what happens when my ass is in my seat, and it’s not pretty. It also changes from book to book. It’s not perfect, but when I get to the end I know I’ve given my best effort. If it’s a failure, it’s a noble failure.
This is how I’m writing the fifth Penns River book, Small Town Crime.
I gotta have one. I know a lot of better writers than I who don’t use them, hate them, can’t figure out how the reader can be surprised if the writer isn’t. I get it. Tried to write a novel by the seat of my pants once and ended up with almost 40,000 words that didn’t go anywhere. Now I use an ever-changing combination of index cards, dry erase boards, magnets, and Excel spreadsheets to at least have a map of everything that has to happen in each chapter. Not how it has to happen; just what I have to accomplish to keep the story moving. I may make a lot of detours along the way, but I need the route to have any chance of getting there.
One single spaced page after work every work day; two pages on days off. I can skip a day but I have to make it up. Read and make light edits on what I wrote yesterday before moving forward. Read chapters to The Beloved Spouse™ as they’re finished.
After letting the book sit for a couple of weeks or more, I read it straight down. No changes allowed. Make notes in my journal, then transfer them to the computer in context.
Fix what I didn’t like in the read-through and make what is a collection of scenes into a book. (Note: All edits involve some level of reading aloud. It may be sotto voce, it may be full voice, it may involve acting out. Depends on the scene, my mood, and how much trouble I’m having with it.)
A series of passes through the appearances, in sequence, of every character who appears more than once. One day I edit nothing but Rick Neuschwander’s actions, descriptions, and dialog. Another day it’s Stush Napierkowski. More than one character a day for some lesser lights, but they all get solo attention.
Same as Draft 3, but for the locations. This goes considerably faster, as locations rarely have dialog.
Polish. Incorporate ideas that have come to me over the past weeks and months. Pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of chapters.
Let it sit for several weeks.
This is where my OCD truly kicks in.
Day 1: Read Chapter 1. (Or 1 and 2. Whatever.) That’s it. Read it and go on about my life.
Day 2. Edit Chapter 1 on the computer screen. Read Chapter 2.
Day 3: Edit Chapter 1 from a hard copy. Edit Chapter 2 on the computer screen. Read Chapter 3.
Day 4: Proofread Chapter 1 aloud to The Beloved Spouse™. Edit Chapter 2 from a hard copy. Edit Chapter 3 on the computer screen. Read Chapter 4.
Repeat until the final chapter is proofread.
Type “THE END.”
When people ask if I ever use an editor before submitting to my publisher, I refer them to the single greatest bit of dialog ever written:
“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you write down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘[The End]’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”
(Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Page 143.)