Thursday, April 2, 2020

Just When I Think I'm Out...

I have a well-defined process for finishing a book. (Some might call it obsessive-compulsive. Reasonable people might think they’re right to do so. I prefer “well-defined.” You be the judge, then keep your opinion to yourself.)

Once I realize I have all the pieces in place and the writing is about as good as I can get it, I make up my mind that this next pass will be the last.

Day One: Read Chapter 1. Don’t do anything with it. Don’t even fix typos. Inevitably, things present themselves to be improved. Leave them be. Just read it so the writing ferments overnight.

Day Two: Edit Chapter 1 on the computer screen, most likely while reading sotto voce.
Read Chapter 2.

Day Three: Print Chapter 1 and read while reading aloud. Edit Chapter 2 on the screen. Read Chapter 3.

Day Four: Re-print Chapter 1 and read it aloud to The Beloved Spouse™; note problems and correct. (Shouldn’t be more than proofreading by now, but things sometimes pop up.) Print and edit Chapter 2 while reading aloud. Edit Chapter 3 on the screen. Read Chapter 4.

Repeat until, complete.

Then, and only then, can I type THE END.

This book is different. About two-thirds of the way through this process I realized the timelines were off. Nothing dramatic, and maybe I only noticed them because I’ve been bingeing Sons of Anarchy and their timelines make no sense at all, but it bothered me enough that I resolved to make another pass.

This is where things get messy. I essentially re-outlined the book, tore it apart, and put it back together in what I thought made more sense. This required stepping back and looking at the book as a whole; I needed to see the forest.

First I created a new set of index cards in Scrivener. (I did the first two drafts in Scrivener, then the serious editing in Word.) The plan was to paste the content back into Scrivener, re-arrange the cards as needed, then export back into Word for a final proofread. Problem: there are too many scenes to get them all onto one screen and still be able to read them easily.

Plan B was to put every chapter into an Excel spreadsheet. Same problem.

I ended up making a BFC (Big Fucking Calendar) on a three-foot-by-four-foot dry erase board in my office. Took notes on what had to go together and which had to happen before or after something else. No hurry to finish. I let things fall together as they wanted to. I know my process well enough to know that I work best in relatively short bursts, after which things can sit overnight.

Today I’m using a previously scheduled day off work to copy and paste what’s on the calendar into a new Word file. New chapter headings are needed, as I think the point I’m trying to make with all this obsessing agonizing over timing can be aided by not only marking each chapter with the date and time (hat tip to Mark Bergin and his fine novel Apprehension for the idea) but by noting which cops are involved so the reader can see how they get run around and how hard it is to focus on the task at hand sometimes.

It still won’t be done. I’ll edits to reflect chapters’ new positions. I’ll do searches for extraneous words that always sneak in, such as just, actually, enough, that. (If you’re not familiar with Allan Guthrie’s brilliant list of writing tips, “Hunting Down the Pleonasms,” you need to be.) A spell and grammar check. (Not that I love Word’s grammar but it does flag the passive sentences that slip in after spending all day writing shit for the government.) Then one more proof read to make sure the spell check hasn’t missed a word that’s spelled right but is the wrong word.

Then I can type THE END.

And fucking about time it will be. This book has taken me almost twice as long as anything else I’ve written. Some of that has to do with life’s interventions. I also can’t work as fast or as much at one stretch as I used to. The lion’s share is because this is in many ways the most ambitions book I’ve ever tried, a reach for me to see how many balls I can keep in the air. I think it’s come out pretty well, just as I’m also pretty sure I’ll not try one quite like it again.

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