From Napkin to Page: So You Want to Write a Story

As has been recorded here, I spent many alcohol-fueled nights around small wooden tables in loud and dark bars writing notes and poetry and story ideas on cocktail napkins. I have recently signed a publishing contract to put my first book out through an independent publisher. From Napkins to Page will be my attempt to chronicle the process by which I migrate into the world of the published author. This is the first entry of From Napkin to Page, an ongoing series that discusses the publishing process.

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So You Want to Write a StoryWhere do I start? I feel like I’ve covered the writing part of writing pretty well in past posts. I don’t know that I have any other advice on that part of the process other than this: if you don’t write, you’ll have nothing to publish. I started several stories that didn’t pan out–they just didn’t have the legs to travel to several thousand words. Since I finished the first book, I’ve started several other stories. Many of these, I’m afraid, will also not make it to novel status. Regardless, if you have a story that you think is worth telling, you have to tell it. No one can publish ideas. You have to put them on paper.

So maybe I do have more to say on the writing process.

For me, it took something like a year and a half to complete the first draft of the book that would become A Year Since the Rain. That draft was 60,000-something words long. I was writing with the intention of going back and filling in gaps–using a technique that the Twitterverse calls #wordsprints. In other words, for a set amount of time, I was writing as fast as I could without worrying about spelling and grammar. I was fixing some of this as I went, during breaks and stuff, but most importantly, I wanted the skeleton of the story down. I knew I could add muscle and sinew later.

All during this initial writing process, I had people who were close to me listening to the story develop. I would read passages to them and we would discuss those passages. I would describe the story and different character arcs, and I would listen to their feedback. This part of my process was important. I was interested in listening to feedback, but I really need to talk through my ideas as they are developing. I need to be able to hear if something is ridiculous. Saying it out loud makes it easier to recognize absurdities–to me, anyway. Everything that happens in the book has to work in the world that has been created, and talking through that is sometimes helpful–even if feedback isn’t the primary goal.

Then I had a draft. For another six months I went back through the entire book. I wrote new scenes, I added description, and I beefed up my characters. This was a line-by-line, page-by-page process. I got much more tedious here than I did the first time. I was also keeping an eye on grammar and mechanics. Plus, this was the first time I had read the book I wrote. It was fun to go to the front of the manuscript again and experience the story from the top. This portion of the writing process was much faster. By the time I was ready to pass this thing off to someone else, I had written through the story twice.

Finally, it was time to pass the book off to another reader for feedback and line edits. I don’t know if I can describe how scary it is to hand something like this over to another person and ask them to read it. I had grown really attached to the story and I had been living in that world for two years–just me and my characters. The thought of letting someone else in at that stage is a little unsettling. But the fact remains that I wrote this story for people to read, so it had to be done.

Before we go further, here is a quick note on different types of edits a book may have to go through:

  • Copy edits: A copy edit (or line edit/ proofreading) is essentially a thorough grammar check. Someone who is performing a copy edit is just looking at the words that exist in the manuscipt and making sure that they all fit together the right way. This is subject/verb, sentence construction type stuff. Don’t be too proud here. Even the best writers need proofreaders. I teach English and can mark student papers like a boss, but there is something about seeing errors in your own writing that is very different. We all need a proofreader.
  • Developmental edits: A developmental editor is not always necessary, though a cursory glance at the story by a developmental editor may be smart. Developmental editors are essentially story editors. They check the narrative for plot holes and make note of places where there could be more clear or specific language. They also check for weaknesses in character development (not to be confused with weak characters).

I can’t stress how important the editorial stage is. Before a writer can start pitching a book to agents and publishers, it must be read by a proofreader at the very least. It just so happens I know a pretty good one, so she looked it over for me.

Note that a good proofreader will not worry about hurting you. You must be able to trust this person to be honest with you about your book. My editor was quick but thorough. She even made some basic developmental  suggestions, which were great.

At this point in the process, the book was around 70,000 words long, and I’m too close to it to see everything. Remember, I’ve been living in that world by myself for years. I am intimately aware of how that world works, but a reader may need more clarification on certain things. That’s where beta readers and editors are especially helpful.

Also, you don’t want publishing professionals to read a book full of typos. It makes you look bad, and it’s widely publicized in the publishing community that one or two typos on the first page can mean an automatic rejection. Stay tuned–next time we will discuss those publishing professionals and how to approach them.

Until then, what does your process look like? Do you find more similarities or differences in the way that you write shorter works versus longer works?

 

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2 thoughts on “From Napkin to Page: So You Want to Write a Story

  1. I just had this conversation with an author friend while in San Diego last month. I get everything out, most of it dialogue, then fill in the rest later. I’ve heard people tell other writers to always stop in the middle of a scene so you have can pick up there when you come back to it. I HAVE to get whatever is in my head out or I lose it. Once I have a draft I’ve revised and reworked to my general liking, I send it to betas for feedback. When I have their feedback, I weigh their thoughts against what really makes sense for the story and structure. When I make those changes, I send it to my critique partner to make sure everything makes sense before passing it off for copy/line editing.

  2. Pingback: From Napkin to Page: Get to Know Your Manuscript | Virtual Napkins

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