I recently published my first novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, which was a major personal accomplishment. In the aftermath, I’ve been looking back on the process, and trying to determine what practices I should carry forward and try to improve and which practices hindered my progress. In addition to thinking about my overall writing process, I’ve also been reflecting on the resources and supports that helped me start, sustain, and finish my first novel.
National Novel Writing Month is an iconic annual event that challenges aspiring writers to write 50,000 words of prose in 30 days. The main event is in November, and I can almost never participate in it — November is one of the worst months of the annual teaching cycle, so my day job prevents any writing from happening. However, the same nonprofit that runs NaNoWriMo also does a “Camp NaNoWriMo“, which is basically the same thing but in July with a summer camp theme. The best part about the NaNoWriMo philosophy is that you just need to get 50,000 words down on paper (or the screen), no matter how terrible those words are. Giving yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft”, as Anne Lamott calls them, as well as participating in a social event that made drafting into a fun competition, was probably one of the best things I ever did for my writing. Draft Zero of Red Soil Through Our Fingers was written during Camp NaNoWriMo 2014.
To intellectually accept that terrible first drafts are a necessary step toward eventually writing decent fiction is one thing. To actually survive the self-doubt along the way there is quite another. When I need writing inspiration and guidance, I have found that there is only really one book I need: On Writing, by Stephen King. Of all the books on writing I have read, On Writing is by far the best, and only two others have been actually helpful in any concrete way. (One I’ll talk about shortly, and the other is Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott, in which may be found several excellent quotes about shitty first drafts. I enjoyed Bird By Bird, but I did not find it to be as concretely useful as either King’s or Bell’s book, described below.)
Of course, once I had that first draft, I had to figure out what to do with it. I admit that I gravely underestimated the time and effort required for the revision process. Revision is not simply tweaking and polishing a first draft, as I thought it would be at first. For me, revision meant several major structural changes over seven distinct drafts, one of which included a complete rewrite of the entire manuscript based on what I had learned in previous drafts. For reference, the revision process took me three to four times as long as just completing the first draft.
Revision is its own beast, and requires its own mindset and set of tools. Two resources that gave me a lot of help when deep in the murky jungles of revision were Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell, and a class I took at Grub Street called “20 Revision Lessons”.
Bell’s book breaks down the revision process into components such as Character, Plot, Scene, Dialogue, and so forth. He provides many practical tools for considering the work in pieces and as a whole, with many examples from successful books and films about what makes a good story tick. The general formula for each chapter is: 1) general theory, 2) alternatives to the norm, 3) examples, 4) summary with concrete steps, followed by exercises. My copy is dog-eared, scribbled on, and festooned with post-it note tags. I refer to it often.
I’m lucky to live in Boston, which is home to a wonderful nonprofit called Grub Street. Grub Street’s goal is to provide graduate-level courses on every aspect of writing, from topics of craft to marketing and publication, at reasonable rates to the general public. Thanks to Grub, I was able to take several classes and seminars on writing that I may not have otherwise had access to outside of an MFA program. These classes helped me move beyond writing just as a hobby into writing for publication. If you’re a Bostonian, look up Grub Street! If you’re not a Bostonian… sahks ta be you, dunnit? (But seriously, find your local equivalent. And if there is no such thing where you live, then look into online courses or other ways to improve your knowledge of the craft.)
The podcast Writing Excuses is now in its eleventh season, and my favorite podcast about writing. There are a few others that occasionally have given me insight, but this one is the only one that I have found to be almost always useful. Each episode is usually around fifteen minutes long, which keeps the content snappy and focused, and also allows you to listen while getting other things done in a busy day. No long literary rambling here — Brandon, Howard, Dan and Mary get right to the point with the what, why, and how of many aspects of the craft.
Finally, I cannot emphasize enough the tremendous value of having other people read my work and give me honest feedback. I’m lucky to have a wife who is a writer and also my harshest writing critic — if she finds the story acceptable, then I know it’s probably pretty good. Beyond at home though, I have two major circles of people with whom I share my writing.
The first is my writer group (or critic circle), which includes myself and four other writers. We are all at roughly the same level in terms of our writing, have personal writing goals which align, and have complementary approaches and strengths when in comes to writing. The writer group is a place where I can share rough or incomplete writing I wouldn’t show to others, and get constructive feedback about the writing itself. The group also keeps me accountable to a monthly schedule of reading and writing fiction, which helps me keep momentum. There are many ways to set up a good writer group. We have recently structured ours to follow the protocol of the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop, which models theirs on the famed Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. Our sessions are split between workshopping each others writing, jointly critiquing and discussing an outside work of fiction, and doing writing exercises to hone particular skills together.
The second group of readers that I try to maintain is a circle of beta readers. Beta readers were essential to the final stages of the revision and polishing process for Red Soil Through Our Fingers. They are not necessarily writers (though some of them are); they are test readers that give me feedback on how the story was received by them intellectually and emotionally. I tried to build as diverse a circle of beta readers as possible, including those who never normally read science fiction and may not be interested at all in space or the technical aspects of the novel. I also try to include content experts who know something about essential aspects of the world in the novel. For example, I made sure to include biologists, spaceflight experts, and a Mars systems researcher in the beta reader circle for Red Soil Through Our Fingers, which involved a genetic conspiracy set against the backdrop of a Mars colony. The feedback I received from beta readers help me make the novel that much better for publication.
The summary is, writing is hard. But it’s even harder (if not impossible) to do alone. Fortunately, there are literally thousands of tools and resources out there to help us start writing, stay writing, and get better at writing. These are some tools that have worked well for me. I hope they prove just as useful to you!
Please comment if you have additional resources or recommendations to share!