I’m writing about a book a year right now.
With a day job and freelancing work on top of my novel writing, that’s about all I can manage. Next year’s schedule has me writing at least one book in just eight months, which a lot of folks who write four or more books a year are probably laughing at, but my work is known for its worldbuilding, and to be brutally honest, coming up with the worlds I do without starting to repeat myself like a parrot would be impossible with any more than a book a year. I’ve already found myself repeating things – drugs like “sen” showed up in three different works. Games like “screes” have tapped in twice, and the ubiquitous bugs of the GOD’S WAR universe took a lot of work to scrub out of the MIRROR EMPIRE.
I come to imaginative fiction for something new and different, and that’s what I strive to deliver to my readers.
But that’s not what I deliver in my first draft.
What I find interesting in speaking to other writers, especially newer writers, is that they expect that I have all this funky weirdness in the first pass of my novels, and I shit brilliance with every keystroke, like it’s this natural talent to just come up with wacky worlds and messed-up characters. The reality is that that’s completely impossible to write mind-blowing first drafts at the rate that I write. A book a year may seem like small potatoes to, say, romance novelists or other career novelists, but to me it’s a vast undertaking, and it means writing a first draft that’s primarily dialogue and fight scenes, and spending the vast majority of that year mulling over the plot while endlessly noodling over it. This was how I wrote the GOD’S WAR books, and much of my rewriting of MIRROR EMPIRE was spent reimagining the world even more than I reimagined the plot. Because I wrote a draft of MIRROR EMPIRE before GOD’S WAR, it also meant excising all the things from there that I’d stolen and put into GOD’S WAR – some of the worldbuilding details, like locusts that delivered messages, certain games and drugs, all had to go. The endless rewriting I talk about doing right up until I get proofs isn’t just about plot or sentence structure or typos, but filling in worldbuilding details.
If you ever want to complete a project on time, at the rate that publishers would like you to publish, you have to push past the scenes that require a lot of mental effort. Writing every day, or writing in bursts of 5,000 even 10,000 words at a stretch like I do, means that you’re going to get burned out at some point. You’ll have days where you just need to get to the end of the scene, the chapter. I’ve outlined the final chapters for EMPIRE ASCENDANT and I’m just using the paragraph summary of each, putting it at the head of my file, and referring back to it when I get stuck. These are the things that need to happen in this chapter. These things. Everything else can be filled in later. But the character needs to find the burned-out city harbor, get chased up a tree by bandits, get out of the tree, meet up with character Y, and get on a ship to escape the city. To write all that quickly, I can’t spend time on character descriptions, weird plants, and asides about tea and the weather. The depth to the scenes in this chapter will come in revision.
It also means that I sometimes put off the emotional arc for the character until the rewrite as well. There are two plots in every book (realizing this was a revelation to me, I admit). There’s the overarching plot – invaders are coming from parallel worlds, in the case of the MIRROR EMPIRE books – and a bunch of folks have to rally to stop them. But within that larger plot, there are individual emotional character arcs. I have twelve POV characters in EMPIRE ASCENDANT, and that means plotting out their emotional arcs in addition to the broader plot arc, and ensuring those things intersect. If you’re really cool, those two plots look seamless, organic, and the emotional character arc drives the overarching plot and it looks very natural. This is something I worked hard to showcase in a smaller form in a recent short story, “Elephants and Corpses” due in May from Tor.com. Knowing that I had two plots twinning together, and that the emotional arc needed to drive the overall arc, I was able to write the story relatively quickly. Being a short story, it didn’t need as many worldbuilding details, either, so I stuck to a few broad strokes.
Once this draft of EMPIRE ASCENDANT is done, the real work of the book starts. I consider first drafts little more than blocking outlines. It’s like a theater rehearsal where everyone’s wearing jeans and reading from their scripts, and the sets are still unpainted Styrofoam cutouts. Folks go through the motions while staring at their pages, so the deeper context, the immersion of the story, the stuff that helps you suspend your disbelief, is missing, or merely formless.
Revisions are when you polish all that stuff up – the actors know their lines and toss their books, you burn the Styrofoam and spray paint it to look like a fireplace. You hang the curtains. You put the big scenery painting behind the window. You dress the actors in period costume. Folks finally get their accents right. You put real water in the glasses.
I didn’t even add a third-gender pronoun to MIRROR EMPIRE until the copyediting stage. Which shows you just how long I’ll gnaw on the pros/cons of a thing before making the final decision.
I spend a lot of time excising lazy writing from my work, too, because when I’m writing fast, it often comes out lazy. Last night I realized I’d defaulted to every single spear carrier in a scene being a “he,” which was just silly and would need to be fixed in revision. When you find an issue, you can either fix it right then, or make a note of it to fix later. I make a note and fix them later. If I lose my momentum here in the last third of the book, I won’t have a draft on time. And if I don’t have a draft on time, I’ll have nothing to rewrite to awesomeness.
Now that I’m at about the 2/3 point in EMPIRE ASCENDANT, I realize it’s time to hit the library again, too, to give my brain some time to mull over the soon-to-be-winning details of the final draft. If I start reading now, it’ll be suitably ground about by my brain in time to finish the polish before it goes to my editor, and hit max fermentation just in time to hit the ground running when my editor sends me the structural edit (which will be while I’m drafting my next book, the one that must be written in eight months ::weeps::).
The reality is that my writing process is just that – a process. If I didn’t work to deadline, with chapter outlines, I’d be fiddling with drafts forever. They’re never perfect. But at some point they have to get out the door.
So if you’re somebody agonizing over a first draft, and thinking about how clunky and wooden everyone sounds, and how so-and-so could just stand in for such and such, well, you know – our drafts probably look about the same right now.
I don’t show people my first drafts. It’s painful enough when my agent asks for them.
The magic, for me, happens in the rewriting. But you can only rewrite something you’ve actually written. And the only way I’m going to finish something is if I don’t sit here and agonize over every sentence, every exchange. I need to set it down, vomit it out, and clean it up later.
Writing is not about achieving perfection. Writing is a quest for perfection, and like any quest for perfection, is doomed to fail. What you want to do is fail better, fail harder, and move on.
Because you’ve got to do it all over again for your next deadline.