Sharpening the saw

If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the saw.
– Abraham Lincoln

Many people have a simplified, glamorous idea of what its like to write a book. They envision a writer sitting in some kind of artfully decorated home office, surrounded by numerous overloaded bookshelves, looking out of large windows at an idyllic natural scene, a Moleskine notebook and fountain pen sitting next to a laptop or perhaps even an old Underwood manual typewriter. The words of their masterful story flow out of them in a linear fashion like a natural spring on a mountain side, pure and never-ending. They reach the final page, lift it exultantly out of their typewriter or click “Save” on their laptop and then close the lid, scoot their chair back with a big smile on their face, and then reach for a bottle of 18-year old Scotch and a glass tumbler.

That’s not how it goes. Not at all.

Writing a book is a project just like any other. It is a process that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It requires planning, followed by an execution of that plan. There is forethought, a roadmap, and multiple phases and steps. It is a project just like any other.

From the initial moment when you take the broad idea of, “I’d like to write a book someday” and graduate it up into reality by declaring, “I’m going to write a book starting today,” all the way through the final step of your book being available for retail sale, there are four main phases you will go through:

  1. Planning
  2. Writing
  3. Editing
  4. Publishing

Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about selling a book. I see that as part of a separate process in the overall lifecycle of the book. For the purposes of this post, I’m talking specifically about the writing of the book itself.

Of those phases, writing can sometimes be the shortest in duration. For me, planning and writing both take about the same amount of time, approximately two months each. Editing and revising the book takes 3-6 months, and publishing takes about a month. Abraham Lincoln’s math may not directly apply to writing a book, but his point is still valid. Spending an adequate amount of time planning your book will make the writing and editing phases take less time and effort, and more specifically, the more you plan your book, the less revision it will likely require.

To me, the planning phase is the most fun. It consists of three sub-phases.

  1. Conception
  2. Research and consolidation
  3. Plot event list

I start with a broad concept, usually in the form of brainstorming during conversation with a friend. This can occur at any time, however. It’s when an idea pops into your head and you take the extra step of fleshing it out in your mind and then writing it down. You create an ‘elevator speech’ of your book’s High Concept. The product of the Conception sub-phase is a 25-words or less written statement that describes the book.

Research and consolidation involves fleshing out the high concept, perhaps by expanding on the topics it touches upon. I write down the main characters, places, and key events that will occur in the book. I also write down notes of the motivation for my main characters as well as major turning points in their development. This is a lot of free-writing, where I write thoughts and ideas down into a notebook or in a note-taking app on my computer or tablet. These are often written in the form of a question. “How will Ohlen know the cru’gan are hunting him? Does he find tracks or hear something as he moves through the forest?” Finally, I read through all my notes and consolidate them into definitive points, making decisions about what ideas to keep and which ones to discard.

The output from the third and final portion of the Planning phase is a Plot Event List. This is a list of single sentences, each describing a separate scene in the story, and are listed in the chronological order they will appear in the book. Many writers call this a plot outline, but since I don’t list it in outline format, I call it a plot event list.

Special Tip: If you use Scrivener like I do, each sentence in the plot event list becomes a scene within Scrivener. I create new scenes, one for each event, and then type that scene’s sentence into the scene’s note box. Then when I start the Writing phase, I open up each scene and read its description, telling me everything I need to know to write that scene.

Because I spend a lot of time creating a rock solid plot event list, when it comes time to writing the book itself, I don’t write the book … I write a scene. Then I write the next scene. And so forth. I can even write the scenes in any order I wish, since I resolved continuity and plot resolution issues when creating the plot event list.

The Editing phase is rather self explanatory. I have the completed rough draft of the book as my input, which goes to my editor for plot-level review. At this point I’m not worried about the mechanics of the story (grammar, spelling, punctuation). Based on that review, I make any needed revisions to the story. That revised first draft then goes to a group of beta readers to get their feedback. Did they like the story? Were there any issues with character development or pace? Are there any scenes that were too descriptive or not descriptive enough? Then I revise again.

Once that second round of revisions is done, I consider the plot locked down and then turn over the manuscript to my editor for mechanical editing. This is where we fix the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other functional aspects of the book. After that is done, I usually give the book yet another proofreading, sometimes hiring a second editor for this step.

Finally, I go through the Publishing phase. This involves final design updates to the cover, purchase of ISBN numbers, and submission to the various online e-Book publication sites. It can take up to a week to format the book for e-Book publication.

Fast and hot ride in northern California

I just got back from a six-day, 1,500 mile trip to northwestern California. This trip included a rather vigorous and hot run on the black-diamond route of highways 36, 3, and 299, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees at the mid-way point of Weaverville, California.

To start, I rode south through the eastern side of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, then cut across from Lebanon to Philomath for my first bio and gas break of the day. Highway 34 from Philomath through Alsea to Waldport was in fantastic shape and I practically had the road to myself. When I reached the coast in Waldport, it was time to add a layer under my Aerostich Roadcrafter to fend off the increased chill.

2012 Suzuki GSX-R 750

Shortly after, a rider on a Yamaha FJR1300 whizzed by me, then another. Because of numerous members of the Anti-Destination League restricting their forward progress, I caught up with them. Then the race was on. The lead rider was rather assertive and stayed ahead, while the second FJR pilot and I maintained a brisk but safer pace a few hundred yards behind. One by one, we passed slow cars when possible. I was impressed by how quick and nimble the FJR can be.

We eventually stopped at a gas station in Florence and chatted. Bruce and Dwayne were out on a day ride from Eugene and were still getting acquainted with their new-to-them FJRs. Bruce was a bit high-strung and ranted rather colorfully about slow cagers, especially those driving the Toyota Prius. We mutually wondered why people who drive them insist on going so slow.

I needed to keep moving on, so I said my goodbyes and continued southward. Soon I was in Coos Bay, checking into the Best Western and unloading my gear. Dinner was Hungarian goulash at the Blue Heron a few blocks away.

The next day was a sedate run down highway 101 into Fortuna. Dinner was great conversation, food and beer at the Eel River Brewing Company next door to my motel. After the carb-only breakfast provided by the motel and a protein bar, I left the next morning heading east on highway 36. My pace was moderate and the ride started out with mist on my face shield and damp roads. After 20 miles of riding inland away from the coastal weather, the pavement dried out and my pace quickened.

Rider and GSX-R750 on Highway 36

I got into Weaverville by 10:30, and after getting gas, I ate breakfast at The Nugget. After parking in front of the restaurant, I didn’t even have my helmet off before a gray-haired gentleman emerged and started chatting me up about my bike. Then he began to tell me all about the numerous fast bikes he’s ridden and owned over the years. He seemed rather proud of the fact that a BMW S1000RR seemed a bit slow for his tastes.

After a nice breakfast, I backtracked on highways 3 and 36 toward Fortuna. I stopped at Grizzly Creek Redwoods campground and got chatted up by a mechanical engineer named Marvin, who was visiting the area from Arizona, doing some soul searching about his career and where he wanted to call home.

Back in Fortuna, I gassed up, then headed north on highway 101 through Eureka before heading inland once again, this time to my friend Mark’s house in Kneeland. Mark and I had met by chance at The Nugget in Weaverville back in 2009, and have been friends ever since. He had just purchased a brand new 2014 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 so we spent a bit of time checking it out and talking about bikes in general.

On Wednesday, we met Mark’s friend, Jim, in Eureka. Jim was riding a Moto Guzzi Griso, Mark was on his new Strom, and I was on my GSX-R750. We rode into town and had coffee at the very cool Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe. It was neat to see a write-up and pictures of the trip to Steens Mountain Mark, his wife Janice and I took back in 2010.

We then headed south on 101 to Fortuna before heading inland on highway 36. I was in the lead. Going past Grizzly Creek state park, three guys on BMW sport-touring bikes pulled out in front of us. One by one they pulled off and let us go past. Apparently our pace was a bit too fast for them.

By the time we reached Hayfork, the temperature was into the 90’s. We stopped for beverages and snacks, then began the really fun — and challenging — part of the trip, the section of highway 3 between Hayfork and Weaverville.

Mark led on his V-Strom, and although he was still breaking in his bike and didn’t want to get above 5,000 rpm, it took a fair bit of effort for me to keep up with him on the numerous 25 mph curves of highway 3. In the straights and faster curves, my Gixxer excelled and both the Strom and Griso had a hard time keeping up. But in the slower, tighter curves, the V-Strom excelled. I recall a few times when I was on my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650, riding up the tail pipes of sport bikes in the tight twisties, and was reminded just how nimble the Strom really is.

We made it to Weaverville safe and happy, but knackered. The temperature had reached 100 degrees by the time we stopped for lunch at Trinideli. We went up to the Chevron after eating to get gas, and saw two guys on BMW GS’s hanging out. One of them came up to talk with us. They were on a big trip from Colorado and had gone through several break-downs. One bike’s fuel system had died and the throttle cable of the other had broken. They were waiting for a new part to get shipped overnight to a local repair shop.

We headed west on highway 299 and, although quick, we ran a more moderate pace due to the notoriously high law enforcement presence. We also got held up by slow cagers. California drivers tend to pull over and let you pass, even log truck drivers, but drivers from other states don’t seem to have a clue about this courtesy. We got stuck behind an ADL life member with North Carolina plates that refused to pull over and let the string of impatient cars stacked up behind him go past.

We stopped in Willow Creek and got some provisions from the local grocery store. I bet our sweaty and road-weary presence was quite a sight to the other customers. Our final stop for the night was Jim’s camp spot in a private RV park 25 minutes further down the road.

When we got up the next morning, we found fresh bear scat in two spots within 50 yards of our camp site. After breakfast, Mark and I took off on 299 west while Jim hung back to get some chores done on his camp site. At highway 101, I headed north while Mark headed south back toward his home in Kneeland.

My ride north was uneventful. Once I crossed the border into Oregon, I noticed a huge law enforcement presence along the highway. There were radar traps seemingly every five miles. Prior to that, however, my low fuel light began flashing and by the time I got into Crescent City, my reserve meter said I had only 5.2 miles to go before hitting empty. It took 3.48 gallons to fill my tank, making me wonder if my Gixxer has a 3.5 gallon tank; I had always thought it was 4.5 gallons.

I stopped in Bandon for lunch, then got into Coos Bay around 3 PM. The temperature there was 87 degrees, courtesy of hot east winds blowing down the coast range. Dinner was at Shark Bites in downtown Coos Bay, dungeness crab cakes and halibut fish tacos, with a nice Eola Hills chardonnay.

Friday, the last day of my trip, was intended to get home as efficiently as possible. That meant cutting inland on highway 38 from Reedsport to I-5, then boogying up the freeway to home. I was tired and was suffering from some kind of sinus infection or allergies or cold that developed the night before. But, I got home safely and with a big smile on my face. It was quite a ride.