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.

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