Writing a book is as simple as C, D, E and F

I have been working as a programmer since I was 16. In my career, I have been paid to write code in 25 languages on 8 different major platforms. Being a programmer isn’t just about writing code, it’s about being organized.

Being a writer has a lot of parallels.

When writing a large application, software developers go through a C D E F process. Each letter represents a different phase of the project: Conception, Design, Execution, and Finalization.

Writing a book isn’t just about putting words down in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. It’s that, for sure, but that’s just the Execution phase. Do you see where I’m going with this?

When I start a new book, I begin with the Conception phase. I keep a notebook or my iPad handy and I jot down ideas as they come to me. These are often single sentences that describe scenes or characters. I have also written down lines of dialogue. Once I have some big ideas and have decided to run with one, I spend some time brainstorming more detailed ideas along that book’s theme.

After I have conceived my book idea and written down the main ideas of what the book will contain, I organize and flesh out those concepts into a plot event list. This is the Design phase.

A plot event list is what many authors call an outline. I don’t call it that, because it’s not in outline format. Mine is a list of single sentences, each describing an individual scene. I then organize those sentences into the chronological order they will appear in the book. (I don’t group scenes into chapters until I’m actually writing the book.)

Once I have the plot event list finalized, I turn to my favorite writing tool, Scrivener. I create a text card for each scene, and copy-past the scene sentence into that card’s notes field. Once Scrivener is all set up, I begin writing Chapter 1, page 1.

I have now entered the Execution phase. This is where I actually write the book. Because of how I have organized my plot event list into separate scenes within Scrivener, I only have to mentally and creatively worry about one scene at a time, rather than worrying about the entire book. This also helps prevent Blank Page Syndrome. It also allows me to write scenes out of order if I need to.

Once the book is written, we move into the Finalization stage. This is where I hand off my manuscript to my editor for a plot level review. She reads what I’ve written and gives me feedback on what happens in the book. This includes identifying plot holes, inconsistencies, and areas that need to be expanded based on their reader’s curiosity. I then make revisions based on that feedback and turn the revised manuscript back over to the editor for another plot review. I also hand the book over to 2-6 beta readers for their feedback.

Once revisions are made, the editor goes over it again, this time for a line edit. This is where the mechanics of my writing is critiqued and corrected: spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Nothing changes as far as the plot goes.

The last part of the Finalization phase is publication. I submit the book to my various outlets (e-book publishers, like Amazon.com and iTunes, etc.) and then announce its availability to the world through social media and my blogs, including this one.

Be willing to kill your babies

When I was in high school, typing was a required course. We used IBM Selectric typewriters rather than computers. By the end of the one-semester course, I was the fastest in my class, banging out 90 error-free words per minute. It was the most useful thing I learned in high school.

Since moving to computers, I can edit as I type. I still type close to 90 wpm, but thanks to the backspace key, I type backwards even faster … clickity clickity clickity WHACK WHACK WHACK clickity clickity clickity, etc.

Where am I going with this?

I’m working on my second book, the sequel to Ohlen’s Arrow, tentatively entitled Ohlen’s Bane. The first weekend I worked on it, I cranked out over 12,000 words. I typed a lot. Since then, my word count is up to 15,000. I decided to read over what I had so far, and although it was interesting, it wasn’t engaging.

The last thing I want is for my book to require the reader suffer through to the fifth chapter before anything good happens. One of the things going for Ohlen’s Arrow was its pace. It started with action and maintained an engaging level of action with few pauses throughout the story.

I am now killing my babies. As I read through my first four chapters, I am looking for sections that can be rearranged to maintain a better pace. I’m also looking for sections that aren’t important at all. When I find them, I kill them. I’m not tied to the words I created. I can remove them and write new ones, better ones. The story also has sections that take far too long to get across what can be conveyed either indirectly or simply.

Because of my technical background, I tend to be rather verbose in my descriptions. I am learning to adopt a more compact and dense writing style, conveying an equal or greater amount of information in fewer words.

My goal is to write 100,000 words for Ohlen’s Bane. I’ll probably write more than that, because I know that during the revision and editing phase of the project, I’ll be whacking the backspace key a lot more than any other.

I am willing to kill my babies.

How edits feel

Elmore Leonard once said, “Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.” This is a good viewpoint to hold when you’re a writer, because when you give your work to a copyeditor and they take their red pen and bleed all over it, you can’t take it personally.

Otherwise I would have stabbed myself in the heart with a rusty nail weeks ago.

As I’ve received edited chapters from my copyeditor, I got a brief sense of panic when I noticed the sheer volume of suggested changes. It makes me feel like I just started learning English a month ago. I also wonder what went through her mind as she reviewed my work. “This guy thinks he can write a book? What audacity!”

It has helped me to realize that this is part of the process. No writer, no matter how skilled or successful, produces flawless prose on the first try or even the 30th. As Elmore Leonard pointed out, it’s not really the writer’s job to do so, either. Focus on the creativity, the tone, the emotion, the description. Get the basic mechanics of your writing down, then allow someone else to do the editing, to put in the commas and shit.

I only have three more chapters to review from my copyeditor, then I need to read through Ohlen’s Arrow, cover to cover, one more time before I put it up for sale. I’m very excited about this as you can imagine, but it has been a very long, tedious process. The editing and revision phase of a book project is far more difficult and tedious and time-consuming than actually writing it; I am really looking forward to getting it finished.

The editing phase of a story’s lifecycle

In the life-cycle of Ohlen’s Arrow, I’m in the editing phase. I’ve hired an editor and we’ve been going through revisions one chapter at a time. I gave her the story as Word files, one per chapter. She then returns those Word files with track-changes turned on. I open up the Word file and place it next to my Scrivener screen. I review each suggested edit and make the changes in Scrivener as I go along.

At this point very few of the edits involve plot items, although I did rework a conversation my lead character has with two friends at the beginning of the story. This helps establish some key plot elements that didn’t quite fit later on in the story.

The bulk of this round of editing has been spent on sentence structure, grammar, and word choices. It’s like a musician being told how to hold their instrument. What I love about this phase of the “I’m writing a novel” process is it makes the finished product better. It also makes me a better writer.