The first inklings of a book are always vague—a glimpse of a character, perhaps a landscape. You then must discover the narrative through writing, rather than plan it. This is (of course) a personal reflection, relating to my own experience in writing within the genres of literary fiction and literary non-fiction. But I think the following stages are fairly common among writers I’ve spoken to and have heard talking about their own work.
As you begin, you know very little about what the book is. But the thoughts and visions persist, which means that this character and her world have some kind of special energy for you, and you want to know more about this character, what her situation is.
So you start the character moving, as it were. You explore the character’s history (the “back-story”) and her current predicaments. There’s a lot of thinking and writing during this time. That is, for me, the only way to know the character and her world is to write about her. Writers have spoken about this search. Flannery O’Connor famously observed, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” (Gray 1982). Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (Didion 1976). Edward Albee: “Writing has got to be an act of discovery… writing a play is finding out what the play is” (Albee 1988, 61).
This is exhilarating and frustrating in equal degree—you’re exploring, but you’re also aware that large chunks of what you’re producing may never be used.
And, worst: you don’t know where you’re going. There’s no end-goal yet, no “project” that can be planned and completed according to schedule. This is especially bad for beginning writers, who haven’t been through this grind yet, and so don’t have the (vague) confidence that something complete will finally emerge from this process. I’ve seen lots of young writers get frustrated and abandon what initially seemed like an interesting protagonist and social or moral geography, and go through this cycle repeatedly because they keep starting new projects. But you have to persist. As E. L. Doctorow put it, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (Doctorow 1988, 305).
At some point—sooner rather than later, if you’re lucky—you figure out what the protagonist wants, and what’s preventing her from getting it. This, of course, is the ancient recipe for conflict, that sine qua non of fiction. Sometimes this is formulated as: Desire + Danger = Drama.
Often, the discovery of conflict comes from an insight into a fracture of the protagonist’s “ground situation.” The ground situation is that which obtains in the character’s life as the story opens, as in the 1988 action movie, Die Hard: the story begins with the protagonist on a long flight on his way to see his estranged wife at Christmas time. He meets her at the tower where she works; they argue. Meanwhile, armed and murderous men enter the tower where his wife works. The ground situation of this split family has been consequentially altered, and: Conflict!
Or, to use our conceptualization from above: Desire + Danger = Drama!
Conflict can be easier to find if one is working very formulaically within certain conventions: the detective story, romance, thrillers, and so on. But even writers who work this ground often don’t know what the story is going to be about when they start writing. Lee Child, who writes the immensely popular Jack Reacher novels, works—as John Lanchester observes in a New Yorker article—“within a grid well known to Child’s readers.” Child’s novel Make Me begins with the sentence, “Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” A biographer who was watching him finger-type this sentence asked who Keever was. Child answered, “I’ve no idea at this point.” Lanchester writes, “Here we get the stupefying, almost impossible-to-credit explanation of how Child captures the texture of Reacher’s thinking: because it’s his thinking, too. He isn’t giving the impression that he’s figuring out a mystery; he’s actually figuring out a mystery. In Martin’s account, Child was about two-thirds through the writing of ‘Make Me’ before he realized what the bad guys were doing” (Lanchester 2016).
The first part of writing a book is all about figuring out the mystery of what kind of strange, unknown animal the damn book is.
There are writers who are outliners, who plan their books before they start writing the manuscript. But in my experience, literary writers tend to be “discovery writers,” or “pantsers,” in current creative writing parlance. And many writers you may expect to be plotters are actually discoverers. George R. R. Martin—of Game of Thrones fame—refers to the two types as “architects” and “gardeners,” and puts himself firmly in the latter tribe (Volvoikar 2017).
All through this stage and the next two, a lot of work goes into gathering background and research materials. I buy books, save PDFs of scholarly articles, take pictures of landscapes and buildings and people’s homes and offices.
Now follows the hard work of putting together a first draft. The work is hard because you work out the architecture of the book as you write it. You might know, in a general sense, what is driving the protagonists, what stands in their way, but you don’t know any of the particulars, the texture of their world and your text, which you’ve got to get right if the book is going to be any good.
There are plenty of false directions at this point, explorations of events and themes which go nowhere. There are many, many revisions. For Sacred Games (which finally ended up at 900 pages), I wrote three partial versions before I wrote a first draft. And then I wrote another thirteen drafts of the novel. The entire process of writing took me about eight years from start to finish, although I’d started researching the landscape of the book a couple of years before I began writing.
For Geek Sublime (non-fiction, a form new to me), I wrote thirty-four drafts.
As you work out what the book is about and finish a first draft, and through all the revisions that follow, you amass an immensity of details that you need to keep track of: who, what, where, when? What does a minor character look like? What’s the age of the protagonist within a scene set in 1997? Keeping track of sequences of events is particularly difficult, because changing the details of one event can have a rolling effect on all the future events dependent on this changed event.
Writers have traditionally used various analog and digital tools to keep track of all this information: index cards, hand-drawn charts and timelines on walls, note-taking programs, timeline software. But none of these tools allow you to attach knowledge to text—if you change something in your manuscript, you have to think through all the implications of that change and then rework your manuscript and remember to make equivalent changes in your data (the index cards, the digital notes). As you write, there is no quick access to the facts you’ve so laboriously put together. Often, your only recourse is search-and-replace. So, inevitably, you end up making mistakes that sometimes make their way into print. J. K. Rowling confessed, “As obsessive fans will tell you, I do slip up! Several classrooms move floors mysteriously between books and these are the least serious continuity errors! Most of the fansites will point you in the direction of my mistakes” (“J. K. Rowling Official Site” 2019). Granthika is designed to alleviate these problems.
Of course, as the drafts keep coming, you work on finer issues—the rhythm and sound of a sentence, the cutting away of the unnecessary. The larger architecture of the book settles in towards stability as the drafts keep coming.
Throughout this stage of the book, the writer’s job is to show up every day at his desk and keep working. I do 400 words a day, which leaves me tired. Some writers do 600, or a 1000, or more. But stamina and faith are what is required. This is a very long marathon, not a sprint.
Loss of confidence in oneself and the project itself are frequent specters that haunt the writer. The work itself is psychologically and physically hard. During a 1954 Paris Review interview, William Styron was asked, “Do you enjoy writing?” Styron replied, “I certainly don’t. I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started every day. Let’s face it, writing is hell” (Styron 2009, 4). Over the decades, Styron’s words have been condensed by generations of of writers into an often-repeated maxim, “Writing is hell.”
I wrote in Geek Sublime, “as I write, something grates and scrapes in my chest. I’m never quite in hell, but in a low-level purgatory that I’ve put myself in… ‘It must be lonely being a writer,’ people have said to me. But I like being alone, at least for a goodly sized portion of every day. And working by myself on other things—programming, for instance—is never painful. There is something else altogether that is peculiar to the process of fiction writing, a grinding discomfort that emerges from the act itself: it feels, to me, like a split in the self, a fracture that leaves raw edges exposed… [In] the moment of creation, the poet must be both creator (the one who is producing or constructing the aestheticized object) and the audience (the subject that is experiencing the generalized consciousness thus produced). That is, you must simultaneously be in multiple cognitive modes: to produce any semblance of rasa [aesthetic pleasure] you must remove your ego-self or I-self from the narrative that is forming within yourself, you must allow sadharanikarana or generalization [or depersonalization] to occur. And yet, the ego-self cannot be allowed to slip effortlessly into the continuous dream of the narrative, it must stay alert and conscious of the very language it is deploying to construct the story—the story, that living, moving thing which is a part of itself, is another aspect of the self. Experientially, this results in a hypersensitive self-awareness, the very opposite of flow; the writer’s ego-self knows at every moment the abrading of generalization and the terror of its own ephemerality. It is a slow, continuous suicide, a ‘civilized self-destruction’” (Chandra 2014, 194–96).
I suspect this is partly why writers—in general—tend not to be eternally happy, well-adjusted human beings. Nancy Andreasen, widely recognized as one of the world’s leading research authorities on creativity, conducted a fifteen-year-long study of prominent writers attached to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, during which she studied—through personal interaction—Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Cheever, and 27 other well-known writers. She writes, “A full 80 percent of them had had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group…” (Andreasen 2014). And also, elsewhere, “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right” (Lehrer 2010).
This might all seem terribly precious and Romantic, in the capital-R sense, but it’s not a new observation. Andreasen quotes Aristotle, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia” (Andreasen 2014).
The daily work itself is dangerous, especially if what you’re working on demands a deep dive into unhappiness, violence, or depravity (any or all are necessary for conflict). Like method actors, writers have to bring alive parts of themselves that are perhaps better left alone. The work wears you down, emotionally and physically. Rajashekhara, a poet and critic active in late 9th century India, wrote, “When the poet after the intense activity of poetic composition wishes for relaxation, the inmates of his family and his followers should not speak without his desire” (Parashar and Rājaśekhara 2000, 149). Every day, as Francine du Plessix Gray put it, there is “the continuing anguish of the act,” and “the dissatisfaction… toward most results” (Lehrer 2010). Every day, you need to recover from the work.
Writers work best, I think, when they are writing about something that obsesses them. The obsession is energy-giving and necessary to sustain you through the long arc of the writing. But obsessions are not always healthy.
Edmund Wilson, in his The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, studied seven writers and observed how each of them returned obsessively to themes engendered by childhood trauma. Wilson wrote that Charles Dickens’ entire career “was an attempt to digest these early shocks and hardships, to explain them to himself, to justify himself in relation to them, to give an intelligible and tolerable picture of a world in which such things could occur” (Wilson 1941, 8). The awful, suppurating wound—in Wilson’s metaphor drawn from the story of Philoctetes in the Iliad—is inextricably bound up with the “superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs” (Wilson 1941, 294). No foul-smelling wound, no magic bow.
I hasten to add that none of this should imply that mental health problems are a prerequisite for becoming an artist. But we should remember that 80% from Iowa. What this means for writers, in practical terms, is that they need to take care of themselves. As Frederic Busch put it in the title of one of his books, writing is A Dangerous Profession.
And there are certainly writers who work without any angst; I’ve recently met a couple. But my anecdotal experience—from decades of talking with writers and watching them and working with them—is that the overwhelming majority are “bleeders,” Malcolm Cowley’s epithet for writing-is-hell whiners who “write one sentence at a time, and can’t write it until the sentence before has been revised” (Cowley 1978, 191).
Even the bleeders must write, and it does bring them a kind of peace. A few minutes after declaring that writing was hell, William Styron told his Paris Review interviewer, “I find that I’m simply the happiest, the placidest, when I’m writing, and so I suppose that that, for me, is the final answer. When I’m writing I find it’s the only time that I feel completely self-possessed, even when the writing is not going too well” (Styron 2009, 5–6). Malcolm Cowley tried to resolve this seeming contradiction, “Not writing is the genuine hell for Styron and others in his predicament; writing is at worst a purgatory” (Cowley 1990, 532).
For me, the contentment generally arrives after I’ve finished a morning’s 400-word quota, especially if I’ve finished a chapter or a section, then partaken of Rajashekhara’s period of silence, and perhaps indulged in a short post-prandial siesta. Many, many writers come to their work with a deep sense of vocation. Doing your job is following your dharma, and finishing a day’s labour brings a sense of satisfaction, even if the feeling is short-lived and you know that purgatory awaits again the next morning. John Cheever wrote in his journal, “But [writing] is, like most gifts, a paradox, and I will play my cards close to my vest and trust in the Lord” (Cheever 2011, 64).
Once you’ve got a first draft: more revision, more revision.
My students often ask me, “How do you know you’re finished?”
The simple answer is: you know you’re never really finished, only that it’s time to let go. Paul Valéry put it nicely, “In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether due to weariness or a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it” (Valéry 1933, 399; translation from Keyes 2006, 167).
Again, what counts during this stage is stamina and the willingness to show up consistently at one’s desk.
As the work goes on, you can waver between exhilaration and despair. Exhilaration on the days when you realize that you’ve done the heavy lifting, the laying of the foundations, and you’re moving parts of the book around and everything is clicking nicely into place. Moments of insight, and delight when you discover patterns and motifs that your sub- and unconscious has already inlaid into the design. Despair on the days when the whole object seems like an ugly, ungainly chimera.
Friends and loved spouses and fellow writers and first and second readers can help you keep the faith.
Finally, one day, you are ready to let go. So you send off your manuscript or enquiry letters into the wider world.
The revision is not necessarily over at this point—your agent might come back with recommendations and requirements. Or an agent who asks to read your manuscript might refuse to represent you, and—if they are very generous with their time—will give you some indication of what isn’t working. So, more revisions.
This is the delicate point at which the market begins speaking directly to your work.
Once you have a deal with a publisher, the revision begins anew, this time under the tutelage of an editor or editors (acquisitions, developmental, copyeditors, etc.). The developmental editor—who might be the same as the acquiring editor who bought your book—is the person tasked with getting the book ready for publication. You do a lot of emailing of Word documents with “Track Changes” turned on at this point. The editor sends you a Word file with numerous comments and edits, and perhaps a separate document with large-scale recommendations (for structural changes, character development, thematic development, and also questions that relate to plausibility and suspension of disbelief, and so on).
You edit accordingly and send the document back. You may go through several cycles of this process.
Meanwhile, the date for the publication has already been set. Publishing houses typically need to plan eight to eighteen months ahead, so they can allocate resources for marketing, publicity, and so on. So the editing is happening while a clock ticks down to an inexorable deadline. This can lead to some frantic work as the moment that the manuscript needs to be truly abandoned looms closer.
At some point during these months, you’ll get cover designs and jacket copy. You’ll be asked to answer interview-style questions by the marketing department, so they can begin to prepare release materials that’ll go out with the review copies and perhaps be included at the back of the book itself.
Since we now live in the shadow of social media, some writers are asked by their publishers to establish a multi-faceted social media presence. The thinking is that the more followers you amass, the more all-important early buyers you will find for the book. This demand is typically heavier on early-career writers; the fear is that the book will be published and will slip between the cracks. Nobody will notice that your book came out. This does happen to a lot of books. One more reason for writerly anxiety!
Close to publication, you’ll get “page proofs”—the typeset printer’s proof of the pages as they will actually appear when the book comes out. This is a pretty joyous moment, and strange—it’s the first time you see the words you’ve written as they will exist in the larger world. Your sentences look foreign and familiar at the same time.
The page proofs are the latest opportunity you get to make any changes, although the changes are necessarily minor ones—you can delete a word here, add another one there. Maybe add a short sentence in this paragraph on page 72. But larger changes that would require repagination and re-composition are generally frowned upon. I of course am frantically editing through this process and regretting larger changes I should have made.
But finally you are forced to really abandon the book, and off it goes. Now it’s no longer your own and belongs to the world.
The time from final page proofs to the date of actual publication is delicious. You’ve done the work, you’re relieved and content, you can give yourself a holiday.
Then publication arrives, and—if you’re lucky—you have readings to give and publicity tours to go on. And a different sort of whirlwind follows. But that’s another story.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (Click to expand)
Albee, Edward. 1988. Conversations with Edward Albee. Univ. Press of Mississippi.
———. 1988. Writers at Work 08: The Paris Review Interviews. Edited by George Plimpton and Joyce Carol Oates. First Paperback Edition edition. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books.
Andreasen, Nancy C. 2014. “Secrets of the Creative Brain.” The Atlantic, August 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/.
Chandra, Vikram. 2014. Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty. Graywolf Press.
Cheever, John. 2011. The Journals of John Cheever. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Cowley, Malcolm. 1978. And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade: Chapters of Literary History, 1918-1978. Viking Press.
———. 1990. The Portable Malcolm Cowley. Edited by Donald W. Faulkner. Viking.
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“J. K. Rowling Official Site.” 2019. May 27, 2019. http://therowlinglibrary.com/jkrowling.com/textonly/en/faq_view_id=108.html.
Keyes, Ralph. 2006. The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. St. Martin’s Press.
Lanchester, John. 2016. “How Jack Reacher Was Built,” November 7, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/14/how-jack-reacher-was-built.
Lehrer, Jonah. 2010. “Depression’s Upside.” The New York Times, February 25, 2010, sec. Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html.
Parashar, Sadhana, and Rājaśekhara. 2000. Kāvyamīmāṃsā of Rājaśekhara: Original Text in Sanskrit and Translation with Explanatory Notes. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Styron, William. 2009. The Paris Review Interviews, IV. Edited by Salman Rushdie. Picador.
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Volvoikar, Palash. 2017. “George R. R. Martin Explains Why He’s More of a Gardener than an Architect.” Wiki of Thrones (blog). March 28, 2017. https://wikiofthrones.com/7228/george-r-r-martin-explains-hes-gardener-architect/.
Wilson, Edmund. 1941. The Wound And The Bow. Houghton Mifflin Company.
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