Friday, 28 August 2009

Conveyor belt writing - 2

Yesterday, I showed you how to estimate the time it will take to produce a finished first draft for a novel. In the model, it took us 12 weeks to plot, research, write and edit the first draft. Today, we'll go through the next stages.

Assume, for the sake of argument, you started writing it on the 1st September. By the end of November, your manuscript is finished. Now what?

1st December, you send it out to your panel of readers. Ideally you want a mix of readers - some writers, some who like reading the genre. The 'reading readers' will tell you if it works as a piece of fiction. The 'writing readers' will tear the structure apart, savage the language, and in general cover the manuscript in red. To save costs and a few acres of tropical rainforest, I suggest you email the readers an electronic version of the manuscript, and, assuming they're using MS Word, ask them to 'Track Changes' - so all their revisions will show up highlighted. If they want to comment on any particular part, ask them to add notes.

How long will the readers take?

It doesn't matter!

Because on the 1st December, you're starting work on your next project. This is a conveyor belt, remember? You are totally dismissing novel A from your thoughts and working on novel B. For the next 12 weeks, you're producing another semi-polished first draft.

When the readers respond, and surely they will within three months - if not, send them a polite reminder. Do be polite because they're doing you a favour - thank them and promise to get back to them. Then carry on with novel B.

According to our model, you'll have finished that at the end of February.

Then what?

Send it off to your faithful readers. And begin the second draft and edit of novel A.

If you recall, we assumed that the first draft would take about 100 hours, writing at 1,000 words per hour. (Obviously plug your own figures in there.) Allowing a margin for error produced a figure of 120 hours.

How long will the second draft take?

You've been away from the story for three months. In that time, you've come up with some more and better ideas for parts of the plot. Your readers will have come up with suggestions. So, take some time, re-read what you've done, familiarise yourself with the concept. Immerse yourself in the action once more. Then consider your new ideas and the ones your readers have dreamed up. Choose the best, ignore the rest. Tighten up the plot, cut out redundant characters, correct factual errors. Let's say 30 hours for this + the surplus = 40 hours.

There isn't as much typing in a second draft. You will be re-using large chunks of the first draft, although perhaps moved around. You will be rewriting perhaps 30% of the story completely. You'll also be correcting all the errors your readers spotted.

If the first draft took 120 hours, shall we say this takes 60 hours?

The final edit - like the first, but with even more scupulous proofreading and formatting. I'm going to say 60 hours. Some might say it takes longer.

Then the final bit. You have to summarize your marvellous, genre-blurring, profound work of fiction in 500 words or less - the synopsis. You also have to produce a query letter, where the task gets harder - you have to describe theme and concept and give an overview in two paragraphs - the query letter. This letter you send off, perhaps with the synopsis and a couple of sample chapters, to as many agents simultaneously as you can.

The first time you do this, it will take quite a while - after all, you have to identify the agents who deal with your main genre, weed out those who are not accepting clients, or who do not accept email submissions.

Only do this once - record the details (email address, submission guidelines, contact name and phone number) in a database or a spreadsheet. Why do it each time you submit something?

I'm going to average out the time it takes to do this. Let's say 20 hours for the query, synopsis and submissions.


You're done. Time for a novel = 400 hours.

According to our figures, this second, post reader, bit took 180 hours (9 weeks).

Then immediately begin working on the second draft for novel B.

When you've finished and submitted that, write a couple of short stories. Alternatively, go lie on a beach, or sit in a bar, or climb Mount Everest.

Or, let's hope, work on yet another round of editing according to the diktat of the agent who agreed to represent novel A. Or talk to the director about the film version.

Using this conveyor belt system, you can easily produce 2 novels per year.

Tomorrow I'm going to ramble on about ideas and how there is no end to them.

Have fun!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Conveyor belt writing

Yesterday I told you how I managed to convince my spouse that writing was more than a hobby - by using deadlines and third party involvement. Today I'm going to explain how I arrive at those deadlines. Of course, if I had agents, publishers and producers clamouring for my output, the deadlines would be externally imposed, but since that isn't happening (yet) I set my own.

The first thing to do is work out how long any particular piece of work is going to be.

A full length novel is typically 100,000 words; a novella - 40,000; film script about 30,000; short stories can be immensely variable, but let's say 8,000.

I know that something that starts out as a novella can turn into a trilogy of full-sized books. I also know from personal experience something that was meant to be a novel can come to an end after 50,000 words - it's shrunk to a novella. Maybe the writing was too hot? But let's assume for the sake of argument, that any given piece of work is going to be around the predicted length.

OK, so you're going to write a novel. What are the stages involved?

  1. Research and development Well, actually, it's the other way around. Work on the plot, sketch out skeleton scenes or chapters, identify your plot points - then work out what research you need to do. Go away and do it.

  2. First draft - pretty obvious, that one.

  3. First edit - by which I mean: adding the bits you forgot, or that are obviously needed by unexpected changes in the plot; removing bits that have become redundant for the same reason; and going through the actual writing to correct typos, remove waste words, change passive to active and so on.

  4. First reading - it goes off to a panel of readers to critique, do some editing, make suggestions, and proofread.

  5. Second draft - this is when you incorporate those readers' suggestions you want to accept and tighten up the plot, focusing more on structure. You will be re-using large chunks of the first draft, so far less typing is involved.

  6. Second edit - Either done by you or someone else - a final proofread, tightening language, formatting the manuscript correctly.

  7. Create query letter and synopsis, and submit.
Ok, that's it. All done. Those are the stages involved (at least for me) in writing a novel. Other writers may go through another cycle of third party reading and critiquing, followed by another draft and edit, but I don't. For the sake of this post, let's assume that you follow my model.

How long is it all going to take?

An impossible question to answer, you might think. Waiting for inspiration, struggling with stubborn plot issues, recalcitrant characters - I mean, how long is it going to take?

Remember, we're talking about production line techniques here. Never mind losing your Muse's number. Never mind the creative juices are suffering an unprecedented drought. We're treating this like any other business.

So, what do we know?

We know the first draft is going to be about 100K words.

How fast do you write? Work it out. Set aside one hour and write something fast and furious. Never mind the typos, the spelling mistakes, the inconsistent names. Ignore all of that. How fast can you physically write?

For me it's about 1,000 words per hour. It doesn't matter that half of them are going to be discarded. That's what the editing is for. We are going to steam through the first draft at 1000 words per hour. It's going to take 100 hours to complete the first draft.

Well, no it's not, because stuff happens. Allow some margin for error, unexpected interruptions, the odd natural disaster or two. Let's say 120 hours.

The R & D? Remember, this is a business. Assign a figure and make sure you stick to it. Let's say 30 hours. Add on the margin for error. Be generous. Give yourself 40 hours. That's equivalent to a full working week, Monday to Friday, 9 till 5. And don't forget, you're always advised to write what you know, so the actual research should be a few hours with Google and Wikipedia.

First edit - tricky. There's a lot to do, but remember, you still have another edit to come afterwards, so let's say it takes half as long as it did to write the entire thing - so 50 hours plus our margin = 60 hours.

From the very start - sketching the outline, to the end - an edited first draft ready to send to readers, has taken 220 hours.

How many hours can you definitely chisel out of the week to write? Why don't we pretend that you can absolutely free up 20 hours a week. Producing the intermediate product is going to take you 11 weeks. Add on one more week to cater for nervous breakdowns, plumbing leaks and swine flu.

Twelve weeks from the day you start, you have a finished first draft. Put it in the calendar. Time is money, the tide waits for no man ... the date on your calendar is the date you have to finish. Tell yourself your job depends on it. Sack yourself if you miss the deadline. Inform your readers now that you'll be emailing them the Word document twelve weeks from today.

Tomorrow, we'll go through the next stages - the second draft, the second edit and the submission.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

(Ab)normal service is resumed

Hello again, faithful followers! (If I were Hannibal Lecter, I could count you all on the fingers of one hand. Am I complaining about the small number? No, I'm not, and I'll explain why in a minute.)

There has been a long gap since my last post here. That gap can be explained in one word.


For the past four months, I've been refining and industrializing the process of writing. Well, to be more precise, the process of writing fiction as a part-time job, relying on something else (a job) to pay the bills.

It seems, from the many people I've chatted to on Goodreads and from reading other writers' blogs, that writers seem to fall into three distinct groups.

One group is made up of those select few who are good enough and persistent enough to be able to write full time. Like the upper class, this is the group the rest of us want to join.

Another group is made up of the stay-at-homes. Although burdened with children, dogs, household chores etc., they can fit in a fair amount of writing time per day, in an unpredictable pattern.

The final group is made up of those (like me) who have to go out and work to pay the bills. Our writing is fitted in during the time we manage to chisel loose from our non-work hours.

I would have used the term 'free time' but free time seems to be a very malleable concept. To me it means any time when I'm not doing paid work, eating, washing or sleeping. To my wife, it means any time I'm not being co-opted to take out the trash, wash dishes, shift heavy objects, redecorate rooms or joining her for theatre/cinema/friends/dinners/TV/social events (weddings, funerals, christenings, birthdays etc).

I think this partly stems from her perception of my writing. To her, it's a hobby, on a par with angling or trainspotting. To me, it's work. Alright, it's work that doesn't yet pay, but one day it will.

It's the lack of a guaranteed return that makes it a pastime rather than a profession.

You might point out, quite reasonably, that any self-employed person, or anyone who owns their own company, spends perhaps a third of their working time doing stuff that may produce a return but isn't guaranteed to - things like product development, research and training to position the company ahead of future trends.

Well, yes. I have been self-employed. I do own a company. I have never managed to convince my wife that producing e.g. a software product, which may or may not sell in bulk, is anything other than 'messing around on a computer'. Writing is similar 'messing'.

Which brings me back to infrastructure. To the industrialization of the writing process - the establishment of a set of processes that take a certain amount of time to produce a defined end-product. Third parties are involved with this end product. It is tangible. It has weight.

Explaining it in this way to my wife has finally managed to lift writing out of the hobby category into an alternative niche - not quite paid work, but of higher status than stamp collecting. Involving third parties has been a definite plus.

Consider yesterday's conversation.

"Darling, I have to finish version 1.0 of this book. I have readers booked to critique it at the start of September."

"Well, how long is it going to take to finish?" she asks, quite sensibly.

"Thirty hours."

A quick glance at the calendar establishes that I need to be doing four hours a day, minimum, in order to meet this deadline. Free time becomes more organized immediately. Anyway, I really didn't want to go and see a performamce of the Soweto Gum-boot Dancers, so it's a double victory.

Tomorrow, I'll explain how I have regularized the writing process so it's just another evening in the office. How I have set up the conveyor belt of writing. And bits about time management and writer's block.

Oh, and why aren't I complaining about lack of followers?

Because writing each post takes time. Reading each post takes time. Answering each reply takes time. If I didn't have anything worthwhile to write, why should I waste my time and yours by doing it anyway?

But, thanks to the marvels of the conveyor belt system, I now have some extra time available each day to write useful stuff about writing, books and the creative process. I now have time to be abe to respond on a daily basis to each and every comment or query.

So by all means network this blog, tweet it, recommend it to your followers, mention it on MySpace, Facebook, Goodreads, Smashwords and anywhere else you have influence.
Be sure to mention that in the future, I shall be blogging every day, although many posts may be shorter than this one.

Enjoy the rest of the day!