Swoon Author Vicky Skinner: The Evolution of a Novel
Very often I get asked the question, "How long does it take you to write a novel?" Sometimes, if I want to give an easy answer, I’ll say something like, “A couple of months,” because I know this is the answer people are looking for. It’s simple, it’s easy, but it’s not really true. So, just this once, I thought I’d talk about how long it really takes me to write a novel, from the moment the idea springs into my head to the moment it’s sitting on a shelf in a bookstore.
More often than not, I get my best ideas when I’m already working on something else. Part of being a writer is training yourself to stay focused on whatever project you’re already in the middle of. But, if I get a good idea, I keep a Word doc for it, and as things come to me, I drop them in the Word doc. This can be a small part of an outline, a character description, or even a chunk of dialogue. Sometimes it’s something as little as: I might want to set this book in Salida, Colorado.
2.) First Draft
Now, this is the easy part. A first draft always takes me 30 days, and it’ll always take me 30 days because the only time during the course of a year that I draft new projects is during NaNoWriMo. (If you don’t know what NaNoWrimo is, you can visit their website here.) And it’s easy because I don’t hold back. I just write. Even if I decide to change a character’s name in the middle of the book, I don’t go back and fix it before then. I might swap tenses during the story, sometimes multiple times. Things won’t make sense and sometimes I’ll skip whole scenes, but as long as at the end of it I have a draft that I can edit later, I’m content.
This is where it starts to get a little bit tricky. So, before I even get to this step, there can be anywhere from six months to three years between Steps 2 and 3. When I’ve finished writing a first draft, my brain is all muddy. I can no longer see the story as the big picture that it is and instead just feel the utter despair of having written an awful first draft. The best thing for me to do is step away from it long enough to let the ideas settle, and then once I’ve worked on other things, I jump back in.
The first thing I do is read the book. This can be extremely painful, but it’s necessary. I read the book over and make copious notes on what’s not working, how I think the plot needs to change, and what I want to keep. This is the step where the most change occurs. But more often than not, it’s also the step where I really get to know why I’m writing the story and who my characters really are. This is the complete overhaul. I open a new document, copy and paste anything I think is good enough to keep and rewrite the rest from scratch.
Long ago, the time that a project sat between Steps 3 and 4 was almost as long as the gap between Steps 2 and 3. But these days, once I’ve picked a first draft to rewrite, I usually want to power through the revision immediately. The revision, for me, is one of the easiest steps. The real story has made it on the page during the rewrite, and now I’m focusing on the writing: a tight plot, believable voice, details that are consistent. Again, I open a new Word doc, and I copy and paste things in as I want to keep them. It’s hard for me to move things around in the same document. It’s always easier for me to start fresh with a blank page.
For me, read-throughs are imperative. I will never send something out into the world, no matter how many times I’ve worked on it, without reading through it one more time. Any time I make major changes, I read through the book again. Sure, by the time I’m done I’m so sick of reading the thing that I could die, but it’s important. And if I have the opportunity (most times I do), I read it aloud. This helps me check dialogue for flow and it helps me catch typos better.
So, to sum up everything to this point, this is all stuff I’ve done by myself. There might be talks with other people to help me brainstorm, drafts sent to beta readers and critique partners, but the actual writing and editing? All me. As soon as an editor wants the book, however, the process starts all over again, but this time with someone else helping me power through.
Everything before this point is what people see as “writing a book.” You know, the Jack Nicholson moment of staring at blank pages, pulling your hair out, and probably consuming way too many calories from stress-eating. This is how people imagine being a writer. But that’s just the first half of it. Because now I have to do it again, but with someone else in the co-pilot seat. I’m answering someone else’s questions, changing things in a way that they think would be satisfying, and compromising. I used to think this would be hard, but for me, it’s so fulfilling to walk through everything with someone else there to help out if something isn’t working. Highly recommend. The edit process can be anywhere from two rounds of edits to ten rounds of edits (I’ve had both), and when it’s over, hallelujah! There’s always ice cream waiting for me.
If you follow the blog, you’ve seen this stuff before. The editors have spoken about the process, but so you know from an author’s point of view, copyedits can be both fun and miserable. Here, the book is being analyzed in a new way from a completely new person who might send you a note that goes something like this: Are you aware that there is already a town with this name? or Is orange-y a real thing? (Yes, btw, it is). For me, this is the quickest step. I read the notes provided for me, change what needs changing—which usually isn’t much—and then toss it back to my editor.
9.) Pass Pages
Holy cannoli, if you thought you were sick of your book before, you don’t know nothin’! Now, you get to read it again, and you get to read it clooooosely, because this could be the last chance you have to fix anything (unless you’re me and realize a few months after final pass pages that you have a character slipping on ice in the middle of summer and have to email your editor in a panic). After this, the book is done.
10.) Final Copies
Of course, there are other things—a cover, maybe a change in title, bonus material, dedications and acknowledgements, lots of other things that happen along the way until you get to hold your finished and final book in your hands, but none of that matters because chances are good you’ve already moved on to what’s next.