Stages

Talking with my wife this morning, I identified three stages that I go through while writing a novel. On thinking about it, I realize that there are probably four, but more on that when we get there.

The first stage is the struggle – although a better name for it would be Discovery. When I start a novel, I usually know what it’s supposed to be about, and I have in my head an opening scene and the closing scene. The middle is a huge question mark. During Discovery I find the voice for the book, get to know the characters, and as I write I start making notes for what will become the outline (I’ve never started a book of mine with any kind of outline – just the vague notions mentioned above).

By the time I pass the 200-page mark, the outline is fleshed out enough that the Great Unknown Middle is no longer a threat to my sanity, so a new phase begins. This is where the book begins a high, rolling boil in my subconscious. A lot of writing time is spent jotting notes into the outline, fleshing it out more and even writing paragraphs of action or dialogue that later are literally cut and pasted into the novel. Plot and character and dialogue bubble up so quickly that I feel like I can’t keep it all in. At this point the book might write itself if I could sit at the keyboard long enough. Because of this urgency and the my-head’s-going-to-explode feeling I experience during this phase, it’s named the Chestbuster, after Sigorney Weaver’s dreaded nemesis (and its interesting way of making sudden appearances).

After going through this for the middle third of the book, something interesting happens. The ideas stop erupting and pounding at the door. The outline is fat and swollen. The novel seems very complete, albeit lacking those last couple of hundred physical pages. All that remains is to get it down on paper. As I proceed, I become distracted and start thinking about the next project. Between what’s in my head and in the outline, the book for all intents and purposes is written. My subconscious is saying, “Stick a fork in it, it’s done.” All that remains is the paperwork. So this section of the book is called Cruise Control because there’s gas in the car and it’s up to speed. All I have to do is steer. Since so much of the book now exists in my head, this part of the writing goes quickly, but it can’t hold a candle to the fourth and final stage.

This part of the writing could be considered a part of Cruise Control, but it also contains strong elements of the other two stages and has its own distinct personality. I don’t like sticking it with this term, but it fits: Supernova. It’s an incredible, intense, concentrated burst of activity that marks The End. This stage traditionally only lasts one day. I get up early in the morning, eat very little, part from the keyboard only for necessary breaks, and do a marathon performance that consists of the novel’s climax and denouement – sometimes all in one chapter, sometimes in two. This usually results in the production of around 50 pages in a single day, although my personal record is 80.

Then I have to edit the thing.

I try to let the manuscript sit before attempting to edit it. Often I’ll farm it out to someone to look at for input, just so I can say that I am doing something with it. I tell myself that I’m off for that month so I can do things that I neglected during the Cruise Control and Supernova stage of the book – like reacquaint myself with my wife and kids – but it’s not long before this buzzing starts in my head again… and I sometimes end up writing the first chapter or two of the new project, even before the official Work In Progress has been edited… and Discovery begins once again (Chorus in background, humming “The Circle of Life”).

Writing. It’s not just a job. It’s an addiction.

NP – Steely Dan, Everything Must Go

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