Monday, February 4, 2013

The Four Stages of Writing

I am here, not only to entertain, but to enlighten. Hence, I give you THE FOUR STAGES OF WRITING.

STAGE ONE: FIRST DRAFT
When I'm writing a first draft I'm happy. Make that borderline ecstatic. I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing in the world, and I feel powerful and free. Except, that is, for the moments when I'm terrified. The terror comes from staring at a blank computer screen and not knowing if my muse will grace me with brilliance or if I'll be at a complete loss to mentally capture anything remotely resembling words. The conversation in my head goes something like this:

"Hang in there, Deb. You can do this! You've done it before, you'll do it again. If you were [insert character's name here] what would you do? Where would you go? What would you say? See, it's not so difficult. It's just like kindergarten. All you have to is pretend you're [character], go in the backyard, make some mud pies, and eat them! Writing is that easy!"

This type of inner dialogue is common when I'm writing. My mental cheerleading squad brings out their pom-poms and yells, "Go, Debbie, go! Beat the other team!" I have no idea what 'other team' they're referring to, but I'll be damned if those imaginary cheerleaders don't get the job done. Before long, with the exception of those pesky blank-screen-terror bouts, the first half of the book is moving along quite well. Characters are appearing, plots are forming, and action is happening. Life is good. And at the end of each day, I pull out my writing journal and joyfully record the number of words I've piled up, which is usually between 500-2000. I wink at myself in the mirror and treat myself to Stella Doro Chocolate-filled cookies. This goes on until...

Tragedy strikes. 

Somewhere around the two-thirds mark in the book, I completely lose my mojo. In an instant, the entire story seems silly, tired, predictable, boring. At this point in the process, I have an epiphany: I totally suck at writing and should have pursued accounting or geography or some other subject I hated in college. Maybe then I wouldn't feel like a total loser. 

Hot Cheerleaders aka Cheap Ploy to Keep You Reading.
The mental cheerleaders roll their collective eyes and hold special practices to keep me from doing what I'm threatening to do: toss out all of the stupid, uninteresting, lame, ridiculous verbage I've written up to that point and salvage whatever might be left of my dignity. Most times, after days of torturing myself, the rah-rahs prevail, and I trudge onward through the arid desert known as "the second third of my book." This goes on until...

Magic happens!

A perfect ending appears like a picture of Jesus in a dollop of ketchup on a double cheese-burger with onions and lettuce, followed by visions of writing awards, TV appearances, and millions of glorious dollars piling high in my bank account. The cheerleaders don their finest uniforms and, in perfect rhythm and surprisingly impressive harmonies, cheer, "Go, Debbie, go. GO, GO, GO!" The heavens part, the harp-holding angels rejoice, and the world becomes 'one.'

The sprint to the end of the story is a joyful, self-indulgent, glorious collection of happy, brilliant writing moments. The plot twists weave together with satisfying clarity, the characters who haven't died in a tragic car crash or been poisoned with a toxic cocktail of anti-freeze and Gatorade, pull out their finest crystal and pour glass upon glass of the most expensive Dom Perignon, and then the moment of true glory occurs: I write the two most precious words in the English language....

"THE END."

STAGE TWO: REVISIONS
After a brief but glorious bout of post-coital first draft joy, I grab an electronic cigarette and begin the real work of writing: revisions. The process of revising, though somewhat less terrifying than staring at a blank page, is daunting. It is here that a writer flexes their muscles and attempts to turn a rough sketch into a glorious masterpiece.

After I'm certain my manuscript could not be even one drop more brilliant, I do what I learned as a parent - I send my precious baby out into the world to spend the night with total strangers. These people who've never met my baby are called "beta readers" and although they can be strange (after all, they're writers!), they are some of the most patient, kind, and supportive people on Earth. These are folks who put their own writing (and episodes of Homeland, HGTV, and Nashville) aside in order to help you become a better writer. They grab their beta magnifying glasses and go over every, single word with painstaking care. Then, they send your precious baby back covered in red marks and scribbled with helpful comments like, "How did Jenna jump out the window if she was sitting cross-legged on the floor meditating?" Or, "Did you really mean to put a comma after every single 'and' in your story?" 

After realizing your brilliant manuscript is not quite so brilliant you, once again, put your revision cap on and get back to work. Mine is a black leather cowboy hat adorned with feathers and turquoise. (Okay, so I don't actually have a revision hat, but I do have a big imagination which, given my "occupation," is like totally way better.) After months of sleep-deprived nights and wine-deprived days, I arrive at the point when I can no longer envision a way to make my story better. Then, and only then, do I move on to the third stage of writing...

STAGE THREE: QUERYING (OR SUBMITTING TO YOUR AGENT)
Whether you have an agent or not, this is a nerve-wracking time. In my case, I had an agent but I'm currently looking for a new one. This means, I'm querying again. (Hits head against wall.) Many writers would sooner endure water-boarding or being forced to marry Octo-Mom than to query agents, and, really, who could blame them? To write a query letter, you must shrink your three-hundred page manuscript into two paragraphs. It would be easier to squeeze a five-hundred pound person into size two jeans. But you have no choice, so, you do your best to describe -- in several, short sentences -- what you've nearly killed yourself writing for at least a year. Once this sadistic process is complete, you research agents. This process is painstaking and intimidating and involves scrutinizing Publisher's Marketplace, Query Tracker, Agent Query, and agency websites in order to pour over agent's bios, find out what genres they accept, what other writers have said about them, and how many books they've sold. Once you find an agent whom you feel you have at least a one-in-a-gazillion chance with, you send a query letter their way and...

Wait. 

And wait. And wait some more.

For me, when my email inbox dings, I pop an ativan. Most times it's nothing more than a spam offer to make my penis larger or date gun-toting born-again Christians, but every once in a while there is an email from a real, live, actual agent. When that happens,I slowly, ever so slowly, open the email...

Dear Author,

Sorry about the impersonal nature of this letter but we receive far more queries than we are capable of responding to. We are also sorry to inform you that XYZ Agency will not be pursuing representation with you. We found your writing bland, uninteresting, and sophomoric. Plus, your genre has been beaten to death like a dead horse. But, don't worry. There are many agents who, if exceedingly drunk, might feel differently about your "work." 

Please don't contact us by phone or in person or we will have no choice but to seek a restraining order against you.

Best of luck,
XYZ Slush Pile Junior Assistant

I transfer the depressing email into the "Pass" folder (because "Pass" sounds less debasing than "Rejection") and tell myself this is a good thing; that I'm now one step closer to finding the perfect agent. (Being a writer entails not only writing fiction, but also believing it.)

When a request for a partial or full does come through, it is literary manna from heaven. I position myself into a perfect Downward Dog, offer my feline overlords up as a sacrifice to the Writing Gods, and hope and pray this will lead to an offer of representation. It happened before, so it must be possible again, right? (Refer back to "believing fiction.") Waiting to hear back on a full or partial is more torturous than watching Snookie talk about, well, anything. And that, my friend, is pretty damn painful.

Whether or not you acquire or already have an agent...

STAGE FOUR: NOT WRITING
This may not sound like a stage of writing, but it is, in fact, an important one. It's the time in between books when story ideas simmer and percolate. (Suddenly craving coffee, which I don't even drink.) At first, this is a joyous time; after all, you've completed writing a first draft, finished revisions, and are querying or waiting to see what your agent thinks. You think, "Wow! Look at all this time I have on my hands! I could sleep, read a book, drink a bottle of wine, watch TruTV, or take a walk! Hell, I could do all of those things at once! OHMYGODTHISISAMAZING!!!!" But for me, the longer I'm not writing, the more I start to feel useless (why am I here?) and hopeless (what is there to live for??) and fearful (what if I never write again???) and you delude yourself into thinking you actually miss the torture of staring at a blank screen or getting to the dreaded two-thirds point in a novel or receiving humiliating rejection letters from literary agents. 

At this point, there is nothing to do but tell the cheerleaders to ready their pom-poms and and pray, once again, to the Writing Gods. And, what, you may ask, are you praying for now? For STAGE ONE, of course! Because writing, like life, is an ongoing cycle.

8 comments:

Laura Marcella said...

Sounds about right! My stages of writing are filled with waaaaay more chocolate consumption, though. ;)

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

I'm so with you - I could write an entire post on how much/what kind of chocolate I consume before, during, and after writing!!!

Amy Sue Nathan said...

You nailed it. And it never ends. The never ending writing loop. Yep, that's it.

Karen Walker said...

Oh Debra, you have nailed it so beautifully. I am finishing a first draft, but I don't feel ecstatic most of the time. It is a long, terribly difficult process for me.
Karen

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Amy, I literally just finished the first page of my latest novel. No idea where it's going, but it feels like it's going to be a wild ride...!

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Karen, Writing can be a very difficult process, but one we writers can't seem to veer away from for too long. Strange phenomenon indeed.

french sojourn said...

Just found your Blog through Query Shark. Made my day, I'm at that two thirds portion. Was not sure why I was in a doldrum, but now it makes sense.

Thank you for posting this, I actually can now see over the next wave.

Cheers Hank

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Hank, I'm so glad you found me and especially through Query Shark! This writing gig definitely "takes a village." All best to you! Debbie

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