Discovering that writing a book, is more than just writing a book

I have written a trillion words over the last few years – many of them were terrible, some were lazy, some were good, some were better, and a few were even quite brilliant. (I have written before about the book in the drawer, the book that got sent to publishers and the book that is being written). And while most of those trillion words will never be read, they were all important. Because every one of those trillion words led to the following eight words – the words I have always wanted to write: I have a book being published next month.   And despite all those trillion words, there was a lot I learned about writing the 70,000 that are going to be launched next February in a memoir called Daughter, Mother, Me.

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The most rewarding thing I have learned is that while the writing process is a solitary, often lonely effort, the publishing process is a team effort. Once the book deal is secured, you are no longer alone. A team of people help you shape your drafts into a book, and being a part of that process, having support and guidance has made writing a book an incredibly exciting experience.

So as I embark on developing my second book, I’m quite delighted to be reminding myself of those lessons again.  As I think about what it has meant to actually get a book to publication stage, I realise that I have already forgotten them, and am walking around with book number two in my head, wistful notions scrappily written on scraps of paper, concepts discussed to anyone who will listen, but what I’ve already forgotten, and which is the most important lesson I learned this year, is that in order to write a book, you have to sit down, dedicate your time, scream and pull your hair out, and carry on writing every last bloody word until it is finished.   And then this is what I learned most of all. You do all the hair pulling and get the draft finished but it’s not really finished.  All that hair pulling, and all that sitting and writing, they’re only the beginning, because (thankfully) that first draft of words which you have sat bloodied and bruised and screaming at?  They’re not actually the book. You may say, while swigging a large sparkling Gin and Tonic, “I have finished my book” but you have not in fact finished your book. You have only written the first draft. This is like putting your welly boots on to go and walk the dog and saying “I’ve walked the dog!” The dog however is still wagging his tail and looking at you with great expectations.   So is your publisher.

So you put down your Gin and tonic and begin draft two.  This involves admiring much of your own writing, and crying over other bits. It’s about pushing and pulling and trying to get those words into a coherent shape. Then you finish Draft 2 and you pour another Gin but you know what?  You still haven’t finished that book. The dog has only just been let off the lead. But now is where the team effort comes in.  Your publisher reads it and comes back with advice.  This is the most important part of writing your book. Now, you have to restructure and rejig and rewrite and delete and add, and edit.  Now the dog is walking, and the words are beginning to look like a book. BUT, it’s still not a book. The book has organically grown from the concept to a living beast that is no longer yours alone – it belongs to a team of people!  This is scary but it is also liberating. And so there might be discussions around name changes, and book covers and that leads to more restructuring and editing, and rejigging and rewriting and deleting and adding.  Then other people read the book, serious professional editors who circle and jab and question mark with their red pen and you have to go back and explain this, explore that, define this, refine that.  This is really when the book comes to light. This is were the magic happens as the writing you did in the dark depths of your own mind, is brought out into the light by editors and publishers who can see what bits need developing and what bits need highlighting.  Then, and only then, have you finished your book. Now, you can pour that Gin and watch the bubbles of tonic dance in your glass. Now, you have written a book.  So as I embark on the concept of a second book, I am going to remind myself once again, that it is a practical, hard-laboured, time-consuming, time-dedicated, relentless process, like having homework every single day and night, and I need to move into the zone from scraps of paper and intellectual conversation in my head, to actually sitting down, getting out my Macbook, shutting out my life, and start to write.

Step 1.

Get, or give yourself, a deadline. On sending Hachette Ireland a novel, they researched me and found a blog I had written. They asked me to write a memoir based on my experiences in the sandwich years – caring for small children and sick parents. I was given five months to write a book of 70,000 words. I also had a job, three children to care for and lots of other commitments. It just had to get written; every evening, every weekend, every spare minute – and many minutes that weren’t spare but had to reallocated. The house became very messy, I bought some pre-made dinners and my dog has got fatter. It was relentless and draining but exhilarating.

Step 2.

Write!!!  This can or may include pulling out hair, screaming, chewing through an entire HB pencil, pacing, eating, drinking tea (at least two plantations were hurt in the making of my book).  But keep writing, every day. Give yourself deadlines. I had a white board, and every day I would set my targets (this included 15 minutes break every hour and a half to catch up on emails and Facebook but I had a timer and when it went off, I had to stop and get back to writing).  If you miss a target, cancel the night out and make them up. This is a job, not a hobby – it requires dedication, long hours and little pay.  Keep writing until you finish draft 1.

Step 3

Allow yourself a small Gin and Tonic but know that YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED YOUR BOOK.  You have only put some words on a page.  I call this the Vomit draft because it feels like you just have to get everything out of you quickly before your brain seizes up. It also allows you the freedom of just writing without mentally editing anything yet.  Now, you can relax, go back reread it (or get someone else to – preferably your editor) and then think about what should go where. Does it work as a story? Is everything in the right order. Is there repetition? Does it make sense? Have you explained everything or have you written with the Curse of Knowledge (you know what’s going on, but does the reader?). Have you described the scenes properly – can a reader imagine where the action is taking place, can they feel the weather as they read it, can they see the emotions?

Step 4

When you feel this is good enough (for now) send it to your editor.  You may well know this still needs something, but at this stage you are too immersed in it to be able to rationally see what needs to be done. So this is the most important step – take on board what your editor, publisher, agent or literary expert advises you. They have read it with a neutral eye and can see what can improve it.  This is the magic wand of writing. You are now part of a team and their advice is game changing.

Step 5

Editing. This is awful. Just plain and simply awful. For me, it involved literally cutting up pages and rearranging them, killing some beautiful babies (not real ones, just my literary ones that were stunningly written but bore no relevance whatsoever to my book. And so they had to go to the Heaven of Removed Words, a lovely little file that is filled with paragraphs and phrases that will hopefully find a new life in another work someday).It involved screaming and crying and pulling bits of my brain into the light that had never worked before and finding inspiration. It also involved immense satisfaction and whoops of joy as I saw a flawed text become a creature of literary loveliness.

Step 6

More editing – this time taking the feedback from professional copy editors. This is were you learn that sometimes the way you write isn’t the way it should be written. Learn to read as a reader not a writer.  It can be a bit hard, and a bit enraging and sometimes you have to learn to let go and sometimes you have to fight for a phrase. It is a team effort so it is a negotiation. The humiliating thing was 90% of the time, they were right.

Step 7

Develop your bio, the book blurb, and agree on the book cover.  Again my advice would be to lean heavily on the advice and expertise of the publishing team. The pretty picture you have in your head may not be the pretty packaging that booksellers and marketing excerpts know will sell. Again, it is a negotiation between your needs and their knowledge.

Step 8

Pour a long large Gin, dance with the bubbles as you add the tonic and whoop when the lemon hits the ice. Drink. Enjoy. Then take a deep breath, and begin again.

My huge thanks to my agent Sallyanne Sweeney and my editor Ciara Doorley and the team of editors and copywriters at Hachette. I wrote the book, but they made the book readable. For me, I am planning and preparing for the launch in January.  No more time for Gin….it’s time to get writing. Book two won’t write itself. I’m the only person who can do it.  Until the experts join the team. 

Daughter, Mother, Me is being published by Hachette Ireland, and due out in February 2016

This article first appeared on www.writing.ie

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