The First Three Phases

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Good afternoon, my dears. A couple things, then a small Friday post, then off into the wild blue yonder.

* If you look at my events calendar, you’ll see I’m at the Auburn, WA, public library tomorrow (Saturday), and on Sunday I’m at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s for the SF/F Authorfest. I’ll gladly sign books at both events, though there will be no books for sale at the Auburn library. I’m beginning to get pre-event nerves (nobody will show up, my heart will stop from sheer terror, someone will throw rotten fruit, etc., etc.) so I will just content myself with saying, if you’re in the area, both events promise to be a lot of fun.

* Want to know what makes me feel really, really unclean, and not in a good way? This article about James Frey preying on creative writing graduates.

This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission. (Inside Full Fathom Five, p. 3)

In case you’re wondering, these are bad, bad terms. They’re the sort of terms Guy Pearce’s Warhol offered Sienna Miller’s Edie Sedgwick, only without the initial friendship. Or the sort of terms Lord Ruthven might have offered one of his victims. I’ll just content myself with noting that Frey’s earlier hijinks make me feel filthy about this in a way that James Patterson’s or VC Andrews’s ghostwriters don’t. Also, dude, if you’re a rebel, you don’t need to go around saying what a rebel you are. Henry Miller would kick Frey’s ass for presumption.

“But wait!” you might say. “Nobody’s forcing these people to sign with Frey’s company! He’s not holding a gun to their heads or anything!”

True. But Bernie Madoff didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head either; scam artists don’t have to and we still prosecute them–or at least, evince some distaste for their methods. As a professional, I cannot condone Frey’s behavior and I hope one or two aspiring writers might decide in light of that article not to lend themselves to this nastiness. ‘Nuff said.

* Also, while I’m in take no prisoners mode, there’s the same kerfluffle there is every year over NaNoWriMo. (No, I’m not linking to the kerfluffles. They make me tired.) NaNo is great for one thing: teaching aspiring writers to shut up, sit down, and make writing a priority. That’s great, and it’s just the sort of lesson a lot of people who want to write often need. But writing only one month out of the year is not a good way to maximize your chances of producing quality, publishable work. That’s like saying a two-hour class can teach you to safely be a trapeze acrobat. I’m not knocking NaNo–I’ve participated several times, and plan to participate next year. It’s a good thing, but it’s not the sole means of becoming a writer or of learning to consistently produce publishable work.

Anyway. I promised another process post, didn’t I?

Generally, writing a novel breaks down into five phases for me.

1. The Shiny
2. The Explosion
3. The Hole
4. The Slog
5. The Burn

Today I’ll be talking about the first three phases; four and five deserve their own post next week. (Don’t look at me like that. I promise, okay? Anyway.)

I’ve spoken before about how I get the initial concept for a book. There are organic vs. what-if books (as opposed to spec work); the major difference being that the organic books start with a full-sensory almost-hallucination where I’m shown the character and have to figure out what’s going on at the same time they do, while the what-if books spring to life as a question that I begin fleshing out step by step. Either way, the initial spark is pretty much a jolt of creative caffeine.

Okay, fine, you caught me. Crack. Pure creative crack. I can barely think of anything else. I squirrel little chunks of wordbuilding away like a Terminator ninja squirrel stores kung fu moves. I talk about it obsessively to anyone who will listen, and a huge glorp of text falls out of my head. It may or may not start the story in the right place. It may or may not be in the right POV. It may or may not even be any good. But I love it, I’m in love, and the world is magic.

Then comes the Explosion. This is by far the most productive part of the process. It’s where I open the document, look at it, and suddenly realize just where it should begin, what POV I’m after, and who changes the most in the course of the story. I nip, I tuck, I trim, and another huge block of text falls out of my head. This is where the story most often “jells” and I begin to see the shape I’m excavating. As Stephen King (I think) once remarked, a writer’s more like an archaeologist than anything else. We sieve and brush and painstakingly scrape, and sometimes we dig up a palace. Other times, it’s an outhouse.

I tend to put everything else on hold and work as fast as I can during the explosion phase, because I know what’s coming next.

The Hole.

It’s about as pleasant as you’d expect something called THE HOLE to be. It hits between halfway and two-thirds of the way, where I’m starting to gather up all the threads and weave them toward the crisis/climax and falling action. One day I’ll sit there, look at the book, and a simple, stunning thought crosses my mind.

I can’t do this. There is no way I can do this. I suck. The book sucks. I am going to fail miserably and everyone will hate me.

At this point, I wish I could say I effortlessly and gracefully tell that thought to go eff itself and soldier on, singing glorious hallelujah.

I’d be lying. I whine. I eat chocolate. I roll my eyes and bitch. I tell my reflection in the mirror that I’m a loser and I wear out my writing partner with endless repetitions of, “Christ, I hate this book. I can’t do this.”

Her reply is always the same. “You say that every time. Get back up and do it.” And I know she’s right.

But every time, it’s very difficult to remember she’s right. This is why I advocate the habit of writing regularly. Habit is either the worst of masters or the best of servants, and often it’s habit that pulls me through the Hole and the next-to-last phase, the Slog. (More about the Slog next week.) Of course, sheer stubbornness has a lot to do with it, too. Many’s the time plain bloodymindedness has taken me through phases three and four.

Plenty of aspiring writers get seduced by the first two phases and think a book isn’t working as soon as it becomes less than creative-crack-stellar-fun to work on. The number of times a book is truly broken may be considerable, but you won’t know your process and the earmarks of a truly-broken book without practice in finishing a few manuscripts. I have books on my hard drive that are finished and broken, unfinished with a fighting chance, unfinished and broken, finished and submission-worthy, and just-plain-what-the-hell-I-don’t-even-know. The ability to go into the graveyard of the unfinished or the finished-but-broken to fish out something that might be fixable is only sharpened and strengthened by practice in actually finishing and learning, in the process, what broken means. (“Broken” can also change at different points in your writing life. But that’s another blog post.)

What, you thought there would be some easy magic pill? Nope, sorry. There rarely is an easy magic pill in life. (Most of the ones currently being sold are either placebos or have nasty side effects. Helluva choice.) There is only the process, and learning to work the process with practice and dedication.

Tune in next week for the Slog and the Burn!

Over and out.

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