Being an author is not a 9-5 job, as you know. There are some days when writers pour themselves into their work and write for hours on end. On the other hand, there are days where just a little inspiration is needed and can come at the most random times and places. Sophie Littlefield, author of THE GUILTY ONE, shares her process of writing a novel, from time management to final edit and everything in between!
But What The Hell Are You Doing The Whole Time?
The other day I got into a spirited discussion with my twenty-year-old daughter about time management. Employed this summer in her first paying job as well as two volunteer positions, she had suddenly become an expert on all aspects of the working life, and it couldn’t have come a moment too soon as I’ve been wrestling with this shit for oh, about thirty years.
In the course of telling me how I could do everything better, Junior paused at one point as a thought struck her. “What do you actually do all day?” she wondered. “I mean, besides the writing thing, which doesn’t really take all that long, right?”
She can be forgiven for this observation because, well, it’s true, something she should know as well as anyone because for years she’s been watching me write first drafts and she knows my process. Basically the first draft emerges in 45-minute chunks at the keyboard, at the rate of about 1,000 words per session. So an 80,000-word novel is drafted in eighty forty-five minute sessions which comes out to fifty-three hours, which is really just one very long week and a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon.
Given that I could basically write a book in a week, my daughter was asking, what was I doing for the other fifty-one weeks of the year?
We-e-e-elll…..see, the thing is, it turns out that the human brain—at least this human brain—cannot sustain that pace for long. I am good for, at most, and that would be on a very very good day, four of those short bursts of wordslinging, or four thousand words. Have I had four-thousand word days? Why yes, I have. I have even had twenty-thousand word weeks. But at the end of one of them, I am the intellectual equivalent of that sponge in your sink, wrung out and abraded from overuse and smelling none too fresh.
So, often as not, I’m more likely to only pop out a couple thousand words before giving up, exhausted, like my dog after a punishing walk from the couch to the refrigerator to see if it accidentally opened itself and back to the couch. Luckily, the writer’s job has expanded to fill all available space as publishing has evolved. You’ve heard it all before, so I won’t bore you with a rant about how promotion and social media eat up many hours a day, but they do, damn it, no matter how often we authors lie to each other that we “give it a quick look with a cup of coffee first thing and then that’s it for the day.”
But more to the point, a first draft does not a novel make. And this is where the hours really go.
The first draft of THE GUILTY ONE was filled with words, but also any number of word-like objects. They look like this: xxxxCourtroomSceneHere, and xxxxSetThisUpEarlier, and xxxxRonCan’tBeInTheCarBecauseHeIsInABar. In other words, huge gaping holes that I blithely promised myself I would fix.
(I hate this process. Some insane authors, like my dear friend Rachael Herron, actually like it. She has a whole detailed revision notebook and everything.)
Then, once the gaps are filled, the whole mess must be polished. I imagine that if you are a professional cake decorator or concrete pourer, you’ll have a good understanding of this process, in which the surface must be made smooth and lovely. This takes a long, long time, especially for authors over fifty who must dig really deep in their brains to discover where they’ve carelessly left the word they were looking for.
Then the manuscript is delivered to one’s editor, in this case the delightful superintendent of this very blog, for savaging. Ooops, I mean, for gentle tweaking! Slip of the tongue! Put down those sharp scissors, Abby! Just kidding….kinda. The thing is, a good editor won’t let you get away with anything, and the best editors don’t stop molding and shaping until you’ve team-sculpted a thing of beauty.
And that, my friends, is where the time really goes. Anyone can write a wretched first draft, and most of us do; only the most dedicated have the chops to see it through to a proper literary work.
My daughter the budding journalist is only beginning to learn that—but then again, she’s got the energy of youth and the sparkle of discovery on her side. She makes it all look easy—as, on the best days, it is, even for us tired elderly hacks.