There’s an old joke with a few variations but each has a similar theme. One example of the joke might be: A woman wants to vacuum the living room. Taking the vacuum out of the closet, she notices the disarray of the shoes. Kneeling down to straighten the shoes, she spies a stain in her favorite coat. She takes the coat to the kitchen where she keeps the stain remover and sees the pile of bills on the table. Forgetting the coat, she sits down to pay the bills but realizes she hasn’t balanced her checkbook. Into her home office she goes but her calculator is unplugged. Reaching behind the desk to find the outlet she sees dust bunnies. Back to the kitchen for the duster she notices a stain on the linoleum. She keeps the cleaner in the bathroom where she finds some grout has fallen away from the shower stall tiles. Out to the garage to collect the tube of sealant she sees the children’s toys haphazardly piled in a corner…
You see where this is going, don’t you? The woman wanted only to vacuum the living room but because she became disorganized she ended up not getting anything accomplished or only partially completed. We’ve all been in situations like this. We start something but get distracted by something, or else review the job before it’s completed to try to improve upon it right away.
Why do you think grocery lists and trip itineraries are made? They are an attempt to be organized, to have a plan.
Writing a story is no different. Whether you’re a plotter (one who utilizes an outline) or a ‘pantser’ (one who picks up a pen and just starts writing), you have to be organized and you have to complete each step along the way.
If you use an outline, know when to start to actually write the story. Last year at the Killer Nashville conference, I attended a talk given by Jeffrey Deaver. He mentioned that he spends eight months drawing up an outline. However, before he launched into the main part of his speech he emphasized that his topic was how HE writes mysteries. His way may not work for others. My point is to know when to stop detailing the outline, when to stop filling out character profiles, and when to begin the story.
If you’re one of those people who has a vague idea of a story in mind and can create characters and settings out of thin air as you write and the plot seems to unravel before you, congratulations. You still need a direction, though. Even if you don’t have all the details laid out in full view, you should be able to see landmarks in the road ahead. And know when you’ve reached your destination.
How many times have you seen writers who bring chapter one to a critique group, receive some advice, then go home and rewrite the chapter, bring it back to group, rewrite and rewrite? Then either they’ll give up because they think the story can’t be written or switch to another story and begin another chapter one. These people do not have a plan. They don’t realize the entire story cannot be written in the first chapter. They need to note the given advice but move onto chapter two.
Then there are those who get too meticulous with editing as they write. Yes, correct a blatant grammatical errors or misspellings. No, do not reread the chapter twenty times in an attempt to perfect it. Move on. A first draft is named so for a reason. It’s your first attempt. Unless you’re a reincarnation of Rex Stout (who, as I understand, never wrote a second draft of his stories) there will be others.
So now the first draft is finished and you’re ready for rewrites. Once again, you must discover the method that works for you. I give credit to author Todd Stone for his advice on how to edit. Instead of trying to edit everything at once, you read the manuscript several times focusing on an individual aspect each time. Dialogue, action, punctuation, grammar, flow, etc. Again, if you see an obvious mistake, correct it or highlight it for the future, but concentrate on one thing at a time.
There are, of course, other ways to edit besides the above. You may hire a professional editor. Another option is to trade projects or barter a favor from a friend. I have yet to try a method that sounds very interesting. Three people, none of whom is the author, take turns reading aloud the story, following along with the manuscript, or listening to the story. Authors may receive some unexpected but useful views and advice. Of course this doesn’t necessarily solve punctuation problems, but it might show where the story lacks strength, where the dialogue doesn’t flow, or other areas needing improvement.
Learn the publishing business. Do your homework on agents and publishing houses before you query. Organize your querying process. Are you attending writing conferences or using a writer’s guidebook? I envy those authors who found a publisher on their first attempt.
Last, and in most cases, first, are marketing and promotion. I’ve mentioned in a number of interviews that I’d rather write the book than market it. My publisher required a marketing strategy to be included with the submission. Fortunately, I befriended a publicist willing to give me some free advice. However, another friend has repeatedly said writers need to start promoting before the book is even completed and submitted. They need to create websites and get involved with social networking. With so many indie publishing houses requiring authors to self promote you need to have a presence on the Internet and in your community before the first printing is scheduled or before the eBook is uploaded. I think promotion is the most difficult part of the writing process because it requires the most organization and once you begin, you must be diligent. With the fast paced world people forget and you need to keep your name out there without being pushy. Learn the fine line between effective self promotion and being a pest.
There are benefits to spontaneity. Some pleasant discoveries might be found after diverting off the path. Too often, though, diversion in your writing leads to a muddled and confused storyline. You may find yourself so lost the only way out is to start over.
May I end with a quote heard many times but one which is so apt?
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.