A pretty large chunk of the advice writers get from other writers (and from even less qualified critics) is mechanical: how to space paragraphs effectively, how to use a semicolon; the use and uncertain fate of the Oxford comma. Rather less focuses on the awkward journey from vague idea to finished work. I suspect that’s because it is a bloody, violent journey that culls the weak and promotes the strong, and when you start writing about that sort of thing on your blog you get a lot of odd inbound links from white supremacist groups.
I looked for an associated image and they were all terrifying. Here's a fuzzy pony instead.
But the fact of the matter is that good writing leaves a lot of abandoned bad writing in its wake, from the first napkin-jotting to the final revision. Everyone has some sort of triage or vetting process in place (or ought to); here is mine.
Step 1: The Idea
Contrary to popular belief, ideas do just pop into your head out of nowhere. The best way to have a head that does this is to nurture a busy, observant brain that knows lots of things, so get on down to the library and do some learning. The broader your net of general knowledge is the more likely you are to say “well that incredibly obscure thing in history would make a great novel!” or the like.
Step 2: The Scribble
If you have any sense in that idea-netting head of yours you’ll write all these odd inspirations down as they occur, even if you have absolutely no idea how to use them yet. Write it on your arm if you have to, and feel free to use shorthand, as long as you’re confident in your ability to extrapolate meaningful text from a blurry “snrrk poo” hours later.
Step 3: The Notebook
Here at last we are into the realm of written words (if you’re lucky enough to only get good ideas when you have some paper and some free time on hand, of course, you can skip Step 2). The Notebook is where ideas get tried out. It doesn’t have to be an actual physical notebook, of course, just somewhere you can draft and draft again to your heart’s content. Take those scribbled ideas and write out longer scribbles. Explore the ideas. Write question-and-answers with yourself, or just start writing from Chapter 1 and see what it looks like. The point is to give each idea a few pages of experimenting. Some might take up whole notebooks — there’s no rules here.
Step 4: The Draft
At some point you’re going to like an idea so much you turn it into a start-to-finish product. I highly recommend doing this on the computer, but on your aching, cramped fingers be it if you want to play the traditionalist.
This is the draft. It may all flow out from the first word to the last in unbroken prose, or you may go over each chunk of it a few times before moving on to the next. Everyone works at their own pace. Just remember that it is a draft, and don’t get too bogged down in perfecting it. There’s plenty more carnage to come for the poor, innocent words!
Step 5: The Revision
Set the draft aside. Let it stew for a few days. Go back and edit it, either by making changes as you read or with little editing marks — your choice. (A lot of people find that the latter makes for a better overall picture, since they’re not stopping their reading all the time to make lengthy alterations). Try to limit yourself to a single time through. Make every change you think you need once. Then move on, or else you’ll be on this step forever.
Step 6: Public Humiliation
I’m sorry, that should read “editing by other readers.” But at this point you’ve had your opportunity to weed out the weak. Send the words off to your editing friends (possibly in filthy, overcrowded boxcars) and see what they want to cull from the herd. Take their suggestions with a grain of salt — it is your work, after all — but at the very least put some serious thought into changing anything that more than one person flagged in some way.
Step 7: Repeat as Needed
Fix what you think you should from the other readers’ edits, then send it back to them. See if they’re happy with the new work. See if you’re happy with the new work. You’re not, because you’re a perfectionist, but try to restrain yourself to one or two more rounds.
Now you’re done. Wasn’t that easy? All you have to do is decide where you’re publishing, possibly find a good agent, send in submissions, deal with rejections, and maybe in a few years you’ll have a published work that still resembles that idea you had way back in Step 1.
Cheered? Disheartened? Got an idea for how it all works that vastly differs from mine? Leave a comment! We’re not shy here.