Writing each book is a different story

I noticed this post via the Passive Voice blog. It’s at Women Writers: ISABEL COSTELLO – (Writing) Each Book Is A Different Story

This is a fine post about the variable experience of writing different books. This really resonates! I’ve found the experience of writing some books very different from others, in these ways:

–Whether I experience flow while writing just certain scenes, or large swathes of the book, or practically the whole thing.

Tuyo and that series flowed all the way through, or very nearly. The last, oh, three hundred pages of the Death’s Lady story, very powerful flow. I happen to remember that I wrote the last 210 pages in 19 days. That stood out for me because it was by far the fastest and most extended period of flow I’ve ever experienced prior to writing Tuyo.

Various other manuscripts, I experience almost no flow at any time. That is just painful, but it has happened. It gives me an apparently permanent distaste for the novel in question, even though the story is objectively just fine and I may (grudgingly) start to sort of like it long after it’s on the shelf. The novel like this is, by the way, just as likely to be someone’s favorite as any other novel of mine. (Except for Tuyo, which have proved gratifyingly popular with readers as well as my favorite.)

–Whether I throw away small bits of the book, or big chunks of the book, or REALLY BIG chunks of the book.

Yeah, it varies. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I didn’t throw away a couple of chapters. Sometimes those get replaced with new chapters in that exact location and sometimes the tossed chapters vanish, never to be seen again. This is most likely to happen when I start to take a novel in the wrong direction, get stuck, force myself to keep going, figure out the direction is wrong, and cut back to where the problem began.

But it also happens when I re-read a complete draft and wind up replacing a chapter or two of the early middle. That happened with The Floating Islands AND The Sphere of the Winds. In both cases, I cut and replaced Chapter Five twice.

Or, The White Road of the Moon, which was too long (much too long), and too complicated and just wasn’t working. My agent is the one who suggested cutting a chunk out of the early middle plus cutting various characters entirely. She was completely right, that’s what I did, and I believe that is probably the single largest chunk I’ve ever cut from a novel.

–Whether it needs some revision, or a lot of revision, or A LOT of revision.

That varies WAY more than would be ideal. The only universal is that it always FEELS like a lot of revision at the time, even when it really isn’t that much. Of course the most extreme revision I’ve ever done was chopping up my first-ever fantasy trilogy and turning it into The White Roads of the Moon and Winter of Ice and Iron.

Sometimes I just do a little polishing at the sentence level plus some cleaning up of character arcs and adding some foreshadowing and so on. Lots of the time I do a heck of a lot more than that. I referred to the Death’s Lady story as The Neverending Revision From Hell for quite a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever changed a story in bigger or more important ways than I did multiple times in this one. Although some of you recently made me do pretty substantial tweaks with your annoyingly astute comments, and I complained about that a good deal, it was NOTHING compared to the huge revisions I did when I was writing the thing in the first place.

–Whether I enjoy some or a lot of the revision process and experience flow while revising.

Tuyo and Tarashana are the two stories where I enjoyed the revision process almost as much as writing the first draft. That is quite rare! I never got tired of either story. I’m still not tired of them. Nikoles is a bit offset in that way as well as every other way, but it was still enjoyable to write compared to almost everything else.

I took a break from other things to write the first 50 pages of Keraunani, by the way, and that is also easy and fun (so far!)

–Whether I wrote the whole thing in order from front to back, or skipped over the middle and came back to it, or wrote the middle first and wrote my way out. (That last only happened once.) (So far.)

I’ve written a lot of books straight through. For Tuyo, I jumped over the meeting with Lorellan and came back to those couple of chapters much later.

Shadow Twin was the one I wrote from the inside out. I wrote the beginning, leaped ahead and wrote a lot of Miguel’s scenes from the middle, then wrote part of the front half of the book, part of the back half, finished the first half, and finally wrote the last couple of chapters. It was quite odd to do it that way. I think the reason I did that was because motivation was a challenge for that book and I used Miguel’s fun-to-write scenes as motivation to move ahead, then wrote stuff in between his scenes.

Miguel’s scenes were also particularly fun for me in Copper Mountain, though I know a couple of you said they verged on too creepy for you. I doubt he’ll be summoning any more demons. I’m not totally sure, but it seems likely that he, as well as everyone else, is now is crystal, crystal clear that summoning demons is a terrible idea. But I will be a bit sorry if he doesn’t, because honestly, those were GREAT scenes to write!

Okay! Let’s see what Costello has to say and then maybe I’ll contrast her experience with mine. I can state with great assurance that whatever her experience is, it’ll be different from mine in important ways. Everybody’s experience is always different.

So let’s see …

A) Costella doesn’t like to set word-count goals. Too stressful. She prefers hourly goals. That’s the opposite of how I prefer to do it. I believe I’m in the majority in that I prefer a word count goal and find it motivating to watch words pile up.

I would find an hourly minimum constraining. Although when I’m actively working on a novel, I usually work on it every days, sometimes it moves fast and sometimes it doesn’t and I would feel really strange about setting aside two hours a day and stopping after two hours when that time had not been very productive.

B) Costello writes: With my debut I felt I wasted a lot of time re-reading and polishing the text even in the early stages – we all know how much a manuscript changes from first to final draft. But when I stopped doing this, I lost my connection with the characters and the belief that Scent would ever amount to something worth reading. Far from being a pointless waste of time, I realised that editing as I go along is an integral part of my writing process.  

Now, here we agree! I do a good deal of that — I mean, re-reading and polishing — so that by the time I get to the end of the first draft, the beginning has been pretty well polished up compared to the back, oh, third of the book, something like that.

I’ve never tried to not polish as I go. I can tell it’s a motivating thing for me — I enjoy going back over a scene I just wrote and tweaking — and it helps set me up to go into the next scene. It’s something that helps me keep the character’s voices in my head and it helps keep the tone of the novel consistent. I mean the style more than the mood. When and if you read the Death’s Lady trilogy, you will see that the pov characters give us modern English style and idiom, but the people from the secondary world have speech patterns and phrases and idioms that are thoroughly distinctive. Not just different from an American style of speech, but different from any other style I’ve used in any other story. Re-reading scenes is, I believe, very important to me in keeping that sort of thing consistent all the way through a long novel.

C) Later, Costello adds, ... the novel wasn’t, as I’d been thinking, about a failing marriage but a love story between two women, [which] instantly made me see it in a different light.  Retyping the entire 90K word draft (from scratch not from memory) to capture this new slant was the most exciting and transformative thing I’ve done as a writer. Now I can’t imagine writing a novel without this step.

Wow! That’s AMAZINGLY hard to imagine!

I’ve gone through a manuscript and done EXTENSIVE revision, but I have never even considered retyping the whole thing from scratch. That feels like SUCH a hard way to do it! I feel like the words I have are a crucial jumping-off point, even if I’m going to be revising very heavily. Who knows, maybe I might actually find it helpful to type from … no, I can’t imagine trying to retype from scratch. I just tried to imagine that, and wow, no, it’s not working at all. This is a major difference between our writing experience.

D) Editing simple things first. Oh, here I completely agree. You have to start somewhere. Those giant changes that are going to be hard are, you know, going to be hard. Why start with those? Clear the easy stuff out of the way. Then you can feel like you’re making progress — you ARE making progress — and by the time you get to the big stuff, you can stand to deal with it.

Or that’s my experience. Sounds like Costello’s experience is pretty close to mine on this one.

E) It’s all too easy when editing to see what you think is there. I could never read a whole novel out loud but using the Read Aloud function on Word proved very effective at revealing clonky phrasing, repetitions and missing words. 

Wait, there’s a read aloud function in Word? Seriously? Well, shoot, this could be exactly what I need for exactly the same purpose. Ah, I see you need Office 2019. I might actually have that, as this laptop is about that old. Might be worth checking out.

If not that, it occurs to me for the first time that I could send myself a manuscript as a kindle file and have my kindle read it out loud. That’s not like an audiobook because the brainless read-aloud function on my kindle has no clue about how to read a story, but it might serve the purpose for proofreading by ear.

Well, if I wind up using that, then thanks, Isabel Costello! Great tip!

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5 thoughts on “Writing each book is a different story”

  1. Wait… what?
    Writing the whole be-danged thing all over again from scratch???!!!???!!


    I mean, I’m glad it worked for her, that’s wonderful, go with what works. I just can’t wrap my head around the concept of doing that myself. I’d start typing and have to go back and check to see what I’d originally written. It’s like when you have a fabulous idea for a scene and write it on the back of an envelope which then inevitably wanders off and you have to rewrite the scene again, convinced that the original was SO MUCH better than the drivel you wrote instead. (This might be only me who has had this happen.)

  2. After Copper Mountain, I figured Miguel would join the Orthodox church and become a priest. (Orthodox, because they can marry.) Get thee behind me, Satan!
    I am also still wondering when Justin’s grandmother will meet with the rest of her family.

  3. How much of the story made it into the outline. Though it will stick to the outline if I gave the outline enough time to grow.

    Only once wrote a novel from a rushed outline. Taught me to not force it.

  4. I took the writer to have decided the actual story was different enough from what was there that just scrapping the first attempt was the rational choice.
    What she originally thought she was writing and what she decided the actual story was sound rather far apart.

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