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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The Process of Writing a Book When You Are Chaos Personified

How do you write a book, people ask me.  Well this is what I do.  There is no right or wrong way, just your own way.  My way is anarchic and chaotic but it works for me.  I cannot understand how most of the following happens, it just does.  I will not be holding seminars on how to do it this way - but it is here for your perusal. 

1              My editor asks me for a synopsis of my next book.  I am not a planner.  All I can give her is ‘The lead characters are X and Y and they live in Z.  They get together at the end.’  She needs more so I make something up.  The finished story will bear absolutely no resemblance to this synopsis.
2               I try to plan my book this time.  I take out a fresh block of post-it notes and write some details on them and stick them on a wall.   I see the joy in being able to do this and move them around purposefully and I want to employ this process SO much but I can’t make it work for me.  The few post-it notes stay on that wall until they either drop off or the dog nicks them to chew on.
3               I start to write.  Chapter 1. I break that sea of white with one word and one number – I’m in. I have no idea where the story is taking me but the lines cue up in my head and I just carry on writing until I realise it is time to feed the dog/cat/rabbit/teenage boys or wee. Occasionally I will have an idea about something which might happen further down the line and I jot it quickly down in a notepad. Or, if in the middle of the night, on my arm. 
4               I need a title because it has to mean something and the title has to be relevant to the book and blended into it, as surely as sugar is folded into egg-whites to make a meringue.  I am always a lot more relaxed when I get the title which either arrives in a blinding flash of inspiration at the beginning or a whirl of panic at the eleventh hour. Usually the latter.
5              About a third of the way in I realise I hate the book.  I have no idea what is going to happen next and I don’t know my characters well enough to have any opinion of them other than I hate them as well.  I have been here enough times to realise this is not a brick wall but an illusion – it is fog.  If I power through it, there will be light on the other side. There always is but in the thick of it, it is scary and I worry that this will be the time when the fog really is a brick wall.  
6              At the other side of the fog I am more invested in my characters.  I begin to like them a bit and know what makes them tick.  They oblige me by helping me progress the plot.  Nice characters.
7               I do not edit along the way.  I complete the first draft.  The first draft might have seven Saturdays in February and Andrew in chapter one has become Darren by chapter seven and Siobhan by chapter twenty-five. Green-eyed Mary might have blue eyes by the end of the book – and possibly brown ones in the middle.  I don’t care. I do not edit here.
8               I HAVE COMPLETED THE FIRST DRAFT.  TREAT TIME. Sparkling ice wine is ordered.  I deserve this lots.
9              Second draft. I make a timeline.  Easiest way to do this is by running off a calendar that I can write on, pin point on it where my last chapter ends, then I work backwards.  Shape is happening.  I now only have 4 Saturdays in February. 
10           No title yet?  I start to twitch a little.
11           Third draft. Continuity.  Mary’s eyes are sorted out.  I make sure that the features of my characters are set in stone.  Darren is Darren at the beginning, middle and end of the book and maintains his brown hair and 5ft 7” frame throughout. 
12           My work goes off to my editor. Whilst waiting for her to come back with her comments, my stomach is in spasm hoping she will not say ‘This is absolute crap, start again.’
13           My editor returns the manuscript, tells me to strip out a murder, cut back on Darren and beef up Mary’s story.  It feels a mammoth task.  I have to cut, whip out, add in and stitch up my story into a different whole.  Somehow this happens.
14           I send it back to my editor sort of assured that we are on the same page (chortle).  If we are…. Thunderbirds are go!
15           If that title hasn’t come yet, I am now flapping like a flock of sea eagles.  My editor and agent and I bat titles back and forth. I despair.  Four hundred suggestions and none of them fit.  Some are actually so bad they make me vomit and have bad dreams.  We need a title urgently.
16           WE FIND A TITLE. I can sleep. Wine helps.
17           Having had a couple of weeks away from the manuscript, when I see it again I spot mistakes and plot-holes everywhere.  I work on getting these right and anchoring that title deep into the story.
18            I then do another draft where I enrich the language, deepen the emotion, this is the fun edit.  The one where my creativity can flow.  This edit is like the glossy top coat of nail varnish. It is as near perfect as I can get it.  
19           Exciting meetings at Publisher HQ.  So much goes on behind the scenes – PR ideas, marketing, sales. We sit around a table and they all excitedly tell me what plans they have for the book, which supermarkets and shops have bought them and how many.  We plan and plot.  It all feels real and wonderful – and we eat buns. 
20           The cover comes from the art department and it is always a joy to see it.  Except that the artist has usually gone off my initial synopsis, which as we know is full of lies, so a bit of tweaking has to go on.
21           My work goes off to the copyeditor and comes back with a million notes on it.  Mostly pointing out glaring errors that I should have noticed, and highlighting awful grammar.  She is a marvel.  I feel as if she should be writing the book and I should be cleaning toilets.
22           Magic occurs. Something happens to my brain and it turns me into a copyeditor too now.  A very anal one.  This is usually panic-driven because I am terrified of overlooking errors.  I trawl through every word of my manuscript, realising that I have written ‘just’ 42 times on one page.  I take ALL the ‘justs’ out:  675.  I read it again and have to put some ‘justs’ back in.  My copyeditor’s hair turns white.  This is my favourite part of the process because someone else reads it objectively in detail and you can work very closely with them as they are the first real pair of proper reader eyes.  But you can work too hard on this.  My copyeditor tells me it is okay to have a little natural duplication and working through a thesaurus changing every ‘said’ to a different word is counter-productive because the eye smoothes over many words that are doing a filling in job and don’t need to snag the eye.  She’s right. Again. As always.  
23           I like to look over the finished clean manuscript with all the mistakes ironed out. Still, you always miss a couple because you are poring over it so intensely. My brain now starts to wake me up at 4am. ‘Oy, Darren can’t be found in the park because in chapter 5 you said it was closed for a month.’  I have no idea how my brain does this but in the background it seems to be constantly scavenging for things to torment me with.
24           I start to panic that there is a deadline and I’ve just discovered something that is out of place and it has a knock-on effect to other stuff.  That deadline is too close.  I have a massive repair job to do suddenly.  My record is sitting down at 9am, determined not to go to bed until I had made sure everything was sorted.  I was still there at 9am the next morning.  I was still there at 15.45 that afternoon.  My eyes were out of focus and watering and on the verge of bleeding.  I put one foot on the step to go to bed as my son entered and asked if there was any chance of a bacon buttie.  The answer was ‘no’.  But with more ‘f’ sounds. 
25           I back away from the book, off it goes to be typeset. Whilst I am in limbo I can catch up with some jobs like shaving my legs/moustache, talking to the family, drinking something that isn’t espresso.  I try to relax and have a day off but I have lost the ability to know what to do with spare time.  I start designing bookmarks/bags/pens.  I am the Queen of Merchandise for this reason, because I am now obsessed with my book.  I trawl the internet for promotional goods that will look good with a sunflower/owl/Christmas pudding on them.
26           The typeset version comes back.  I need to have an eagle-eye to spot any errors and really have to try not to alter anything that does not need to be altered.  Yes, ‘packed’ would have been a better word that ‘put’, but keep it to the absolute bare minimum please.  No one else will be thinking, ‘I’d have put packed there myself if I’d written that not put.’ I spend 15 minutes worrying if a sentence makes sense when a reader’s eyes would just drift across it.  My stress levels are spiked.  I spend half an hour looking at the word ‘was’ and thinking it looks as if it is spelled wrong.
27           By now I am so sick of Mary and Darren I wish they’d jump off a cliff.  Familiarity breeds contempt.
28           The typeset manuscript is prised from my hands.  It has to go to be bound into a book.  NOW. There is no more time to edit.  In the words of Frozen Elsa: ‘LET IT GO’.
29           Another editor has also been looking at the manuscript to make sure all is well.  She will flag anything suspicious.  I love this woman like my own mother.
30           The book is printed.  I see it in all its magnificence and I am thrilled.  Another to add to the shelf and I stare at them all and wonder if I really did write all those or am I actually the conduit for a dead spirit who was denied the time on earth and hunted around for a body with a vacant brain to write them for her. 
31           Whilst I am preparing to launch the book into the world, I’ve started the next one. The editor asks for a synopsis…
32           The book is sent off to some lucky (I hope) buggers.  One can just hope that the first reviews in are nice as they serve as a suit of armour for that first ‘This is terrible.  Do not waste your money’, which inevitably comes.  I only look at the first reviews to make sure the book is hitting the spot.  Yeah course. 
33           Mrs Outraged writes a review telling people how appalling my book is and encourages everyone NOT to buy it.  I look at her other reviews.  If mine is the only one she has commented on, I presume she is an evil twat from my past. But no – Mrs Outraged has 500 other reviews to her name and she has hated the books of every other female writer on the planet, which gives me some comfort.  Also she has called the Bible far-fetched and thinks the Brontes were talentless. Although she has given her wart remover 5 stars, so she can be pleased by something.
34           We wait to see the public reaction to my new book baby. Will it make the top 10 - if it does… that’s bliss.  The pressure is always on.  If it got to number 5 last time, number 4 would be good.  But then if JK Rowling has released 7 more Harry Potters on the same week as mine is out… my chances are the opposite of slim – they’re fat! 
35           I have a busy schedule of meeting readers, signing their books, having pictures taken with them.  It’s a joy, I feel exhilarated.  I feel someone. Plus people give me a lot of scones.  People feed writers and give them Prosecco.  
36           I go home from being feted as an adored queen of romance to find that the cat litter tray needs changing, the ironing needs doing, I have no milk in the cupboard. And I have the next book to carry on writing… 


  1. Superb. And true. Bloody cat litter.

  2. Oh Milly, I love this. Funny but true. It's a wonderful cycle.

  3. Just brilliant! A classic guide on the process - and an illustration of what any aspiring writer should be prepared for.

    Its also so nice to know we aren't alone in panicing!

  4. Yes! Milly you have completely summed up the entire book writing process in one very enjoyable post. Thank you for making me realise I am not the only insane author battling with her first draft at stupid o'clock in the morning while hating all my characters! Bring on the Prosecco and cake....Thanks Milly - this post was just what I needed to read.

  5. A very entertaining read Milly and I love the honesty and realism. I work in a similar way myself so this makes a refreshing change to the usual writer talk of daily word counts etc. Evidently some writers need structure to be creative while to others that would be anathema.I do try to work within the routines of others but creativity flows best for me without too much structure. I suppose it is a routine of sorts!

  6. Love love loved this! You have summed up book writing with humour and humility and it has brightened my day to read this! Thank you

  7. Totally brilliant - and very similar to my own process (except no-one is giving me buns or scones).

  8. Oh my God I love you Milly!