I’m going to just come out and say it: this is one of those posts I’ve been meaning to write for a while but for some reason or other kept putting off. Back in summer 2015 my father and I were on our way to Long Island to help move my brother into his new apartment, and halfway through the trip he posed a question: Why do some writers isolate themselves for long stretches of time to write a novel? He brought up the movie “Funny Farm” with Chevy Chase as an example, and since I’ve never seen what I’m sure is a fine film, he told me it’s a about a writer who moves away from the big city to focus on his writing.
At first, I had no answer for him, because I had not yet had the luxury to hunker down and only write a novel and do nothing else. At that point I’d always been writing on something while working a day job or going to school or just living my life. But things have been different lately. Specifically in the wake of the events I outlined in the post “Let Her Rest,” I have become consumed with writing my first standalone novel, and the past few months I have been quite isolated indeed.
(It’s not SO bad that I’ve started hallucinating, but it’s enough for me to think twice whenever I see twins in the course of my day to day.)
So what’s the answer to my father’s question now that I’ve had the questionable “fortune” of being able to focus all my energy on completing a novel? The simple answer is this: unplugging for a brief period allows one to focus on the work and avoid distraction.
But that’s not good enough, because wouldn’t all workers like to do their job without the phone ringing in their ear or arguments breaking out among their coworkers? Why do writers have this monopoly on locking themselves in a room and other hard-working folks don’t? To answer those questions, it’s helpful to shine a light on my novel-writing process, honed over the course of 9 years to try and provide the most satisfying answer possible.
(Take it from Satisfied Seal: You’re in for a rare treat.)
First and foremost, it’s important to establish what writing a novel is NOT: it’s not like writing an essay for school, it’s not like writing a long letter or email to a relative who lives in another state or country, and it’s especially not like writing these blog posts.
Surprised? Don’t be. My blog posts are typically drafted and written up over the course of a few days after (and this is important) I’ve spent significant time thinking of what the subject will be. And after the post has been conceived, drafted, and edited, I then add the captioned photos, a process that simply drinks time. Yes the blog is entering its third year, but even now it takes hours to find the appropriate photo, caption it, and then repeat that process until there’s a pic beneath every two paragraphs. And honestly? It’s the main reason I’m trying to keep this and future blog posts short because more words = more photos which = more time.
(You think greatness like this just FELL from the sky back in January 2015!? Get real.)
But a blog post is child’s play compared to writing a book. Seriously. If writing a well-crafted, engaging novel starring multi-faceted characters is like building a house that real human beings could live in, then writing a blog post is like frosting the gingerbread house your damn kids dumped in your lap because they got “tired.” TIRED? I wasn’t the one who wanted to pull you off tree-trimming duty. That was YOU.
My point is that writing a novel is far more work than lay people think it is. By a wide margin. Like, they really don’t get it, you guys. And included in that “they” is myself. Really! I often underestimate the volume of work and alone time that writing a book demands, and part of that reason loops back to my process. In my mind writing a book has two phases: the Rough Draft and the Smooth Draft, and there’s a hard line between them.
(Weird reference for a post about book writing, but sure.)
So here’s the syllabus for rough drafts: 500 word minimum / 1,000 word maximum per day.
I use word count requirements and not page requirements, because even though colleges go by how many pages an essay should be when they assign it, none (and I do mean NONE) of publishing goes by page length. They go by words. Here’s why: a standard page is considered to be 250 words, but I have found that my pages average 300 words—a notable margin. Instances like this mean a 75,000 word novel can be 300 pages or 250 pages depending on the writing style. And that’s before formatting to appeal to whatever market the publisher’s targeting!
All right. So if that’s the output, how much time is necessary? For this phase it’s 2 to 4 hours. Now before you go “Phew, that’s not so bad!” there is a caveat exclusive to the rough draft process, and it’s a real stinker. When you begin a rough draft, you are entering a Wonderland of Ideas, and those ideas are fragile, stubborn, and elusive, so tread lightly. And tread respectfully.
(In other words, the OPPOSITE mentality of the people behind this soulless yawn fest.)
Respect. If you walk into a rough draft thinking you can sit down at the keyboard when you’re tired or stressed out or in any other state of mind where you’re not fully present, then great ideas will elude you. Even if you fish one out, your mental grip will not be strong enough to hold it. What I’ve done whenever I’ve had a full schedule is to try very hard to get seven hours of sleep, leave enough time for writing, and go to a place where I will not be interrupted.
This is the problem with lay people advising writers to sneak a quick thirty minutes of writing on a bus ride or during their one hour lunch break. That method may work for emailing co-workers, but writing a novel is the art of disengaging from reality and pulling ideas from the abyss and repackaging them as nuanced text. Text that can make the reader forget where they are. Text that can make them laugh, cry or just keep turning pages because they have to know what happens next.
In short, the process of writing a rough draft amounts to turning nothing into something, so the writer needs to “get into the zone,” something that can’t be switched on and off at will. Does this merit a Cabin the Woods? I think so. But it’s not all about “getting in the zone”, because here comes the smooth draft…
(There’s a lot of truth behind this GE commercial. Watch it here.)
Writing a book is a marathon and not a sprint. Period. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up the pace and write every day. I mentioned that the whole 2-4 hrs per day for the rough draft was seven days a week, right? I DIDN’T? Oh. Well it is. With my current project, I completed the rough draft in four months, and took two weeks off to recharge my brain and think about how I was going to tackle the smooth draft.
Remember how I said in the beginning that lay people underestimate the amount of work writing a book takes and how I was one of them? Well, I made that mistake before writing the rough draft and I repeated it before starting the smooth draft, which I’m knee deep in now. Why? Because I foolishly assumed that my large word doc (rough draft) needs nothing more than a little gussying up here and there. With the characters and basic plot established, I assumed the smooth draft would be cake. But it hasn’t been.
(More like the sweatshop conditions poor DNCE has to put up with whenever they’re booked to play a beach. Is there no decency any more?)
Here’s my syllabus for smooth drafts: 1,000 word minimum / 1,500 word maximum per day.
Talk about optimistic. I started the smooth draft on November 18 and so far my high score is 1300. I haven’t gotten close to 1500. But that’s okay, because it’s still only 2-4 hrs a day, right? Guess again. This time it’s 4-5 hours a day, but that’s only because I want to reach those numbers. And I’d say 90% of the time I meet the minimum within the 4-5 hours.
And then there are the times I don’t. See, the problem stems from a key difference between the rough and smooth drafts. In the rough draft I’m essentially creating a highly detailed outline where the word count is incidental, so for phase two I don’t so much have a list of instructions as I have an unapologetically messy SWAMP of text so awful and ugly that only its father could love it. Or in this case read it. In the smooth draft, the sentences not only need to be pretty and the writing easy to digest, but unlike the rough draft everything has to make SENSE. And for that, I start off every day re-reading the 1,000 plus words I typed the day prior and massage out any kinks I overlooked. This takes 60-90 minutes. Consistently.
(Thanks, Joe. This cluster of adverbs in my lower back has been killing me. But, um…why is your shirt off?)
Speaking of word counts, I think I’ve spilled enough into this post to let you go. But before I do, I can think of no better way of ending a post detailing the method I honed over nine years than by sharing the very first lesson I learned: When you read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a record, you are consuming a finished product.
No matter how much footage we have of the Beatles working all day to make music or that movie stereotype of a writer holed up in a log cabin, I think people look at a piece of media they’ve finished in a hour (music album) or a week (novel) and think it didn’t take that much longer to create it. Simply not true. While I can only speak of writing a novel, the process I outline above is just what happens when I’m seated. What about the brainstorming done beforehand? What about compiling necessary research? What about getting into the correct mental state in order to concentrate for an extended period? That’s a lot of heavy lifting, people!
(A relevant quote I found on my third reading of Haruki Murakami’s excellent memoir.)
So we loop back to my original question. Given how much work a writer has to do all by their lonesome (before editing, book tour, etc.) is a little isolation asking too much?
I’ll leave the answer up to you.
Have a great Christmas weekend and a Happy New Year. I’ll see you again for January’s post, but until then make sure to SUBSCRIBE if you haven’t already, leave a COMMENT if you have any input to share, and if you know anyone who might find this advice helpful, feel free to SHARE this post.
Thanks for reading,
J. F. Seegitz
P.S. This was a very zoomed-out, superficial view of my writing process, so if you have any in-depth questions, or didn’t understand something, please comment below.