Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Working with Projects

By Lazette Gifford
2003, Lazette Gifford

riting, unfortunately, is not just the simple act of sitting down and creating a story.  Sometimes, that's not even the first step, but a point somewhere in the middle of the entire process.  By looking at the different stages, you may also realize that you've become stuck in one of these areas and need to look at moving on to the next one.

I think of my writing as individual projects that can be worked on in stages. Sometimes the projects overlap as one reaches a stage -- like editing -- and I start something new to write.  Editing often precludes any serious new word counts, and I'm admittedly addicted to writing new stuff.  I'm also good at juggling projects because I've had a lot of practice at it.  However, many writers will want to work straight through on one manuscript and then start again from the beginning on the next one.  Either way is valid, as long as you eventually finish. 

Your steps may be different from the ones I've mapped out here, and you may have half a dozen sub-steps at each stage, but these seem to be the most logical sequence.

Stage 1 -- Getting ready

There is always some bit of pre-writing to be done on any story, whether it's a major outline or just sitting around and thinking through the plot.  I tend to create more as I write than I do before I start, but that's just a personal preference.  I like to see my people in their places and 'hear' them speak before I do all the background work on them or the world around them -- though I am aware of some of it before I start.  However, I know this is not always the best way to create a solid story.  Writing without all the background and outline in place also often means considerable more work in the rewrite stage.  It seems to work well with shorter pieces, and the limited background that those characters will interact with, but novels often need far more before I want to start.  So occasionally I do a lot of pre-writing --outlines, world building, character studies and the like.

To be honest, sometimes approaching a story in a dissimilar way helps to create something new.  Looking at stories in different ways allows the brain to take a fresh path to get there, and it's interesting to see what pops up along the way.

Stage 2 -- Writing

Yes, this should be the fun part.  And it generally it is, as long as you don't let yourself get bogged down in some silly minutia.  I have spent half a writing day looking up the description of a certain plant, and while that can be fun as well, doing it very often is going to put a real crimp in the idea of actually finishing anything.

And finishing the first draft is essential to writing.  Making certain you finish that draft is the most important part[EBW1]  of both setting goals and scheduling your work.  Remember that if you do not finish anything, then all the worldbuilding/words/editing is wasted time.  New writers tend to get caught up in all the pre-writing material and think that it will make a better first draft.  However, I've seen a lot of these people three years later, still working on the same novel and not making any progress.  That's when a person has to start rethinking how they have structured their approach.

Every part of writing should be fun, of course -- but this should be the best part.  It's important to remember that having a good attitude toward writing is important.  This may sound odd, but you can enjoy writing in the most bitter or painful scenes you can imagine because it is just writing, even when it echoes something in your own life. These are only words -- don't let them scare you, and don't let them stop you from telling the story.

Enjoy this part of the project.  It's a gift few people have -- to entertain themselves and others out of nothing but the images in their minds.

Stage 3 -- Editing

Here we start into the more difficult part of the work, and the point where I tend to take on more than one project in different stages of the cycle.

Editing is best done when the story is cold, although it's not always possible, especially if you have deadlines to meet.  However, if you have the luxury of time, use it well.  Let the story sit for a while.  Even if you have worked on a novel for a year and not read or written on the first chapters for months, let the entire work sit.  The longer it can wait without editing, the better.  Get some distance between you and what you've written.

You need to get the story out of your head, as much as possible.  Then, when you go back to edit it you're going to be looking at it in a completely new light.  You are going to be a reader rather than a writer.  You can do a great deal of copyediting of your own work if you are willing to let it sit in the drawer -- or keep the file closed -- for a while.

The best way to get a story out of your head is to work on something else.  So, go back to Stage 1 and start something new.  It's all right.  You're never going to make a writing career on one story anyway.  Go find a few new ideas and leap into them.

Okay, so let's say that you have a few pieces lined up for the editing stage. What now?  Drop everything else and leap in?

I love writing new material.  I have too many ideas, and I'll never get them all written as it is.  And I have that pesky 'write every day' rule.  So I set up editing as just another, but separate, goal.  To be honest, I'm not as good at it as I have been with the 'new words' writing, despite the fact that I have far than enough new material to work through.

I would like to edit at least five pages a day.  I often fall short by not doing anything at all... but this is a relatively new goal for me.  It may take a couple years to work the process into my life.  Keep that in mind when you set up a set of goals and projects.  It can be difficult to get into the routine, or to find the pattern that works for you.  Try different things, but don't drop one section just because you'd rather do another part.  This is all part of being a writer.  You can't escape it.

Edits may take more than one pass.  Don't assume that one time through is going to make everything perfect, and don't get discouraged if it takes a lot of passes.  The story is still there.  Work with it, and make it the best you can.

What about critiques by others?   Shouldn't you send them off to your writing partners once you've finished the first draft and before you edit?

No.  Here's where you might make a little sub-step in the process.  I don't usually go to critique partners because too often I don't have the time to reciprocate.  But if you do have a partner or a writing group, you'll want to send the story to them, but not the first draft.  If you are working with a critique group, do at least one quick pass through the story correcting all the obvious mistakes before you send it on.  Don't waste the time of the others by leaving spelling corrections and name changes.  Use critique groups wisely to find the manuscript holes and logic breaches that you cannot, as a writer too close to the story, see. Don't use them as a copyedit service to correct problems that you can find yourself.

Once you get the material back from critique partners, look it over carefully.  I have one important rule that I always keep in mind: these are writers, and they may subconsciously try to change the story in ways that they would write it.  Keep track of your vision of the story.

After doing the edits based on critiques, let the story sit for some time and look it over again.  Edit again if necessary.  Whichever way you work -- editing on your own or with a critique group -- it is still important to put some distance between yourself and the work so that you can see it without the ghosts of your imagination painting in the shadows with things that you have not actually written.

Stage 4 -- Final Pass and submission

This stage is entirely different for short stories than for novels.  In short stories it's a matter of finding the market, reading the guidelines and writing a short cover letter. 

Novels have those troublesome query letters, synopses, and all that stuff.  But if you are going to write novels, doing that work is going to have to be part of your routine as well.

Once you get the edits done start looking at sending your manuscript out.  Do the proper work for finding the right market, and read their guidelines to see exactly what they want.  Don't get cold feet now.  You've gone this far, and you are a writer. Being a writer means that you will get rejections, and they are no reflection on whether you will ultimately fail or not.  The only way to fail is to give up or stop trying to improve.

 

Okay, so there are my four stages of writing.  I generally have something going in each of those phases at just about any time.  As long as you don't abandon one of the projects in the middle, the stages are sufficiently different that you can work on one manuscript in one stage and another in a different one.

You do not have to do this, however.  There is no reason why you can't work all the way through one project before you start another.  Some people have neither the time nor the inclination to juggle projects like this.  And you might finish a project faster if you stick with it all the way to the end. The only sticking point is the 'waiting before you edit' part.  But that might be a good time to get away from writing entirely, if you're inclined to that sort of madness.

Stage 1 -- Getting ready

Stage 2 -- Writing

Stage 3 -- Editing

Stage 4 -- Final Pass and submission

These four stages are a regular part of being a writer.  Make them part of your regular routine, in whatever manner you set up your process, and none of them will seem so overpowering.

Oh, and one final note...

Have fun.