Writing of THE MODERN GIRL’S HANDBOOK is now under way, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about process. I know, I know, that word sounds pretentious, but I mean it at the most practical of levels. I’m not talking so much about how I come up with my ideas—which is a question I get asked almost daily, and never have a good answer for. I’m always tempted to say I buy my ideas at Costco. Or maybe Target, which is the only store in the world where you can get underwear and a lawn mower and ideas. When I talk about process these days, I’m thinking more about the technicalities of writing, or maybe I don’t even mean process, after all. Maybe I’m talking about routine?
So I’ve taken to hiding out in Starbucks these days, though I used to prefer working at home. Chalk that up as change #4567 since the baby has been born. My commute is now a little bit longer (a seven minute walk) and I need to actually get dressed in the mornings. (Oh the horror of having to button pants on a regular basis! Really? Most people do that EVERY day?) I miss my pajamas terribly and I know the feeling is mutual because when I come home they jump right on me; Seriously, before I even give Elili a kiss hello, they have flung themselves across the room and are humping my legs. My husband, however, is pleased with the new arrangement, since this means he gets to see me actually wearing—gasp!—makeup. (Whenever that happens, I always half expect him to say, “Julie? Is that you under there?”) Anyhow, I assume you do not read this blog to find out about my sartorial choices, particularly because a friend (actually I’m going to put “friend’ in quotes here) once suggested I send in a video of myself for What Not To Wear. (Mean, right? And maybe not such a terrible idea...)
So back to process: I throw on some headphones and put on some classical music, which is my signal that it’s time to stop playing around on Facebook and Twitter and my three email accounts, and it’s time to start writing. I then open up a bunch of documents: 1) My work in progress, 2) My “editing draft.” 3) My “chapter list.” 4) My “character list.” 5) My “notes.”
My work in progress is exactly what it sounds like—my work to date. That’s the document where I get to see my book as a whole, and best of all to feel the satisfaction of the accumulation of pages. After I get to a certain point, say 25 or so pages, I start saving as a new document everyday, so I’ll have on my laptop TMGH 1, TMGH 2, etc., in case I ever need to return to an earlier draft.
My “editing draft,” on the other hand, is really my garbage pail—it’s where I put all the stuff I cut. Most of the time, when I dump a couple of paragraphs or sometimes whole chapters in there, they’ll never see the light of day. Occasionally, however, that draft comes in handy for a description or an idea that was just in the wrong place. Maybe the reader will be interested in the paragraph I wrote about Charlotte’s childhood obsession with LITTLE WOMEN, but not necessarily in Chapter Two. I also use it to trick myself into cutting some of the stuff that just doesn’t belong in the book. If I keep it alive in the halfway house of my “editing draft,” I can fool myself that it’s not work wasted. But, of course, wasting work is all part of the process, and this time I actually mean that in the pretentious sense of the word. (Sorry.) Oddly enough, my editing draft sometimes ends up almost as long as my actual manuscript. You know the expression you have to have money to make money? Well, I think you have to have lots and lots of sentences to make sentences.
My chapter list is pretty self explanatory—just a list and description of each chapter as I write—but I find it a helpful way, especially now that I have dual narratives, to keep track of plot. It gives me a meta view, and shows whether I’m creating a natural arc. The character list, even more mundane, is the place I keep track of character detail. I’m pretty lazy about this one, particularly because I hope I have each of my characters sufficiently stored in my mind’s eye by the time I start writing, but I think it’s good practice to keep it going, nonetheless.
And lastly, my notes, which may be my most important document next to the actual manuscript. This is my writer’s notebook. I have, of course, a bunch of actual notebooks scattered around the house for when inspiration hits and I don’t have my laptop handy, but often while I’m writing, this is where I pose questions to myself, or jot down my ideas. To an outside reader, it probably looks a lot like jibberish. It’s filled with vague phrases like “Charlotte’s relationship with money” or “Bernie hat symbol.” When I read it, though, I see a future novel.
So, that’s how my sausage is made. Or at least my first draft. But there are a million ways to write a novel, so if there are any other writers reading this, I’d love to hear about your process in the comments. Any suggestions? Do you buy your final drafts at Costco? And tell me the truth: do you take the time to put on proper pants?