How to write a book

Self-editing masterclass snapshots – how much will you write to create your book?

guardLast week I was back at The Guardian, teaching my course on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next couple of weeks.

You’ll write a lot of material that is not intended for publication

ideas book crop

One student who had taken a creative writing MA was bemused when her tutor set her the task of writing a scene from a different character’s point of view. This wasn’t intended to appear in the book; it was intended to encourage her to explore ramifications she hadn’t thought of. She said she found it a surprising idea, to create something that was never intended for publication.

We all have material we write that never reaches an audience. Sometimes this might be book ideas that don’t work out, or apprenticeship novels that are best filed in the ‘forget it’ drawer.

But those aside, a lot of our written output won’t end up between covers. I hadn’t thought about this until my student talked about this exercise, then I realised the amount of wordage we might write in order to get to the text.

In my own case this might be:

  • musings on the meaning of the central idea, to hone the themes and discover the story, maybe with an Undercover Soundtrack
  • ditto about characters, individual plot problems
  • outlines and refinements thereof, or scrawlings of events on cards
  • beat sheets for afterwards to aid revision
  • tryouts of story events from other points of view, like the exercise my student was set.

(Here’s my writing process in pictures.)

That looks like a colossal amount of wastage. If I look in the folder for Ever Rest, I have 68 exploratory documents, and some of them are 20-30 pages.

And then there’s the material that gets cut from the manuscript – even more pages written that the reader never sees. The novel that emerges is a super-concentrated distillate.

I hadn’t ever questioned this, but I realise that for some writers it seems odd. They often think that, except for a bit of polishing, every word they write is intended for the book.

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfresThere’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.

Next time: ‘My drafts are too brief’

So let’s continue the discussion. How much extra material do you write? Have you ever added it up?


27 thoughts on “Self-editing masterclass snapshots – how much will you write to create your book?

  1. I completely agree. I’ve written character studies, geographical material, notes about military organisation, arms and armour, medical research, and passages of story to get a feel for the mood, setting and characters. It’s like a giant scrapbook, creating my own reference work about the world I’m creating, for my eyes only. None of this will end up in the final cut. It’s just the same as writing non-fiction: you write a great deal in terms of background research which will never be seen by the reader.

    1. Morning, Henry! ‘A giant scrapbook’ – that’s a great name for it. It’s interesting to see what you’re including, especially the medical research. Some story elements will be generated from what was possible at the time, or from the special conditions of the setting.

  2. I often rewrite scenes from different perspectives, with various entry points, or different solutions, but each one I write I think of as a potential keeper, rewriting only when I think an alternative could be an improvement.

    1. Each scene a potential keeper – yes, that’s my thinking too. Then I’ll decide I should try just one more shoot, from a different direction… and the former version ends up in the outtakes file.

  3. Gah…for Vokhtah I had enough for a dictionary AND a mini encyclopedia of world facts. And then there was the outtakes folder. I don’t know how plotters do it, but I know I have to try things from a number of perspectives before all the pieces fall into place. Or not. lol

      1. True, but just like a real world setting, there’s a difference between what the author needs to know and what the reader needs to absorb [along with the story]. Getting that balance right is one of the toughest jobs in writing, imho.

  4. Excellent fact Roz, thanks for taking this idea and other student questions in smaller bites.. May I reblog this on Monday? I run the Author Support Group for Redwood Writers, the largest branch of the California Writers Club, and I would like new writers to see that writing craft and skill is built by daily work, adding up to years of work.

    As far as I know overnight success tends to be built from writing millions of words, hundreds of pages never to see other eyes.

    1. A reblog? Very kind of you – thanks! And you’re SO right about the overnight success. Practise, practise, practise… I doubt that even 10,000 hours is enough – but as many writers here have said, the journey is rewarding in itself.

  5. I just reworked the timeline on my memoir and it means cutting huge sections that occurred outside that timeline and writing new sections. I’m feeling very daunted by it all even though it’s the right thing to do. This post is very reassuring that I’m not alone. All writers need to do a lot more writing than what is just in the book. And of course, those scenes I cut can be saved for a future project.

  6. I write as preparation for writing, to work out what I’ll be drafting, and I write to work through problems. I got down ideas, background, character psychology, plot and scene outlines, etc. I used to teach my university students that writing is a process, not an event, and now that I am writing full-time I find that writing through the entire process is very helpful. By the time I get done, I expect I’ll have written at least ten or twenty words (conservatively) for each one in the publishable end product.

    1. Hi Lisa! ‘Writing is a process. not an event’ – yes, a good way to put it. And I haven’t seen anyone express this as a percentage like that – I’d agree that’s probably conservative. On a similar note, I’ve decided to count every revision I do for Ever Rest, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I go through the manuscript fifty times before it’s ready.

  7. great stuff here Roz. i am just learning this, that there is so much more that winds up in the drawers and or the trash, that will never get seen by anyone other than me. But it’s all part of the process isn’t it???

  8. I’m afraid I don’t really have much to add to what you said, but I’m REALLY looking forward to your post on short drafts. Mine always, always come up short and it drives me crazy! I’ve searched for advice on the internet but so much of it concerns what to do when your draft is too long, not too short.

  9. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Does writing 50,000 words mean you have a novel?

    Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say writing 100,000 words, then throwing away 50,000 of them means you finally have a novel.

    Check-out this re-blog from Roz Morris…

  10. I have close to 19k words in my discarded prose folder in scrivener. some of it made it back in, but the sheer size of the folder is part of what’s convinced me to NEVER pants another novel again.

    I have another 10k in book journal entries, research notes, writing exercises, and character notes.

    1. Ho ho, Angela! Although that wastage looks like a lot, it’s hardly anything – so you must have been quite focussed despite your lack of outline. I just opened the outtakes folder of Ever Rest and it’s 30k. And I’m nowhere near finished.

  11. Oh dear. I have a different problem. I have to go through my first draft and ADD things. I need to expand on settings and motivation as I am so bound up in my story I forget the reader does not know as much as I do.
    I know we are supposed to write in scenes but we also need to help the readers visualise what we imagine and understand our characters.
    My notes are birthdays and previous experiences. My settings are often places I have visited. It is only my next book which will have discarded sheets as that was the first one I planned – the other five just wrote themselves!

    1. Thanks, Julie – we have some interesting methods emerging here. I like the idea of a draft where you don’t explain for the reader, but fill those parts in later. It sounds like a good way to keep the ideas flowing.

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.