Behind every book on your bookshelf or e-reader lies another story. A story of imagination, effort, perseverance and doubt. A story that, for its protagonist, was not just a story, but his or her entire life.
Read that paragraph in a deep, ominous voice and it sounds a little like a trailer for an overblown Hollywood movie. But it’s the truth. The story behind the story – how that book went from the germ of an idea to a complete and crafted narrative on the page or screen – is perhaps just as interesting as the book itself. Just how does this strange alchemy occur?
I can only speak for myself, of course – I’d love to hear about other writers’ experiences – but for me it often begins with something tiny: an anecdote, a news headline, an overheard snatch of gossip – even, on occasion, the half-remembered fragment of a dream. Something, at some point, sparks an idea – and, unlike the thousands of other ideas that swirl around the brain on an average day, this one has some considerable staying power. It keeps floating to the top of your mental stew. You keep on thinking about it, re-examining it, teasing it apart and putting it back together again. It becomes something of an obsession. It becomes, indeed, the starting-point for a story.
Not all ideas make it, of course. A process of natural selection comes into play. Many ideas are just weak – too weak to survive, and certainly too weak to become a book. Sooner or later, they wither and die. Others, though, endure. They may be murky and formless at this stage, but gradually they gain (and occasionally lose) momentum and clarity, and crystallise. At this point in the process, you may not be doing much at all in the conventional sense. But your brain is hard at work, gradually turning that little idea into something like a storyline.
Finally, you actually begin to write. Perhaps, at this early stage, you just jot down notes, plot lines, or character outlines. But eventually you begin to write in earnest. I write my first draft at some speed, concentrating on just getting the story down, not worrying too much about the niceties. The end result is more like a long synopsis than a finished manuscript, a synopsis complete with dialogue and descriptive passages. Writing the first draft is fun, carefree creativity. You should make the most of it, because the really hard graft is yet to come.
Anyone can write a bad first draft (and your first draft, unless you’re a genius, is likely to be pretty bad). Turning this ungainly scrawl into a complete, polished work requires time, patience, and numerous rewrites. You take the first draft to pieces and examine it in almost forensic detail. Does this plot point work? Is that character believable? Does the dialogue sound natural or wooden? Is that the correct choice of word? Does it convey what you wanted it to convey?
Eventually, after a great deal of hard work and a great many crises of confidence, you have something that resembles a completed book. But you haven’t finished yet. The self-publishing revolution has enabled just about anyone to turn just about anything out into the Amazon jungle, but it’s a good idea to seek other opinions before you release your book into the wild. Honest, intelligent beta readers are essential, picking up on things that you never even noticed, drawing your attention to any underlying problems or weaknesses.
When you’ve considered your beta readers’ feedback – and assuming that there aren’t any major flaws or issues that will require more serious intervention – it’s time for at least one more rewrite, followed by a great deal of tweaking, editing, proofreading and formatting. This is the final stage: smoothing down any last rough edges, cleaning up, focusing on those tiny little details and flaws that perhaps only you can see.
And then it’s over. You’ve done your bit; what happens next is largely out of your hands. Putting your book out there into the big, wide world is sad – you have to say goodbye to something that’s been a big part of your life for a long time – and scary – what if everybody hates it? But it’s also liberating. Whatever else happens, you’ve done your best…