Saturday, May 24, 2014

From Idea to Published in 18 Months and Ten Steps. Step 3: Drafting the Manuscript
Operation Valuable Fiend
(Arcade Publishing, 2014)
In the series of blogs titled "From Idea to Published in 18 Months and Ten Steps," I have so far covered the first two steps of the process: (1) Coming up with a good idea you want to write about, and (2) Researching the topic so that you can develop the idea into your book.

Sooner rather than later, you should move forward to Step 3: Drafting the Manuscript, which is what I cover in this blog.

There are many schools of thought on how to go about drafting your work, how many drafts you should prepare, and so on. Eventually, you will develop your own process, maybe borrowing ideas from others, but mostly based on what works for you. Here's what works for me:

Draft 1. This first draft is a synopsis for the book. This is a brief rendition of the story that will be covered in the book. How brief? I keep it to within 4-5 pages, double-spaced, 12 point font -- between 1,200 and 1,500 words. Although it's not much, I try to cover the entire narrative arc of a story in the synopsis. I have a beginning, a middle, and an end; major twists and turns in the story are there; key characters are roughed in. Such an approach certainly works for fiction, and it works equally well for narrative non-fiction stories, which have been my focus recently.

Once I have the first draft/synopsis, I put it in the back burner for a while. I go back to continuing my research and let the story simmer in my head. If I want to run the concept by some trusted advisors, I can do it easily over a meal or a drink. It won't take them more than ten minutes to read through my 4-5 page synopsis and we can spend the balance of the time discussing the story.

In about two-three weeks, I know whether the story has enough pull for me to go to the next stage or whether it was just an idea that sounded good for the time but, for whatever reason, I may not want to go through for the moment. In the latter case, I have "lost" a little bit of my effort, but in fact I have validated my concept and determined that it is not fertile enough to warrant any more efforts. I'd rather kill the story when it is 1,500 words long than when it is 50,000 words long.

In the former case, I am ready to move to Draft 2.  This is a detailed outline of the book. I come up with the chapter structure and then flesh out each chapter to describe the line of events that it will cover. My goal for this draft is to have a structure of 15-20 chapters with 500-800 words each. The length of the draft is around 10,000 words by the time I am done.

Once Draft 2 is finished, I have another decision to make. If I still like the story as it has developed, and if I still feel I can spend the next several months working on it without getting bored, then I commit to finishing the project. Otherwise, I cut my losses. file the project away, and move on to something more promising -- this means going back to Step 1 and starting the process all over again. I may get back to the shelved story from a different angle at a later date or I may never touch it again.

Drafts 3 through N. If I commit to the project though, it means that there will be a book in the end, no matter how long it may take. I begin turning each chapter outline into fully developed narrative and typically go through several drafts before I reach a point where the story is "eighty percent complete." I don't know how I get there exactly -- I just somehow feel it when I am at that point. Perhaps the manuscript has reached 70,000-80,000 words, all the chapters have been developed, the story flows from beginning to end, I have sifted through most of my source materials, I have interviewed most of the people in my list, or all of the above.

Once I reach this point, I consider the drafting phase finished. I am now ready to move to Step 6: Finalizing the Manuscript. "Wait," you say. "Whatever happened to steps 4 and 5?"

I complete Step 4: Writing the Book Proposal, which then is followed naturally by Step 5: Negotiating the Contract at any point between the time I begin working on Draft 3 and the time I complete the final draft. I have developed book proposals that have been accepted when I have had just a detailed outline (Draft 2) or the full draft manuscript in hand, and anywhere in between.

So, then, stay tuned for the next three steps in the process.