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Last week #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter trended on Twitter. People posted some of the most discouraging and hurtful things they hear as a writer, adding that hashtag at the end. Certainly writers like to talk, and it's obvious by the trend that communication between writers and non-writers isn't always friendly.
It seems the perfect time for another writing conversations post. My goal with this series is to explain book writing in a simple, easy-to-understand process for people who don't write. Chances are, you have writing friends. The process may seem like a great mystery to you, or it may look like child's-play. In reality, writing is far from easy, and understanding makes conversations a lot friendlier. It requires sensitivity and consideration from both sides, but it's certainly not impossible.
1. The Idea
First, they have an idea. It's a baby idea, like the baby rhododendron I have sitting in our garden. If I don't water it in this hot water, it's going to die. Sometimes authors get excited and share their ideas too soon. They want everyone to love it. They want you to love it. It's probably not a perfect idea; (it might even be terrible) but most writers put together some pretty illogical elements that later get refined into a good story. So don't get scared if it sounds kind of shaky. Just tell them to go for it; their own inner editor will generally kill or reshape the idea before they get too far. :)
What they need at this stage: Encouragement. Don't be an editor yet. When they come with shiny eyes like a proud mommy with her newborn, just coo and cuddle it. Be their hero at this stage. Don't kill ideas for them. And remember, they are specially in tune to skepticism, even if you never say anything.
2. The Research
Then they have to research. Even if it's a children's story, they have to research. If it's historical fiction, they have to research everything from character's underclothes to gun production to medical facts. They have to research historical figures, geography, science, character personalities, and methods of childbirth (most every writer has a baby in their story). They might not use everything they're researching (I had to scrap my extensive NICU research for one story) but even if they don't, they can probably use it in another story, so it's never wasted time.
What they need at this stage: You can pass on book suggestions that you've read about their subject or links you think might help. You can drive them to the library for books and internet. Or if you want to offer financial investment, you could sponsor a class in the subject they need help in.
3. The First Draft
This is where things start to get messy. Blood and carnage messy. The idea was so shiny and pretty, and now they have to get it out on paper. You remember English classes in school where you had to write a short story or a poem? Multiply that by 100,000 words and you've got the first draft process. (If it was easy for you, then don't tell anyone.) It's hard to make the characters act naturally, follow a logical story line, use sensory description, use good grammar, and keep track of all the things they've researched. Writers have to do all that at the same time.
What they need: Probably a lot of things. Encouragement. (Writers always need that.) Computer time. Chocolate bars are always nice. You could give them a shoulder to cry on if you're comfortable with that. (They'll cry periodically throughout the process.) Pry them away for a walk to clear their head, but don't be offended if they need to say no. Pray for them a lot. They will cling to your prayers.
You'll need things too. But that's another article for another time.
4. The Second Draft
This looks like the first draft, except the end product will turn out a lot better than the first draft. It still needs some work to make it a good story, but it might not make them want to throw up anymore. See step 3 for suggestions on how to help them.
5. Beta Reading
This is the step where they find other readers and writers to read their book and pick it apart. Beta (or test) readers have orders to say anything they want about all the flaws and where it needs improvement. They will meet people who don't like the story, aren't impressed by the characters, and bring some pretty huge issues they didn't even notice. They'll also meet people who love what they love--so it's going to be a roller coaster of ecstasy and despair. For an author, it's about the same amount of torture as standing up in the middle of the room and having people discuss improving their looks.
What they need: When you know an author friend who's about to get feedback, give them a hug. No matter how nice the beta reader, they will always need it. If you're a good reader, and can give good feedback in a timely fashion, you could say you're available to read it. But make sure they don't feel obligated. If you're not a reader, be a sounding board they can process advice with. They will be working through a lot of criticism, and that's not an easy process. Technically they shouldn't talk to the beta reader about it, so if you are able to be a good counselor, then that might be a gift to them.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5
You thought that was it? Not by a long shot! After beta readers comb through the book, the author takes their suggestions and makes changes. Lots of times they're big changes. A character nobody liked. Changing the timeframe of the story. Adding sensory description (taste, touch, smell) or cutting long, descriptive paragraphs. Fixing story lines that don't make sense, or are boring, or need to be completely taken out. Then they send it back to the beta readers, and ask "Is it good now?" And the answer, most likely, is "better, but not there yet." So the author will fix it again, and repeat the steps as many times as possible until they have it right.
What they need: Wait through 3 of these editing/beta reading cycles before you ask if they're overdoing it. The minimum of regular books is at least 3 edits. Some people have to do up to 6 or 8. These are people who are working hard to make their book beautiful. Instead of saying "Are you done yet?" try instead, "I appreciate how you care about good writing." They will love you so much. After three tries, give them a kick in the pants to consider writing a query letter. They will probably need a little outside prodding at some point.
Some writers stop at this point. They don't really want/need to get published, and they just want to write stories. But for those who wish to make their writing a serious focus and possible career, they'll go further:
7. Write Proposals
All writers need an agent. An agent is a qualified and recognized individual who takes their book to a publisher and tells the publisher they think it has potential. To get an agent, authors have to write a long document called a proposal. This proposal explains their qualifications as a writer, other books being sold that are like theirs, and a summary of what happens in their novel.
What they need: Probably this is a stage they'll have to work by themselves, but if you're a good proofreader, offering to proofread their proposal would be a gift to them.
8. Build Platform
All authors have to 'build platform'. That means they have to persuade lots of people to like them. This shows the publishers that the people who like them will probably buy their book. When they're just starting, probably not a lot of people care, because they don't have something specific to care about. This can be a hard stage before they're published, when they need followers to convince the publisher to publish them.
What they need: Encouragement (again.) Brainstorm promotional ideas with them. If you want to go the extra mile, tell your friends about them. Get them Twitter followers. Retweet, reshare, send email links.
It takes hope to work through bad first drafts, courage to send it to beta readers, and self-discipline to revise again and again until the book is something readable. If you have a friend, sibling, or other relative going through this process, I hope these explanations of each step will help you have more informed conversations with them. Writers love talking about their writing--and your interest may just be the tipping point between a book that gets published, and yet another unfinished draft. You're an important part of their health as a person, and the health of their life writing--and it's a whole lot easier to help someone when you have an idea on what they're working on. :)
We'll be covering other aspects of the writing process in future, including the editing process, what writers are afraid of, how to pray for them, and more! Feel free, if you have questions or things to add, to leave a comment. I'd love to talk more with you! :)
Check out post one How to Talk to a Writer (For All Non-Writing Friends).