All the Juicy Details of My Writing & Editing Process

To all those who create,
To all believe in dreams,
To those who hold pen, iPad, or laptop,
To those who make it up and write it down,
And finally those who believe in damn good story,
I offer this detailed expression of…not what I do, exactly; more like how I do it.

May it aid, inform, inspire, and upset you.
Take it, trash it, steal it, transform it.
If somehow it helps you find your own version of the following,
It’s tenfold worth the effort of defining the imaginary.

My Writing & Revision Process

Last updated: April 1, 2014

1st Draft – Handwritten
2nd Draft – Typing It Up
3rd Draft – Red Ink Revision
4th Draft – Sound, Language, & Continuity (Alpha)
5th Draft – Alpha to Beta
6th Draft – The Final Draft


1st Draft – Handwritten

 I’ve got a pretty good handle on this.  The keys are letting it happen, exaggeration, and getting out as much of what I see as possible.  I envision myself as a sculptor working with clay.  I like that medium because it can be reworked, re-smooshed,  and re-moistened, at least to a certain point.  That feels like me, with my stories.  I’ve got to have a plan, and if it doesn’t work after a few tries, it’s time to let that clay dry out or throw it back into the mental vat which is the creative-ether of the Imaginary Playground – the substructure beneath the merry-go-round and the jungle gym and the feet of all my screaming people.  It’s the building blocks of them, in fact.

There’s room for adjustment during the process, though.  I can even cut off hunks of clay and slap some fresh stuff on what’s already there.  There’s no wrong way at this point, but there are a few factors to consider:

Consistency.  Once I start a project, I need to work on it every day until it’s done, or I tend to lose the thread of the narrative, and also the details become more nebulous.  This leads to confusion later, sometimes even outright paradox.

Concentration.  My mind is always full of ideas – it’s the nature of the Imaginary Playground – but once I start listening to one, all the others have to take a number.  Sure, little bits pop through, and those go into Evernote or the journal, but the majority of my writer’s senses must stay with the tale at hand.

Commitment.  Once I’m involved in a story, I have to accept that there will be rough patches, roadblocks, doubts, and fears…and I have to let them all go straight to hell.  This draft is about getting the story out, not making it perfect.

 2nd Draft – Typing It Up

 This is where I transcribe my handwritten draft into the computer.  During this time, I may make word choice corrections  or rearrange an obviously awkward sentence.  Questions, observations, missing info, or other thoughts for later go in brackets.  I had been using <xyz> but it strikes me now that I could use [these brackets] without a shift-keystroke.  Hmmm…  Either way, they stand out from the narrative and are visually hard to miss.  That way I won’t have to worry overmuch about leaving them in when I move on to later drafts.

The key here is getting it all out to a workable form, as quickly as possible.  Backing up and saving often, off-drive is important and probably why I should start saving all drafts in the cloud.  It saves me time and gives me access no matter where I am, what device I have, and if I have a computer snafu the draft doesn’t require rescue.

By getting it out, I mean I want to type quickly, not get bogged down with trying the “figure out” the snags, rough patches, plot holes, and so on.  It’s easy to get discouraged when there’s a problem or a mistake, but fixing that schtuff isn’t the point of this draft.  It’s not getting fixed without some forethought.  To continue with the clay metaphor, you’re getting it ready for the shaping here, not doing much beyond the very obvious and minor corrections.

For those situations where I can’t do a quick in-line annotation, I’ll make a not of the page in the Evernote file associated with that particular story.  Then I’ll move on, and keep doing what I’ve prescribed here, until the whole story is a typed manuscript.

Finally, I’ll print it out.

 3rd Draft – Red Ink Revision

 This is where I refine my clay from rough shape to a much closer approximation of the final product.  Here, I work with the story, the plot, and the language, going word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, looking…not at the whole, but at the nuance, the fullness, and clarity of the tale.  Starting from the top and working through the end, I read and mark up each page with my merciless editor’s eye and a red pen.  I line-out, mark and change whatever I need to, to whatever degree is necessary for my satisfaction. Large revisions take place in the journal, not on the actual manuscript, although on the actual MS there will be a circled number with a corresponding revision handwritten in the journal.  This avoids multiple drafts and/or the further fucking up of something that was already fucked up.  Plus it lets me test out different approaches to a problem before I commit to a solution.

And – it also makes me have to take a second and third look at what I’ve written as a replacement, in order for the new text to be “caught up” to the original 2D text.

When I reach the end of the manuscript, I go back to the beginning and input the changes one at a time, paying attention to getting them in without error, if they’re small. and if they’re big, in-journal revisions, I’ll actively rewrite them as a work, according to the rules above.  New thing: I should mark those passage-sized revisions for another look, so I can stick to the plan and get it all up to the same snuff.  Let’s use the color BLUE.

 4th Draft – Sound, Language, & Continuity (Alpha)

 This is a new step, so it’s still in its evaluation period.  I can either read from the computer or I can print and read again, but either way I’m reading the whole fuckin’ thing aloud.  I want to catch missing words, punctuation, or poor language, and letting my ear have a crack at the manuscript is a great idea.

I will read aloud with a highlighter in hand [color?].  When I encounter a passage where I don’t care for the sound, or I find an error, I’ll mark it with the highlighter.  Then – and this is the important part – I will keep reading without working out the exact changes needed.  If I stop and rewrite, I’ll never develop and/or discern the rhythm of the story.  It’ll always sound herky-jerky, and that’s the opposite of the point here.  I’m looking for continuity, foremost in tone, but I think I’ll also identify plot issues, typos I’d miss when reading in my head, and inconsistencies of detail.  For those, I might have to keep a pen around for quick notes, but that’s a maybe at this point.  I might be able to do that with the highlighter.  Quick notes.

At the end of each session in this process, I will also update a ROUGH SYNOPSIS which I will keep in Evernote.  This will enable me to create a more polished version for when I send the story out (for novels), or a quick-hit for a cover letter (in the short work case).  This should take no more than 10 minutes at this point.

When I reach the end, I will go through each of my highlights from beginning to end and make changes and/or corrections.  This may or may not take a chunk of time, depending on how much modification is necessary, but IT IS NECESSARY.  The story will be better for it.

Finally, PRINT this Alpha Draft and give it to Margie (my first reader).

 5th Draft – Alpha to Beta

 In this draft, I will meticulously evaluate and fix each and every issue Margie finds with the Alpha Draft.  I’ll go page-by-page and cross off each change as I fix it.

After that, I’m going to read it – probably just on the computer – from a reader’s perspective, just to see how it swims in its natural environment.  The key to looking at the work from the reader’s POV: does it engage and subsequently hold attention?  Does the story flow without any gaps or moments where the writer knows but isn’t really getting it out on the page?  And most importantly, start-to-finish, is it fun?

I’ll also compare this draft to the synopsis in Evernote, and expand and/or alter that synopsis as I go.

Finally, PRINT this Beta Draft and give it to your Beta Readers, whom I will tell to be hones and unsparingly critical.  That’s why they get the first crack at it.  I need to negotiate deadlines with them so I know when I’m getting my feedback, and I need to be flexible in that not everybody will be able to do this for me every time.  I need to control the process so I don’t bog down.

 Potential Beta Readers:

insert here


6th Draft – The Final Draft

 If the beta readers had corrections or suggestions, those are incorporated here.  I will check Evernote and be sure all noted issues are resolved.  If I have any nagging worries, ideas, or concerns, this is the time I fix or dismiss them for good.

When finished, I back up the file, give Margie a copy so she can see the final, identify missing words and typos (there shouldn’t be many if I was diligent through the drafts), and give any last thoughts.  On-the-fly corrections can be made here, and if there are any bigger problems, they’ll be identified before the story goes out to strangers.


 Last thing: SEND IT OUT!

What the hell did you go to all this trouble for if you’re not releasing it?  It’s done, right?  That’s the whole point of getting this out there, like this.  It’s a great story.  Get it in front of people.

The Stories Behind “Thong-Sized Stories”

ThongSizedStoriesCoverIf you’re the type who wonders where authors’ ideas come from, or how those ideas develop, here’s some insight into Thong-Sized Stories.  Get your print or digital copy here.

Be warned: this section may contain spoilers.

 Lunch With Daddy – My writers’ group has a tradition of working with writing prompts every time we meet.  It’s a way for us to do some free-form, no-pressure writing.  I try to let my mind wander as I do it, like imaginative play; sometimes I wind up with a story like this.  I think the prompt was, “Write about the contents of a trash can.”

 The Turkey Incident – The creative person’s imagination never really stops.  I came up with this wacky story on the way to my day job on Black Friday 2012 as a means to keep my coworkers’ minds off their hangovers.  At some point during the commute, I realized voodoo reanimation and its effect on Turkey Day was a fun idea to play with, and so I did.  After half a dozen oral tellings, where I kept adding details and embellishments, the vast majority of the story was in my head.  All I had to do was set it down on paper.  I chose the first-person narrator for the immediacy of the voice, and because it allowed me to directly transpose my oral telling to the page.  It’s the longest thong-sized story, but hey, big people wear thongs, too.

 The Shaman’s Folly – This is another story from a writers’ group prompt.  I don’t remember the exact lead-in, but it had to do with hearing a heartbeat.  Giving myself permission to mentally wander got this one out right there, in one sitting.

 The Things We Do For Love – At some point or another, we’ve all known someone who makes us misbehave.  This story is an exaggeration of the concept, taken to an extreme somewhere in the neighborhood of Natural Born Killers.  It’s also the germ of a writing prompt, and the youngest story in the collection.

Three Drunken Frat Boys – I’d been studying “Three Billy Goats Gruff” for a while, because it factored into another story I was writing.  Then I found myself teaching the idea of structural parody to my writers’ group.  For those of you who don’t write, a structural parody is a tool for learning how to plot in which you create your own story while sticking to the point-by-point happenings of a well-known tale.  As part of my instruction, I created this story as an example of what we were trying to accomplish in our meeting.  I think it’s a fun take on a known commodity, even if it’s (naturally) predictable.

 Pilot Chatter – An experiment in sound and language which took years to develop.  I’m pretty sure it started off one night when I wasn’t sober, which is the one time I usually don’t write since my ideas in that state always sound better than they really are.  I was bullshitting the check-check dialogue, annoying my wife with it.  Usually that’s where those ideas end, but this one stuck with me, rising back to the top of the Imaginary Playground in my mind again and again.  Eventually I wrote a draft as a sort of purging action, decided it was too weird, and put it in a drawer for a few years.  Still it haunted me, right up until I realized it was the perfect size for this collection.  It was one of the last stories I completed for inclusion here, partly because I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I could make it work, and partly because I had to be sure it told enough of a story to be worthy of that name.  It’s an art piece – weird, weird art that makes me happy.

 Business News – I listen to news on the radio a lot in the car.  I’m also a strange guy.  One day, while listening to yet another story about a massive recall of cars, I started thinking about the male reproductive system as a business.  Specifically, I was thinking about STDs and what that would mean for a philandering man who spread his seed around, then had to tell everybody about contracting something nasty.  If the body was a business, it would issue a product recall.  The story itself is an exercise in walking the line between stylistic parody and vulgarity, which I’ve gotta say is pretty damn hard to do.

Telegram Sex – Old-fashioned telegrams didn’t use punctuation, but rather the word STOP.  “Stop,” is a word one hopes not to hear in intimate encounters.  When I combined that thought with a musing of what phone sex was like before phones, I wound up with this story of two long-distance lovers who can’t quite get it right.

 ‘kay – When I was seventeen, I knew a girl like the narrator of this story.  Her crushes were all-consuming and swung from the heights of elation to the dungeons of dejection, sometimes within the same day, or even moment, such as in this story.  It only sounds obsessive from the point-of-view of half a life later, but what I remember most about that girl was her optimism, even when she encountered setbacks.  As near as I can recall (and keep in mind the original draft was written before the turn of the millennium), I wrote about her situation in an exaggerated, semi-fictional way in an attempt to capture that sunny spirt of youth.  ‘kay has gone through several metamorphoses over the years, becoming longer and more involved before I realized that the story is about a place, a person, a feeling, and most importantly, a single moment in the go-go-go world of high school.

Observations at Twilight – Early in 2013, I travelled to Florida to say goodbye to a sick relative.  After a particularly hard week where I didn’t have much time for writing, I found myself on a plane back to Chicago, in a window seat for the first time in quite a while.  Night was falling, and my eastward view of the patchy cloud cover was lit from the opposite side of the plane in all the warm colors of sunset.  I watched the day dissolve into evening, then night, and spent the remainder of the flight writing on my iPad.  The final draft of this story is a focusing of the cathartic freewriting I did at 33,000 feet, which itself was a way of working through some of my blossoming grief by finding the ups in a downbeat situation.