A while back, fan Keith Johnson asked a deceptively simple question: “How has your writing changed from your first book to the last one?”
As I’ve explained elsewhere, my first published novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, was an idea I’d nursed from 1980 to its publication in 2007. My second novel, Blood Groove, as well as my most recent, Wisp of a Thing, were all written (at least in initial drafts) before I was published, so their composition had the luxury of time.
That meant that I could write them, put them aside, come back to them with a fresh mental palate (sometimes after years) and revise/polish them some more. This became a crucial part of my process, and it’s something I recommend in my writing classes. Some writers produce almost perfectly finished first drafts, but most of us need to revise, and to do that, we need the objectivity only time away from a project can really provide. And luckily, that’s easy to get when you’re unpublished.
Now, though, I typically contract for a novel before I start writing. After all, now it’s my job, no longer just a hobby. I might produce an outline, or even a vague proposal, but the actual writing commences once I know someone’s going to pay me for it. And I’m just one part of the machine (a crucial one, I like to think). Publishing is an industry, a business, and other professionals (cover designers, marketers, etc.) depend on me completing my part on time. This means deadlines, which luckily I learned to respect as a reporter.
That’s why I work with the editor to set a deadline that allows me to do the best work I can; after all, they don’t want a crappy book any more than I do. And I try to build into that schedule a chance to finish the draft, put it aside for a while, and then come back to it fresh for revision. I don’t get years for it anymore; I have to settle for weeks.
But the important thing is to clear my head of the project, so to help with that, I try to work on something totally unrelated. For example, I recently finished a draft of a horror novel I wrote “on spec,” which means it’s not contracted for with any publisher; it was simply a story I wanted to tell. Now I’m working on the third novel in my Tufa series, Long Black Curl, as different a story as there could be. By the time I finish that first draft of this, I’ll be ready to go back to the horror novel, which in turn will help clear the ol’ palate for revising Long Black Curl.
So the big change has been creating a structure in which the things I know I need–time away from a project, for example–are part of the process. That way I don’t have to beg for more time, or turn in an unsatisfactory (to me, at least) final draft.
Or, to put it another way, now everything counts.
Now, how has the actual writing changed? I don’t know. I truly hope I’ve gotten better. But only readers can say.
Thanks for the question, Keith!