Keep those entries coming! Please remember to post in the official contest thread, which will be open until 4:00 PM Pacific Time today. Meanwhile, here’s Lisa on the writing (and revision!) process that went into ROCK PAPER TIGER.
Ian Rankin, he of the best-selling Inspector Rebus mystery series, once said, and I am wildly paraphrasing here, “If I knew what was going to happen, why write the book?”
That’s pretty much how I work. I can’t actually think of a story if I try to outline one. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I want to find out. So I write it.
The downside of working this way is that I frequently write in a state of vague panic, because I have no idea if the story is going to work until I type “End,” and sometimes not even then.
The process through which I came up with Rock Paper Tiger was typically messy.
I’d decided that I wanted to write a book set primarily in contemporary China. I’d lived in China years ago, been traveling there regularly for the past 10 years, and I speak some Chinese.
As a writer, I tend to be inspired by place. In another life, I would have been a journalist, I think. I like to observe in close detail, to anchor my work in an environment, real or imagined, that has concrete specificity. Today’s China is a setting that I know pretty well, that I felt I could handle with some authority, and that not many Western writers had used, at least not effectively.
I am also often inspired by current events. There was something that one of the soldiers implicated in the Abu Ghraib scandal said that had stuck in my head. It went, roughly: “I’m a good Christian. I teach Sunday School. But there’s a part of me that likes to see a grown man piss himself in fear.”
Well, I needed to know what that was about.
I’m a news junkie and for many years was a researcher by profession. When I am writing, I do seek out specific details that I need for a story, but I also cast a wide net and obsessively soak up as much information as I can. In the case of RPT, I knew that I wanted to deal with Iraq and the War on Terror, but I didn’t necessarily know what it was that I needed to know. By immersing myself in the subject, reading far too many articles about the war and how it was conducted on a macro level by the policy-makers, and also, on a micro level, about the daily life of troops serving in country, I had a better idea of what was important, what was relevant—what the story needed to be about.
I also had this notion that I wanted there to be a conspiracy of some sort, and given China, that maybe it should have something to do with online gaming, which is hugely popular there. I’d also wanted there to be airships, because I’m obsessed with them, but ultimately I had to throw the blimps out (Dammit).
The challenge then became how to take these disparate elements and craft them into a cohesive narrative.
I wrote Rock Paper Tiger when I was working full-time in a pretty demanding job, so basically I wrote from about 10 PM – well, that’s when I’d start thinking about writing, but generally I didn’t really dig into it till closer to 11 – until 1, 2 AM. Almost every night during the work-week, longer on weekends. I never got quite enough sleep, and I was always vaguely cranky till maybe mid-afternoon. And I drank a ton of coffee. Also wine.
I’ll skip over the ridiculous number of hours it took for me to write some semblance of a book and fast-forward to when I queried Nathan, and he expressed an interest in working with me on the MS.
One of the problems with the original version of RPT was that it fell between too many genres. Six of them, I think. Nathan was willing to look at a rewrite of the book, if I took it in a certain direction.
I’d had another agent read the book, and this agent had suggested I take a direction that to me didn’t make much sense. Nathan’s ideas, on the other hand, were in line with my own. So I said, “sounds good!” and got to work.
This is key. You may find as you go through this process that you get “revise and resubmit” responses. Those can be incredible opportunities. But you need to distinguish between agents (and editors) whose vision resonates with your own and those who really want you to write a different book. And maybe you’re willing to write that different book. But I wasn’t. It would have taken me too far away from the vision that inspired me to write my book in the first place.
It can be tough to learn what advice to take and what to discard. Again, you have to find what resonates with you, and also, to accept that sometimes the feedback that you find the most painful is that which points to something you really need to work on.
The revisions on this book were primarily about narrowing its scope, paring away elements that threatened to push it into genres where we didn’t want it to go. That meant cutting a lot of Ellie’s backstory and life in the States between her time in Iraq and her present-day adventures in China. Even though I ended up not using this material, having written it was not at all a waste of time – it helped me understand and develop Ellie’s character at a deeper level than if I hadn’t done that work.
The other major structural changes came from a constant fiddling/reordering of the “present day” plot with the flashback plot – where did it make the most sense to place flashback scenes in the present day story? It was a real challenge, because I needed them to make sense story-wise, and more importantly, I had to maintain the flow and the tension of the book as a whole.
Tension. That’s a big one.
I think this applies to any genre, but when you are writing a book with thriller elements, you absolutely have to craft every scene with tension, to take that narrative thread and pull it tight. This was and is a real challenge for me, and it’s probably what took me the most time in the revisions.
As for the amount of time the revisions took, let’s just say “a lot.” After Nathan and I started working together, I revised for a solid seven months, and that was putting in a lot of hours (SEE: “Sleep-deprived, cranky, over-caffeinated” above. Oh, and add to that “minimal social life”).
The upside of all this labor? When Soho Press bought the book, my dreaded “editorial letter” was all of a couple short paragraphs. I still would have a lot to do for them in advance of publication, but the tough creative work was mostly behind me. I’m not naïve enough to think that this will always be the case for future books, but I would much rather take the time on the front end, before the MS goes to the editor, and save myself whatever work I can when I’m actually under contract.
Every writer is different and I’m not one to impose my own methods on others (it wouldn’t be nice, unless you too are a fan of sleep-deprivation, panic and caffeine). But here are a few thoughts about process that I think apply whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.
Be patient. Everyone talks about the need for patience during the querying and submission process – I mean, there’s not much choice there. Things take as long as they take, and they aren’t in your control. But I’m talking about being patient with yourself when you are writing, and that is a choice. I’ve seen too many writers rush their revisions in the desire to finish the damn thing and get it out the door, and while I understand just how much they want to get it done and make it go away and get that book contract already, a hasty process rarely leads to quality results. Sometimes you need to slow down, step back, take a nice long walk and let the ideas marinate a while.
Take risks. Think deeply. Care about what you write. Have the ego and non-gendered balls to think that your work is important. Write what moves you, what entertains you and sometimes, what pains you. Dig into the places in yourself that hurt the most and see what you find. Sometimes that’s where your book is hiding.
Mel Skinner says
Thanks for this post. Congrats and much luck with the sales!
Debra Driza says
Awesome post, Lisa–and I so love the support for pantsers, er, us organic writing folks. 😀 It gives me hope for my WIP, which I really, really wanted to outline, but just couldn't for the life of me.
(P.S. Just started your book and 'tis awesome. Boo that I'm missing out on our meeting next weekend! 🙁
Valerie L Smith says
It's encouraging to read about other people who ditch the outline. And I'm comforted to know that published authors don't sit at a desk and whip out a perfect manuscript on the first or even second attempt.
Unrepentant Escapist says
Thanks for the insightful comments. Good luck on this and future books!
Stephen Prosapio says
Good post Lisa!
Having read Rock Paper Tiger already I can say that your process worked!!! Fantastic book.
Best you go look at Scott Westerfield's new title. The book trailer is brilliant.
Kristi Helvig says
Lisa, thanks for such an inspiring post! I'm also not an outliner and have no idea where I'm going until I get there, but that's part of the fun of writing for me. I can't wait to read your book – congrats!
Ben Campbell says
My thesis is to enjoy the process, voyage, expedition, excursion, crossing, passage and much more. Thanks for spilling your compelling journey into this blog.
Nicole L Rivera says
Thank you for your post, it made me feel better about where I am with my writing. I pray you have tons of success with your book, and many more books to come.
Jan O'Hara (aka hope101) says
I've said this to you before, Lisa, but I take perverse comfort in the fact your process and revisions took so long because I can see how well they turned out for you.
Oh! And count me as another who snorted at the non-gendered balls. This is a lovely post and the balls the…er, icing on the cake.
John Philipp says
Lisa, what an illuminating peek into the writing process, at least from your point of view. I found it very useful.
I've read RPT and thoroughly enjoyed it, so all those things you talked about revising clearly went well.
Good luck on the book circuit.
Yay, Lisa, and congratulations! I'm glad that you're hard work is paying off. Thanks so much for posting, as well. Your insights are inspirational.
I use place extensively too, and I am a journalist, so I can identify with that, if not with China so much. Getting good professional advice that makes sense in accordance with your vision for the story is key. I've done that too as to tone and length. It's made both of my books much better by knowing what to avoid and what to explore in more depth. Also I learned that to call something a thriller one must give equal time, or something resembling it, to the villain. Spanning genres makes a tough sale.
Taking on hot social issues in fiction can be polarizing for some readers, and agents, but with the right agent and publishing house it can work as it has in Lisa's case.
Lisa, what great encouragement for us. Thanks for the insights and the details of your writing process.
Just got my copy of Rock, Paper, Tiger today and I plan to dive in as soon as I post this. Good luck and have many, many sales.
Thanks for this wonderful post. We hear/read so much advice from well established writers – it is truly inspiring to have these words of wisdom from someone just launching into orbit! Thank you!
James Rafferty says
Lisa, wonderful post. I've heard you say some of this before, but loved hearing more on the specifics of how you ended up with the final version of RPT. You continue to be an inspiration to all of the writing wombats.
Good post. Great book! I hope you find a way of getting airships into your next book.
A description of the writing process with which I can unequivocally identify, Lisa, though my sins extend also to beer in large quantities and the chain smoking of fat cigars. Whatever it takes. Well done for making it through the wringer.
You comment on changes that Nathan suggested and with which you complied in a re-write (or at the least heavy edit). I presume you believe 'RPT' benefited, I hope in the artistic as well as commercial sense.
When thinking about 'queries, editing, what's commercial enough to get through the mangle', I often ponder on Malcolm Lowry's experience trying to publish 'Under the Volcano'. After many years, he finally got a bite from Jonathan Cape, who, however 'suggested' major changes, such as reducing the number of chapters from 12 to six amongst other modest demands.
In response, Lowry wearily composed a 20,000 word rebuttal, explaining the architecture of his novel and why this would be destroyed if he even began to comply with anything that had been asked of him. Basically, he ended the correspondence by saying, very politely, of course, 'I sent you guys a novel. Do you want to publish it, or do you not.'
A mild account of this exchange in Lowry's own words appeared in a preface to first the French edition of the novel.
The clash between artistic integrity and commercial realism began to take off several decades ago, when publishers began (were forced?) to focus less on the literary merit of the material, in an absolute sense, and more and more on what the reading public would readily buy — certainly not 'Under the Volcano', which in spite of its high ranking amongst the finest novels of the 20th century, is hard going for many readers and would not enable the publishing house to meet its quota for the quarter.
I'm glad you, Lisa, were able to find an Agent whose guidance was aligned with your own thinking about what you were trying to achieve. No compromise needed. I'd say you were lucky if it did not seem to me from your piece that you made your own luck.
The hours between 11-2am are the creative hours. Your post was great. Can't wait to read your book. Xie Xie. =D LOL
oh my goodness i was SO excited to read this! not to be all like 'we are SO much alike', but the way you spoke of just writing to see how it ended – that's pretty much how i write. no outline, just write what comes to me. i loved this post and can't wait to getthe book! thanks for sharing 🙂
Lisa – terrific post. I loved what you had to say about staying with your vision. And your last two paragraphs are very wise and totally on target about the creative process, imho. I personally really appreciate them – thank you.
That's so cool to hear about how you wrote your action book and maintained the suspense – the fact that you're a skilled writer came through partly in what you said – and partly in the fact that this is an interesting post, and kept me reading from start to finish. It takes some skill to make a post about the writing process both interesting and insightful and you pulled it off. 🙂
Best of luck – not just for this book, but for your career. May it be long, fruitful, fulfilling and successful.
Great post! I've read Rock Paper Tiger, and it's AWESOME — so it's pretty interesting to see what went on behind the scenes to craft the book.
Great post Nathan. I love this one. I'm probably going to read it many times…
I'll have to buy this book too. I looked for it in Chapters today, but no luck… either it's not out in Canada yet, or it was sold out 😛
Thanks for your insightful comments.
I'm really looking forward to reading RPT!
Kathryn Paterson says
Thank you so much for this, Lisa (and Nathan), particularly for those last two paragraphs. I'm working on Draft #3 and getting to that point where I'm not sure if what I'm doing is actually making the work worse or better. I also have the problem of the work fitting into multiple genres, and am trying to think about that while redrafting. But those last two paragraphs really helped, because I've been getting down on myself for not being further along.
Other Lisa says
Hey, everyone, thanks for your lovely comments!
I did write the book I wanted to write, and the revisions were a part of that process — I never felt like I was compromising my vision; it was a case of more fully realizing it.
Take care, all of you, and enjoy your writing journeys. And thanks for reading the book!
Great advice, thank you for sharing, Lisa. The writing trials and tribulations of an emerging author are usually unknown or ignored once their book finds success. Writing is a lonely business up to the point of 'confirmation' by way of publishing. It takes stamina, faith, a willingness to view one's work critically and a great love of the craft itself.
Can't wait to see ROCK PAPER TIGER in my book store!
Waw, thank you so much Lisa. I recognize many working points; the multiple genres in one, the writing without a clear outline… and your panic while creating new worlds on paper. I appreciate your willingness to share valuable advice with others and I can't wait to read your Rock Paper Tiger book here in Aruba – I will wait patiently for it to arrive, as I write to achieve my writing goals. Sunny regards!
Ishta Mercurio says
Thanks for this post! The part about being patient is a good reminder for me. I hate it when I just have to let the ideas marinate for a while – I know the marinating is good, but not typing every day really makes me feel guilty, as if no new words = no progress.
Jaleh D says
I especially liked that last paragraph about digging deep in yourself. It's hard to get so personal, but sometimes memories serve to make a story more meaningful.
Johan seminario says
how do you do that
Johan seminario says
how do you do that
Ink Spills says
Lisa, you have sufficiently slapped my undedicated hand. I have pulled my WIP back out. Thank you.
Lisa, I always knew you would get this novel published. I never had the slightest doubt about it. Your writing is unique, as you are. Your guardian angel gave you Mr. Bransford, whose talent, insight, and generosity are rare in today's environment. You both deserve great success.
MBW aka Olleymae says
I love this! Thanks so much for sharing, Lisa!!! I can't wait to get the book 🙂