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.
Thanks for this, very insightful and considered. Good luck with the book.
inspiring at the time i need it most…thank you.
Lisa, thank you for sharing your motivating (and SO TRUE) perspective. "Things take as long as they take, and they aren’t in your control" – a great, and timely, reminder for me as I'm trying to tame my WIP into a third draft. (Also timely? The parts about being patient and not rushing.)
This is a lovely post, Lisa! Thank you for writing it, and thank you for having Lisa on here, Nathan!
Congratulations for believing in your dram until the very end! I hope success finds you!
Ted Cross says
I'm writing my current book under similar circumstances, setting it in Moscow, where I lived for four years (oddly, I also lived in Beijing for three). The problem I have is a worry about too many foreign names perhaps being a problem for American readers. I'm choosing the names that I think work better for Americans, but still…there are so many of them.
Josin L. McQuein says
Thanks for sharing your experience, and I'm sorry you had to lose the airships. I guess you'll just have to write a steampunk story and put them there. 🙂
A lot of good advice that I've read many times before. What made it come alive in totality for me was when you wrapped it around the word *tension* it's something I've become very aware of from exercises here and there analyzing and editing other peoples work. Also; to raise that flow and continuity magnet effect that pulls the reader relentlessly forward I find the willingness(patience) to revise walk away, clear my mind,then revise again essential to make page flow as crisp as humanly possible.
I''ll buy the book and read it with a very critical eye towards learning.
Simon C. Larter says
Hahahahaa! I like Lisa Brackmann. I mean, who wouldn't like a fellow writer who confesses to staying up too late, drinking too much caffeine (and wine), and being cranky till midafternoon? Well, fine. Some people wouldn't like someone like that, but I do, and this is my comment, so my opinion is all that counts here.
I think, Lisa, that you just convinced me to buy your book, on strength of personality alone. If you're ever in Philly, let's hang out and have martinis. It'd be fun. 🙂
D. G. Hudson says
Enjoyed your post, Lisa. Thanks for sharing your insights, and a bit of your initial creative process.
Good luck with ROCK PAPER TIGER!
Great post. Thank you so much. You sound a lot like how I write…when I'm writing which I've fallen back quite a bit. Thank you for the encouragement, intended or not. Good luck!
Davy DeGreeff says
Non-Gendered Balls would be a great band name.
Thanks for the post and the inspiration! I'm looking forward to reading your book.
Wonderful post from a wonderfully kind writer.
Chuck H. says
A heartfelt thanks from a fellow pantser. Now if I can just attract the attention of a sympatico agent. . . Oh well, time to gather up my non-gendered balls and get back to the old WIP. Thanks again and good luck with the book.
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
Great post, Lisa. And boy I hear you on revisions. 🙂
Really looking forward to my copy arriving so I can crack it open.
My best, as always,
What a fabulous post. Thank you.
I can see why you and Nathan would make a great fit.
Best of luck in this launch!
February Grace says
Amazing post. I am so printing this out. I am so glad to know that I'm not the only one who feels that way about outlines.
I have to find out where the story is going, that's why I am compelled to write it.
"(it wouldn’t be nice, unless you too are a fan of sleep-deprivation, panic and caffeine)."
Sadly not a fan exactly but it is the life I live.
Thank you so much for the encouragement, Ms. Brackmann. Wishing you every success now and in future- sounds like you've certainly earned it with all the work you've put in!
Thanks, Lisa and Nathan! Great post! I need to hear, "Be patient" regularly, I think…
I rushed through my first revisions of my first novel, and discovered (by a editor's help) how much more work I need to do on it. At present, I am taking it slow and making every page and almost every word count. I am taking Bardbury's advice on making each story I write as good as I can make it before going on to another one.
Ryan Z Nock says
I'm buying this book.
Justin and Melinda says
Congratulations and thank you! It's so refreshing to hear stories and encouragement like this. Writing is one of the most amazing things I've experienced, but it's not an easy process because it's not supposed to be. Thanks again! Great timing for me as well.
Other Lisa says
It's still morning, isn't it?
Thanks for all of your kind words.
I'm drinking coffee now.
Dig into the places in yourself that hurt the most and see what you find. Sometimes that’s where your book is hiding. – great line!
Thanks for your insight!
Brilliant post, Lisa. I see a lot of my method in yours–integrating sometimes disparate curiosities into a cohesive, fictional narrative being a big one–and it was great to read that back.
Congratulations on your success and long may it continue.
T. Anne says
Excellent post Lisa! I actually just finished revisions and turned them in to an agent. I hope I'm as fortunate as you were. Nathan is an awesome agent! You are very lucky to have him. Can't wait to read RPT.
Well, your writing schedule and habits sure sound like mine. (Coffee addict? Check. Sleep-deprived? Check. Wine? Check. Check. Check the whole list, really). The only difference is that I do plot and outline… and it lasts until about halfway through the book, ha!
Thanks for the advice and for the insight. Patience is a hard quality to master.
Other Lisa says
I'm doing a little better on the sleep-deprivation thing — the upside of not working a day job is that I'm finally getting enough sleep!
The caffeine remains however. I left out the part about my crazy coffee-making process with a burr grinder and a Chemex.
Emily White says
Great advice on being patient. I think that is key. I'm often tempted to rush through my revisions, but ultimately I find it's far more productive to take a step back once in a while and make sure they're done right.
Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us! 😀
Marilyn Peake says
I really hear you and get what you’re saying on so many levels. I’m also a news junkie (I originally went to college to study journalism, and sometimes still wonder if I should have followed up on that), a pantser kind of writer who doesn’t create very good outlines, I drink far too much coffee and spend huge numbers of hours on the computer when I’m writing, but absolutely love the process of writing despite the long hours and back-breaking labor of it. I also agree that it’s wonderful to work with professionals who understand and enjoy your vision for your own book but are able to offer editorial suggestions that will make it better – that type of experience is awesome.
I love ROCK PAPER TIGER, and always appreciate how much I learn through your Twitter tweets about news stories. May you sell millions of copies of ROCK PAPER TIGER!
Sean Patrick Reardon says
Great post and I'm glad all your sacrifices have paid off.
Loved the nod to Rankin. Best of luck!
Lisa, thanks for the reality check! Glad your hard work paid off for you. Congrats!
Adam Heine says
I just want to know where I can buy the version with the airships in it 🙂
Dana Fredsti says
Lisa, you know exactly how timely this post is for me, especially the part about things not always being in one's control.
I am in agreement that Non Gendered Balls would make an awesome band name…
ryan field says
I enjoyed this post. I have a different process for each book I write. Sometimes there's an outline, and sometimes I wing it. but I usually prefer to wing it.
Can't wait to read RPT. Hope you sell, knock wood, tons of copies.
Thanks so much for your post…useful and inspiring…
I'm really looking forward to reading ROCK PAPER TIGER…
Other Lisa says
I once wrote an entire half-season of a TV series — for fun, mind you — in which airships are heavily featured. Sort of cheerful post-collapse. Needs work, but one of these days…
That's another thing I would have put in this post if I'd thought about it. Not everything you write has to be with the intention of selling it. Writing for fun is a great way to learn and get your chops up, and also it's not so inhibiting as when you are writing to sell. You know, no one has to see it but you.
Thank you. Thank you SO MUCH for those last 2 paragraphs. (And for confirming that my 10p-1a lifestyle is not crazy. Or at least not alone in its craziness.) Those last 2 paragraphs in particular are what I needed to hear right now. I've got a publisher interested in my book, but they want revisions, and I want to give them my ideas yesterday, but the truth is, I need more time to fully develop them. And I worry that they'll lose interest in me while I am working and not in their face. But you're right: Quality results matter more than lightning-quick turnaround.
Victoria Dixon says
Want my copy NOW. What was that you said about patience? LOL Wow, it's comforting to hear a successful writer talk about the same things I've done – China, research, pantsing and all. And yes, Ted, the names are a challenge, aren't they? ;D Lisa, thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to reading the book.
Other Lisa says
Er, patience doesn't apply when it comes to buying my book. By all means, go out there and hunt it down today! 😉
Kat Sheridan says
Lisa, I've sat on the sidelines and watched your creative process, sat up late at night reading emails from your cranky, stressed out self, and still am in awe of what a consumate artist you are. And you know, I wish you could have had the airships as well!
That said, Rock Paper Tiger is one of the most amazing, breathtaking books I've had the privilege of reading in years. It flat out blew me away. And Nathan is awesom for having recognized that and pointing out the places you could hone it to an even finer edge!
With all my heart, wishing you spectacular success with Rock Paper Tiger, and I can hardly wait to see what you have up your sleeve next!
And really, you should share more about the airships…
Susana Mai says
That was a great post! No wonder you got published! I like how you didn't talk about your book all that much, but your writing and honesty made me want to read it all the same…
Olivia Cunning says
Hi, Lisa! Insightful post. Still chortling about the non-gendered balls comment. I'm glad I was privileged enough to witness your rewrite process from the wings. It did a lot to prod me in the right (write) direction. This stuff is hard work.
I just finished the revisions on my second published novel. Sorta. I discovered last night that I need to do some work in the tension department. I think if I'm nodding off while line-editing a scene, that's a clue that it's lacking in tension, don't you think? 🙂 Or maybe I had not consumed enough caffiene before attempting the fifty-third-give-or-take reread of the manuscript. I'm not sure, but I think it's the former. So it's back into the revision process to tighten this scene ending (did I mention I thought I was done?). Sometimes I don't think revisions would ever end if not for deadlines. I keep finding ways to better the manuscript even after it's "done" and that's good for the book, I suppose, but not so good for my sanity.
Best of luck with Rock Paper Tiger, Lisa. I'm definitely enjoying my much coveted, autographed, hardcover copy. Yes, I admit it, I'm bragging a bit about the autograph.
Lisa, just wanted to say that you said exactly what I needed to hear in that last paragraph. Thanks so much for posting how you work!
Kelly Wittmann says
Wonderful post– thank you!
Terry Stonecrop says
Inspiring post! Thoughtful and helpful advice. Thanks.
Remilda Graystone says
Oh my gosh, this post was wonderful. Thanks for doing this Lisa and Nathan! It's really helpful to hear about others' writing process, especially when they've made it.
I can't wait to read Rock Paper Tiger, by the way. Sounds like my kind of book.
Your generosity and professionalism are evident in the tone of your writing process delineation. It is work. Write hard, write long, and write often. Sounds like something a wombat might say.
Best of luck with sales.
Amanda Sablan says
Very intelligent post. Patience is a writer's worst enemy, but it can be overcome.
Amanda Sablan says
Impatience, I mean. xD