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.