Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Let’s Make a Deal: I Won’t Tell You How to Write Your Books…

…if you won’t tell me how to write mine.

This isn’t a big deal, honestly, but it does get on my nerves, especially at this time of year. Enough that I want to kvetch about it.

What am I talking about? The way authors are constantly bombarded with advice about how to write a book. And by how, I don’t mean from a craft perspective, i.e., grammar, characterization, plot, etc. I mean the actual WAY we go about writing books. And this drives me crazy because, I’m telling you right now, there’s no ONE right way to write a book.

Maybe there’s a right way for each individual author, but even then, I’m not so sure. I know I don’t always approach each and every book in the same exact way. For example, sometimes I plot a little more, sometimes I pants a little more, but in the final analysis, I’m neither a true plotter nor a true pantser, so the fact that I lean more in one direction or the other depending on the book shouldn’t be all that surprising.

But the eternal divide between plotters and pantsers isn’t what’s getting on my nerves right now. It’s NaNoWriMo and the unspoken implication that comes with it that the Nano way is the best way to write a book.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with NaNo for those who can/do write that way. And by “that way,” I mean those who are of the Nora Roberts “I can’t fix a blank page” school of writing. Those who adhere to this method are those who are able to, in their own words, “write crap” and worry about fixing it later. These are people who like to rewrite, revise, and edit a manuscript multiple times until it’s as close to perfect as possible.

In case you haven’t guessed, this isn’t the way I write a book. In fact, I’m physically incapable of it. I write very slowly and with my internal editor always firmly on my shoulder. I’ve tried to banish that bitch more times than I care to consider, and it never works. She’s always there and she won’t LET me write anything I know to be crap. (This doesn’t mean I never write crap; it’s just that I don’t always recognize it as crap until later!) And because I am a relentlessly linear writer, I can’t gain speed by skipping a “difficult spot” in a story and writing something that comes later. I have to know what came before to write what comes next, so my only option is to pick my way painfully through the current scene. I also tend to do my revisions as I go, often reading through the last few scenes or chapters (or even the entire manuscript) before adding new material. All of this means that I really don’t have a first draft, or even a second or third draft. I have the final manuscript and by the time I write “The End,” it’s pretty much done.

I’m sure there are plenty of other people out there who write like me, but I suspect they keep quiet about it because, honestly, there is a strong core of belief out there that says this isn’t the “right” way. The “rules” of writing, according to common wisdom, are that you have to set aside your internal editor to write, that you should write the whole book before you can rewrite/revise, that “writing is revising”, that every manuscript should be revised and revised and then revised again. If that’s not your method, it can feel a little like everyone’s telling you that you’re not a “real” writer.

So, to all those who don’t write the NaNo way–I’m with you. And whatever works for you is the ONLY right way to write YOUR book.


  • Vanessa Kelly October 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    Jackie, I SO agree with this post. I write this way, too. Carefully, and revising as I go along. I don’t do spew drafts because it’s not in my nature. That’s great if NaNo moves you along and gives you something to work with, but I suspect it also produces a lot of crap that needs a whole lot of work to make it not crap. It obviously works for some, but it would make me crazy.

  • Jackie Barbosa October 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Hi Vanessa,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I knew I wasn’t alone! Spewing drafts is absolutely not my way, though I admit, I sometimes wish it were, but I have long since bowed to my nature and given up trying.

  • Vanessa Kelly October 16, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    You have to go with what works, right? The good thing is, when I finish my first draft it usually doesn’t need all that much work. My critique partners are grateful for that!

  • Leigh LaValle October 17, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I admit, I am a draft spewer. I have a crazed need to figure out my story before I can fix earlier scenes. I used to edit as I went, but then I wasted so much time polishing scenes that were later changed or tossed.

    Now, I just want to get the story out in any form. All those unwritten pages sit heavily on me and I have this fear that somehow they are never going to get figured out. I do not rest well with the unknown. And, though I wish it were different, I have to write my way into a story. I have tried story boarding and writing detailed synopses before I began the first draft, but, alas, the book always changed somewhere and veered off track. My original ideas never panned out with enough tension, or the right research.

    I easily wrote 6 distinct drafts of my last ms. Probably more. The first draft was just the bones, very dry. Then I layered and layered the story, adding more meat and more tension and then, finally, all the fun and lovely little last details that I could never have thought of the first few times through.

    For me, each draft gets more and more enjoyable as the material I am working with gets richer and richer. The first draft is hard, getting the story out, plowing into unknown territory, discovering who my characters are. That is where I am right now, or would be if I wasn’t procrastinating on the internet. The very dry bones of the rough first draft.

  • Monday Morning Stepback: Shopping at Borders for Amazon books | Read React Review: Rethinking romance and other fine fiction October 18, 2010 at 6:07 am

    […] Jackie Barbosa has had it with being made to feel her writing method is […]

  • Cecilia Grant October 18, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    The third-to-last paragraph, there? The one where you describe the way you write? Me too. Word for freaking word.

    My ever-present internal editor is waving to yours.

    • Jackie Barbosa October 19, 2010 at 11:52 am

      Cecilia–you’re one of my people :). ::tackle hug::

  • Keziah Hill October 18, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Jackie, your post and Leigh’s comments are both great examples of polar opposites that work well for both of you. Viva la difference!

  • Becke Martin/Davis October 18, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Great post, Jackie! I was bemoaning my horrible process and the lovely Anna Campbell said, “Go read Jackie’s blog!”

    I actually do write like those NaNo people, but I’m skipping it this year. My problem isn’t coming up with ideas or getting words on a page, or even finishing a story. Well, not in the sense of getting to “the end.” On the other hand, I have a bad habit of finishing the first draft and stalling in the revision mode.

    I would LOVE to have your process – slow and neat and ready-to-go. Instead I may upchuck 200K or more in drafts, rough and rougher, as I try to separate the wheat from the chaff. Then I go back and cut half of it, revise and rework it, then chop and revise some more.

    My process seems to involve writing out a preliminary draft bulging with backstory and with everything happening in chronological order so I can get it all straight in my mind. Then I go back and cut the dead wood and try to figure out where it all REALLY starts. Then I check the conflict box, anchor scenes, etc., etc. And then I cry a lot …

    • Jackie Barbosa October 19, 2010 at 11:52 am

      And you know, Becke, in some ways I’d like to have your process, because I am very prone to long periods where I can only eke out a few hundred words a day. Sometimes, it’s not that the ideas aren’t there, it’s just that the right words to convey them aren’t. Other times, it’s because I genuinely can’t figure out what should come next and I am absolutely incapable of putting anything on the page that I know isn’t “right” and won’t make it into the final draft. Now, maybe that’s better than writing double the word count you need in the final version–I don’t know–but it sure makes me feel unproductive a lot of the time.

      In the end though, we have to be true to our own natures and the processes they demand. So, as Keziah said, vive la difference!

  • Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe October 19, 2010 at 8:12 am

    I could have written this, but thank you for doing it for me. I’m way too anal to allow even a typo to go by (which is unfortunate, as there are always so many of them), so I tinker as I go. I never know what’s going up on the page until the fumbling fingers put it there, but I rarely have to rip it all apart at the end. One draft is usually it. Yes, I’ve had to make adjustments after editorial notes, but I cannot think of anything more deadening to my process than writing the same story over and over to get it right. But whatever works…in writing and in life. It’s all good, or mostly so.

    • Jackie Barbosa October 19, 2010 at 11:47 am

      Maggie, I laughed when you said you can’t even allow a typo because I’m the same way. I am constantly going back to fix them as there is no way I can leave one I SEE in the text to fix later. I have to fix it now!

  • Paula Roe October 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Hi Jackie

    Just adding my ‘right on, sister!’ to your wonderful post. I’m the same way – my final draft is pretty much complete because I edit as I go. Sometimes there’s a few ‘holes’ around the place that need to be reinforced/plugged up but by the time revisions are due, I’ve already addressed them.

  • Evangeline Holland October 22, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    I wasted too many precious years of my writing life trying to write the “right” way. The first manuscript I wrote was with an incredibly detailed synopsis which laid out everything I wanted to happen from beginning to end. But when I began to interact with other writers online I was made to believe this was “wrong,” that in fact I was “cheating” by not relying on that oft-mentioned muse to inspire me when I sat down to write each day. It took me four years and countless unfinished mss to shake this out of my system and even today the thought that my writing process isn’t how authors X, Y, Z and the legion of authors behind them write creeps upon me in unwary moments. But I applaud you for saying “screw them”–I need that attitude. 😉


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