So, Courtney, where is The Duchess War?

Hi everyone.

The last few months have been a blur of not updating my website or this blog, as I tried to (a) get The Duchess War ready and (b) get my kitchen to the point where it had dry wall, running water, and a refrigerator. To my great relief, (b) has now been achieved. I’m still working on (a). To give you some idea when The Duchess War is coming, I just sent the book to the copy editor. I’m going to be running proofreading in parallel. As soon as I get everything back from the people who have it, I will hit “publish”–but that is unlikely to happen before Thanksgiving, unfortunately. I am hoping it will not take a great deal of time after Thanksgiving. As soon as I have a more precise ETA, I will let you all know.

So, to answer some questions.

Courtney, whose fault is it that the book is taking so long?

Mine. Completely mine. Everyone who has been working with me has been absolutely stellar about turning things around with high quality on short turnarounds and with me telling them they’d have the book on one day, and then not having it done for two weeks after that.

Why did you do that?

Because I am really bad at estimating how long it’s going to take me to write a book. The best way I can think of to explain this goes like this: I’m delusional.

No, really. I am.

When I’m writing a book (and not all authors do things like I do, luckily for them), what usually happens is I write the first draft and it looks something like this.

There’s a lot of stuff in there that goes in directions that aren’t useful, and things that are left out that should really be filled in. Some things don’t make sense, or aren’t emotionally accessible, or aren’t dorky enough for my tastes.

So I go back over the manuscript and try and figure out the parts that I’ve written that are actually good, the parts I’ve written that are okay but need work, and the parts that are utter crap. I usually end up at this point identifying what the story is. Those are the red dots in the picture to your right: the elements of the story that drive it from place to place.

That sounds weird, because how is it that I can write a story without knowing what it is? Answer: I don’t know, but I do it all the time. Every book I write, I usually have some idea what I think the story is, and then I end up jiggling it and reworking it and I end up with a beast that is slightly different.

Once I’ve figured out what the story is, I can usually do a pretty good job of going back through and smoothing out the arc of the story.

If I’m doing my job, we end up with something like the black line to the left. (For those of you who want to criticize the black line for not following proper story structure, consider this for illustrative purposes only.)

That’s the basic way I write a book. In reality, it’s more confusing than that. I write books out of order–I have some scenes I think are going to happen, so I write those, and those make it clear that there are other scenes I have to write, and those make it clear that there are other scenes I have to write… So in reality, just getting that first gray line down can sometimes be a challenge.

(Incidentally: I do not advise that anyone write the way that I do if you can possibly help it. I am profligately wasteful with my words! Sometimes I talk to other authors, and they say things like, “Oh, I just deleted 1,200 words, and it hurt…but I saved them in a file and I know I’ll use them again later!” Those people make me feel like I’m the world’s biggest word waster. Sometimes, I cut 10,000 words at a drop, and I never end up using them. They suck. I don’t see how I could use them. That’s why I cut them. I wish I didn’t write words that sucked in the first place, too.)

In any event, here’s why I’m bad at figuring out when things are going to get done. Every once in a while, I get a book that is a gift. I write a first draft, and it is like this:

I look at it; the smooth arc of the story is already in place, and I revise it, and ends up like this.

Those books are gifts. They are gifts from the writing gods. Unveiled, for instance, took me three and a half months to write, while working a fairly hefty day job. It was the easiest book I’ve ever written.

Then there are books where the first draft is like this.

The motivations are murky. The plot is byzantine. I write scene after scene which seem to be moving the book only in the direction of fiery doom. I go through the pages, scratching my head. It looks like there are some good points in what I have? Maybe these ones?

So I get out my trusty pen and try and connect those dots.

The result, alas, is still unsatisfying. So I iterate the process: look at what I have, try and figure out what’s important. This time around, different things stand out.

Finally, I’m able to come up with something that makes sense, something that is actually a story.

Needless to say, when you have this kind of a book, it takes much, much longer.

What it really feels like is this: Imagine that you’re exploring a territory, and you’re trying to estimate how long it is going to take you to get to Denver. You don’t have a map. You’ve never been through this area. You’ve never talked to anyone who has been where you are, and there is no civilization, anywhere, so you’re totally on your own. But you do have a GPS system, and you know the coordinates for where Denver is.

If you’re lucky, you’re in Kansas City, and you can walk in a straight line directly to Denver, as the crow flies. If you are mildly unlucky, you’ll be in San Francisco, and you’ll have to find mountain passes, or go way out of your way. That will take a little exploration, and if you estimate your time as the crow flies, you’re probably going to be off by a good margin.

If you are extremely unlucky, you’re in Antarctica, and you’re going to have to discover modern nautical equipment first.

My problem as a writer is that when I estimate completion times, I assume that every book is a gift book. I’m always extremely optimistic. I give time estimates as the crow flies, while blithely ignoring the fact that the crow isn’t flying. She’s trying to figure out how to build a boat out of nothing but ice and extremely angry penguins.

I do this all the time, and I never learn my lesson, and it’s very hard for me to stop because honestly, if I sat down and told myself, “Courtney, you are going to struggle with writing this book for the next eight months, and everything you put on paper in July, you will eventually delete in a fit of rage,” I would just give up. My ridiculously optimistic delusion is the only thing that keeps me going, so I stick to it doggedly. I say stupid things like, “I have written 80,000 words, and a book is 90,000 words! Therefore I am almost done!” — ignoring, of course, that 40,000 of those words are crap and will melt away. I say things like, “If I only wrote 9,000 words a day for the next week, I will have this done by Saturday!” — ignoring, of course, that I have only written 9,000 words in a day twice in my life, ever, and if I had 9,000 words a day slipping off my fingers, I would be done already.

I can say all this now, and I can laugh at myself because I’m no longer dependent on penguins to save me, so it’s all good. But I will forget that this happens as soon as I’m working on another book.

In any event, I’m sorry I’m so bad at estimating when books are going to be done. I can’t even promise not to be delusional in the future. But I will try not to share my delusions with you from here on out.

But: The Duchess War shouldn’t be much longer. At this point, Denver is in sight, so I might know what I’m talking about.

If you want to get some inkling about the convoluted evolution of this book: In the very first scene which I envisioned for this book, way back when it was a tiny little germ of an idea, the hero went to a ball with the intent of releasing 500 live mice on the dance floor.

Read the book when it comes out. Then come back and scratch your head trying to figure that one out.

27 thoughts on “So, Courtney, where is The Duchess War?

  1. Thank you. Your explanation of your process gives me comfort that I am not the only one with byzantine plots lines and murky character motivation.

    But I’m with Maggie. 9,000 words in a day?! Cutting 10,000 at a chop?! ((Shudders delicately)).

    No matter. However long it takes, I know it will be worth the wait. And as a reader, I thank you for all the time you take to make the story right. It shows! πŸ™‚

  2. Courtney, please continue to share your delusions – they make the rest of us (even those of us who write affidavits for a living), feel that we are not alone in ours. Looking forward to The Duchess War and your next books whenever you get them out.

  3. “My name is Courtney, and I am a pantster.”

    I am ‘write’ there with you. It may take longer, but the adventure the writing gods take us on is so much *fun*.

    I’m glad those penguins are back home where they belong.

  4. First, congratulations on getting your kitchen finished? Mostly finished? Running water is a very good thing and one of those commodities taken for granted until you don’t have it.

    Next, OMG at your process! There’s a very big part of me that’s happy to hear you describe the way story comes about because I’m a ‘write out of order, get that scene down even though it might not happen until much later or not at all,’ kind of writer. Basically, I’m a total mess most times. But if the end result of my madness can be shaped into even a fraction of the brilliance that comes from your books, then I don’t feel so bad anymore ;-). Plus, I love the illustrations.

    Good luck and we’ll all be here, waiting with bated breath for the Duchess War when it’s ready.

  5. Am I the only one who’s sad the mice release was cut?

    As I stare at the revisions in front of me, I find your description of your process comforting. It’s a relief to know that good books can be written by pantsers, because in my own writing life, I feel like a crazy person for not writing in order, for throwing out thousands of words each pass through a manuscript, and then for doing it all over again with the next book. All the writing advice books seem to say (basically) the same thing: turn yourself into an entirely different different kind of writer, which I don’t think I can do. Now I’ll just tell myself, “But Courtney Milan does it too!”

    Congratulations on the kitchen and looking forward to The Duchess War!

  6. Who can argue with the logic, as a reader, that if you wait a week or few longer you end up with a much better book to read?

    Wishing you a happy Turkey day and a great book release soon thereafter.

  7. That’s a pretty good description of my own process. I hate it, but every time I try to connect the dots ahead of time and impose some sort of order, I freeze in place and end up not writing a word for weeks or months at a time.

  8. Ahahahahahahhahahahaha.

    I just sent mine to the story editor. Otherwise, those would be tears. You are a writing goddess :).

  9. Courtney, you are wonderful and hilarious! Keep deluding yourself, because it’s worth waiting for the result.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. Funny! Personally, I will read it when you are ready. It, and all future books I am sure, will be worth the wait. It’s hard for me to write a someone I know and love…who won’t be critiquing me. So, you just keep on doing what you do, the way it’s best for you and I’ll keep buying.

    Thanks for what you do, by the way. I always have thought it’s amazing, that someone who knows the same words I do, can take those words and craft them into something amazing, like a book.

    Congrats on the kitchen. Happy Thanksgiving

  11. I appreciate the update and am looking forward to the book when it does finally come out.! Congrats on the kitchen as well. I’m about to start on some major home renovation type projects myself, fingers crossed.

    Also, I am terrible at deadlines as well.

  12. Parts–no, make that HUGE chunks–of this process are so familiar it feels like you can see inside my head! I cut 37 000 words out of a short contemporary. It was a bit extreme, but I usually cut around 20 000 words and that stuff NEVER gets used again. Only then does the story really start to take shape…

    I also found myself nodding about a bit you wrote on revisions–looking for the two halves of the clam shells, which form part of the same scene. Absolutely nailed the right image for that feeling.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  13. I just have to say that I may need this on a coffee mug (or at the very least a fridge magnet):

    “I give time estimates as the crow flies, while blithely ignoring the fact that the crow isnÒ€ℒt flying. SheÒ€ℒs trying to figure out how to build a boat out of nothing but ice and extremely angry penguins.”

    It seems that everything for me, from writing to getting kids out the door falls into this!

    Thank you!

  14. Your process sounds very similar to how I’ve gone about writing my PhD thesis, right down to the self-delusions about timelines for finishing, so this is clearly not just a fiction writer thing. Thanks for sharing, it made my day!

    Btw, I love your books so much I’m going to save The Duchess War for early 2013 and make it my first guilt-free read in six years (yes, it has taken me that long to complete my thesis).

  15. Anna, this is the schedule going forward:

    1. I get copyedits back from my copy editor.
    2. I input needed changes, and look over things to make sure I’m not adding errors. (about 2-3 hours)
    3. I regenerate the final files (about 5 minutes)
    4. I give the final files a quick once over to make sure they’re not messed up (about 20 minutes)
    5. I post them everywhere (about 45 minutes to post everywhere)
    6. As soon as I’ve done all of that, it will usually be somewhere between 0 hours and 4 days for the files to show up on the accounts, and I will also put a blogpost up with links to say that I’ve posted, and mention it on facebook and twitter.

    So if you don’t see a new blogpost here, it means there’s no point checking the accounts–it really won’t show up on the accounts before I have a chance to put something up here.

  16. Your response is appreciated! πŸ™‚

    My friends and I are looking forward to reading The Duchess War. In fact, we are buddy reading it and trying to coordinate start times in Indonesia, Bosnia, and the U.S. Oh, yeah! The power of social networking on Goodreads is awesome! Lol

  17. Hi Courtney!
    We have never met, but I am a huge fan and was blessed to also be featured in this month’s IND’TALE magazine with you.

    I am delighted to hear about your convoluted process as it gives me hope- for mine is not much better!I also have random scenes that pop into my head that somehow come together to form a story. On a couple of occasions I have been blessed with the whole enchilada but have never come close to 9,000 words in a day. 4,500 is my personal best, although I am satisfied if I can at least write 1,500 good ones in a day.

    I imagine you have also struggled with synopsis writing. I despise them as I know upfront that the finished book is unlikely to bear more than the slightest resemblance to the one I proposed! I suppose that one of the chief perks of indie-publishing, not having to write a bleeping synopsis!

    Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and continued success in 2013!

    Victoria Vane

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