Friday, October 13, 2017

It’s a whole lot of pages – but is it a book?

There was standing room only this week at Interabang Books in Dallas, as writers and would be writers packed into hear a panel sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Four North Texas authors, moderated by the League’s executive director, Becka Oliver, shared their methods for turning the mass of pages they sometimes end up into actual publishable – and published books.

“When you talk to four writers with four different kinds of backgrounds, you know we’re really going to dig in,” Oliver said, as she introduced writers Jeramey Kraatz, author of the Cloak Society and Space Runners novel series; Sanderia Faye (Mourner’s Bench); Mike Merschel (Revenge of the Star Survivors); and memoirist Sarah Hepola (Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget).

Kraatz & fans
In case you don’t already know from reading these posts, where there are four writers in a room, there are will be four different methods of writing and revising that writing. I, and probably the rest of the audience, listened, hoping to find a little of this and a little of that we could put together to find our own recipe for success.

“I want you to talk about your pre-writing process,” Oliver said, turning to Kraatz. “Do you make an outline? What if you get stuck? How do you go about the plan?”

“I don’t believe in astrology,” Kraatz said, putting on his deadpan face, “but I’m a total Virgo, in that I plan everything.”

When he first started writing novels, he “wrote a huge outline, went off track and couldn’t get back to the plan,” he said. Lucky for him, he already had experience with comic book writing that came to his rescue. 

Since then, he’s had four books published, three in his Cloak Society series of middle grade novels and the first book in his new Space Runners series. That schedule, “where I’m turning out a new book every nine months,” doesn’t permit extensive outlining.

“Now,” he said, “I do very short, conflict-driven outlines,” without trying initially to figure out his books chapter by chapter. 

“I’m an accountant,” Faye said, mentioning her work before she became an award-winning author. “I’m not going on a trip unless I know where I’m going. I outlined on Excel spread sheets. And I didn’t do it just one time, but over and over. . . I need to know the beginning and the end."

Despite that, she knows her method isn’t going to work for all writers. “Get to know yourself, because all your process is going to be based on your personality.”

Hepola (front), Merschel & Faye
“One of the biggest things for me, was giving myself permission to write – and to write poorly,” was Merkel’s take. As a longtime editor at The Dallas Morning News, “I had a lot of experience with editing, a lot of experience in turning bad writing into something not so bad,” which he found he could make use of in editing his own writing – after the words were on the page.

“Now, Sarah,” Oliver said, “no pressure, but you’re speaking as a spokesperson for all nonfiction writers.”

“I’m such a perfectionist,” Hepola said, who believed her once-heavy drinking had been a crutch that helped smooth her frustration with an imperfect world. “As a sober person, I’ve had to develop a tolerance for imperfection.” 

Despite her extensive experience in writing and editing nonfiction, “It took me three years to write Blackout, and two years of that were spent trying to figure out how to do it.”

“So you didn’t outline?” Oliver asked.

“No,” Hepola said. Well, not exactly, that is. “I keep a notebook and write lists of things, (but) I never look at them. I’m trying to capture some ongoing thing in my brain.” 

Once those, ahem, highly imperfect drafts are on paper, how, Oliver asked, do the panelists go about shaping them into publishable books?

“I write a lot of series books,” Kraatz said, “so I avoid a lot of revision in the first book. (Later) I start the writing day by revising what I wrote the day before,” avoid the horror of facing a blank page the first thing in the morning.

“People have an idea that when they’ve got a draft, (the book) is done,” Hepola said. "The revision process is what really makes art.”

Despite – or maybe because of – her own professional experience as an editor, “I actually love being edited when I can get myself out of it. It’s important to realize that everybody’s trying to get you to the best version of yourself. You want the caring feedback of caring readers.”

Merkel agreed. “The most valuable thing I get from newspaper (work) is that writing is a collaborative effort.”

Want more about the writing process? Check out the Writers League of Texas site for more, including online classes and podcasts. “Turning a Mess of Pages into a Book” makes its final appearance next Thursday (October 19) at Book People in Austin, after appearances in Houston and San Antonio as well as this week’s in Dallas. 


  1. Thank you Melissa for this post. I so wanted to attend this panel discussion but I had a conflict. I am so glad you recapped the comments. Now I feel like I was there. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for your input, Ann. There's so much literary stuff going on (not to mention life stuff), I have to be picky too. Plus, I'm biased toward things that are free and don't require a lot of effort!