Mer Haskell is the author of The Princess Curse, one of the best middle grade novels to hit in years, as well as author of Handbook for Dragon Slayers, coming out summer, 2013. She was kind enough to talk to us about her writing process.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?
Mer: For the most part, my natural process is that I sit down and see what comes out. That makes me a pantser, I guess. The penalty to that is that pantsers are obligate rewriters, and since I hate rewriting, I have been trying to “fix” my process for a while now. (And learning the lesson that not everything needs to be fixed, but that’s a different issue.) Problematically, I’ve always been very secretive in the midst of my process. I don’t want to talk about the book. I don’t want to brainstorm. I don’t want to even breathe an iota of energy elsewhere than the draft itself.
This secretiveness, combined with pantsing, worked just fine before I had contracts to fulfill. The last book I finished (Handbook for Dragon Slayers) was my first book written to deadline, and dealing with the inevitable process change was like trying to restructure my brain. My editor was very, very kind and didn’t require me to do more than send a few sample pages her way to see if we agreed on the book I was working on, but the mere existence of the contract messed up my mojo in a big way. Part of the problem of not talking about my books while in process also meant not really talking ABOUT my process, and thereby I didn’t really know my process, and everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
I never realized, for example, that I sit on a book like a broody chicken for about a year before anything comes out onto the page. So this last book, it got maybe a month, possibly two, of brooding, and it came out a very malformed egg indeed. With most of my books: my drafting process includes a lot of brain work time, upwards of a year or two, and then I write it very speedily, usually in 3-4 months. That was how The Princess Curse went, and all my trunk novels. And then… this other book. It just… well, I wrote it in about 8 months, and then I rewrote for all the time I should have been brooding on it.
Tamago: How do you know when a draft is working?
Mer: By my output. If I can sit down and doodle happily along every day for a month, I know it’s going okay. If I start sputtering on my productivity before then, I know that I’m doing something wrong. About once a month in the first draft process, though, I have to take a weekend and write *anything* else. Usually a short story. And this reinvigorates me and I get back on track easily.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?
Mer: Well, left to my own devices, I would write about two. But I’ve never met any YA/MG author who has been able to get away with that few drafts. So far, 8 seems to be my average. Yep. Eight. There’s the first draft–the massive erp onto paper (well, into a computer); then there’s my second draft, the Shame Draft, where I try to get the grossly bad bits out before anyone else sees it. Then there’s the draft I do with the advice of Trusted Betas, who tell me if I’ve gone off my rocker anywhere–number 3. Then I seem to at that point do a draft or two with my agent, before it goes into high gear with my editor. The common denominator in all drafts is that I am spending my time smoothing, clarifying, checking plot and emotional continuity, and so forth. I might be cutting or combining characters as late as draft 6, or reworking theme even, so nothing is off the table. Though, it is often hard to tell where one draft begins and another ends, and I have only done this twice for publication, which is not a true statistical sample, so the best I can say is that I’m still learning how I generally do this.
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