Lady Gaga – thoughts on the completed work

Back in August I began work on writing an unofficial biography on Lady Gaga. The below was originally blogged on my Tumblr.
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Now I’ve completed the manuscript (almost – the small matter of the last chapter remains unwritten, as it depends on what crazy shenanigans Lady Miss Gaga gets up to between now and going to print.) Even though the arduous task of revisions, edits and rewrites is still to come, it seems like this is a good time to reflect on the writing process, what I got right, what I got wrong, what I’ll attempt to do next time…

So, what was the project? A biography, written about the alt pop cult chanteuse with a taste for Warhol, Lady Gaga.

I’ve written short biogs before, but they’ve been much shorter and aimed at the tween market (only about 3000 words, and subject matter being the likes of Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, the Jonas Brothers, Kristen Stewart, Cheryl Cole, and so on…). Also they were all ghostwritten.

They seemed impossibly hard when I started. The first one I worked on (Miley Cyrus), I gathered over 25,000 words of research for. Over time, though, I refined my processes, and writing those became a much more streamlined, quicker process. I found out where to go for to find useful information (never underestimate the power of Teen People and fansites to give you far more in-depth information about tweenie pop sensations than you’ll ever find anywhere else). They worked in sections organised according to content rather than chronology – a short life story, career history, favourite clothes, songs, and so on.

Perhaps I’d done a such great job on those – or perhaps I just rang up asking for work on the right day, at the right time – whatever the reasons, my editor commissioned me to do a longer piece on Lady GaGa. With my own name on the cover. I jumped around screaming for a while – it’s worth noting I’ve wanted to write books since I was about 9 years old – although that was followed by almost passing out when she told me the final word count was 60,000 words.

Although that’s the standard length for a hardback book – and the average PhD thesis – I’d never (ever) written – or even attempted to write – anything remotely that long. I used to work at a publishing company where we’d have to bang out (quite unceremoniously) up to 10,000 words a week for magazines we were publishing, but in all honesty, it was a pretty shady company, and they were business to business magazines that no-one ever read (apart from the advertisers)(and that’s pretty much a fact). So. The thought of having to churn out 60,000 words from scratch – words that would definitely be read was a new concept.

Admittedly it wasn’t putting together the magnum opus work of fiction I’ve always wanted to write, but I was still incredibly excited about writing it.

So, what did I do. I had two months (vaguely) to write it, so I decided to spend a couple of weeks researching – watching and transcribing interviews, TV performances, listening to radio interviews, reading news stories and articles, which were often very inaccurate.

When trying to organise the research, I separated things I found into different categories that roughly correlated with times in her life, although I later discovered this wasn’t a very effective way to organise my material. Word docs were titled things like ‘Touring’, ‘Writing for other people’ and ‘sexuality’ (etc etc), and quotes and appropriate info were added to each one.

I then spent a very stressful three weeks writing everything up. Rather than waiting until I had finished all my research, and then organising it properly, I freaked out about the final wordcount, and decided stupidly that time spent planning and organising the material would be time I’d rather spend on writing it.

Needless to say, it was that very poor decision that led to the write-up period being so incredibly stressful. The research material was roughly (very roughly) organised into two halves, the first of which I just ploughed into writing up, with no chapter plan or forward thought, other than having transcribed loads of interviews or read a billion articles.

Ten days in, I had barely left my desk, so my boyfriend ordered me off back home to stay with my mum for a few days, to write in a different environment.

I accidentally ended up organising the second half of the book rather better – actually chronologically – and managed to write this up – nearly 30,000 words of it – in just over a week. With all the material organised sensibly, it practically wrote itself.

Things that I learned in the process of writing a longer work in a short time-frame:

– Planning is essential

You must, absolutely, positively, completely and utterly MUST plan what you’re going to write. Absolutely. Rather than flapping about getting the thing written, I should have spent the time organising the material as I wanted to write it. I probably would have got it done in half the time. And enjoyed the writing process, rather than feeling totally overwhelmed, by being embroiled in the middle of a story which I wasn’t in control of.

– It might be non-fiction, but you still need a story line.

With the power of planning, you also have the opportunity to figure where it is most appropriate to introduce various plot devices, where to start planting the seeds for happenings that will pay off later on. Again, I know this seems ridiculous for biography, which is non fiction – but real life is random and chaotic as it happens – the reader needs order to events that happen, otherwise they have less meaning. It’s your job as author to organise events into a narrative that can be absorbed and is more meaningful as a result.

– Practise makes perfect

Because I hadn’t spent the time organising my material, the original structure I had given myself – research based around theme rather than time – had to be abandoned bout ¾ of the way through the writing up process, as soon discovered that what I really needed was a proper chronological timeline of events in her life – not information separated by subject.

Still, it’s a learning process. I found the first couple of 3000 word books I wrote difficult to structure. Now I don’t have that problem as much. Fingers crossed, the next 60,000 word project I undertake will be easier too.

– Write much, write often

Many years ago, between 2003-2004, I took a Creative Writing Masters at Cardiff University. I definitely didn’t get as much out of it as I should have. I went straight into it as an undergraduate, and hadn’t had time away from academia to develop as a writer – i.e., through real experience outside the bubble of university. Anyway, one of the things I got taught (and never forgot) was that the skill of writing is like a muscle – exercised often, it’s much easier to shape the things you want to say into language appropriate from them. Writing less frequently makes it much harder.

And after having churned out a lot of writing – sometimes up to 5000 words a day – while working on this book, I’m determined not to let that level slide. I’ve designated myself an hour a day to write. I used to love using the surrealist technique of automatic writing – like letting your mind go out of focus and just writing whatever comes from it (I always thought of it as the magic-eye pictures, but written down). So, whether it be automatic writing, blogging, or letters to friends, everyday of my life now has an hour dedicated to writing contained within it.

So there we have it. Thoughts on the research, writing of and editing of my first full length biography. It was tough, it almost reduced me to a breakdown, and without the love and support of boyfriend, mum, and a couple of exceptional, writerly-minded friends, it would almost certainly never have been done.

A couple of weeks after completion though, some distance from it, and I’m itching to get going again. What on earth can I write now? Good job really that NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is coming up. I tried to take part two years ago, and failed, spectacularly. Seeing as their word count is only 50,000 – a whole 10k less than the Lady Gaga biog – surely I can whack that out in a month? We’ll have to see though. I know planning isn’t really in the spirit of the thing, but the newly awakened Virgo in me says it’s a good idea.

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