Once upon a time is among the top cliches in writing, a reference of a time where legends, myths, and fairy tales might have been real. It's a signal to take a step away from the world we live in to delve somewhere deeper — it might be a cold place, it might be a place full of wonder, or it might even be a place that isn't that much different from home. The worlds brought to life on the page don't come easily, no matter what some people say. Sure, there are those who write perfect first drafts. They're rare, but they put in the same amount of hard work and effort as those who do rewrite after rewrite.
I talk about writing a lot, but I haven't talked about the entire novel-writing process in one place before. I'm not sure what triggered the desire to put these thoughts down as words, but there are those among you who find it fascinating how the entire process works.
While I can't go into as much detail on each element as I would like here, I am going to take you on a journey with me — a journey that will take you through a completed novel, from start to finish.
As all things, there is a beginning and an ending to the story of writing a novel. The moment where I (or any other author!) says “This is finished!” is just the beginning of your journey, where you get to explore the world I've put on the page for your enjoyment.
I guess there is a bit of truth to the old line that “One story's end is another's beginning.”
For me, the beginning happens before a single word gets put on the page. I call this the Conceptual stage. This is where concepts are pursued and where the basic idea for the story is born.
This is a chapter of three types. I don't have just one way I conceptualize a novel, but I do have three ‘broad' types of conceptualization that have all rendered completed novels.
Type 1: The “Inspired” concept
Here is what I know about the story:
Here is what I don't know:
For me, when I'm inspired, I know where this story is going. I know everything I need, right away, to sit down and write my book.
Drafting starts immediately.
Type 2: The Partial Plot
Here is what I know about the story:
What I don't know and need to figure out:
Things I do in advance of drafting:
After all of these things are done, drafting begins.
A conceptual of Type 2 looks a little something like this:
This is one of those posts that takes some planning to get right. I thought it'd be appropriate if I took a photograph of the notepad. This is one of my methods of jotting down the conceptual for a novel. Is it a perfect method?
No, not at all. I really like levenger notepads for conceptual note taking. It has a blank ‘bar' on the left-hand side that lets me make note markers for easier finding of things without having to use post-it tabs all over the paper. It also lets me focus my thoughts and make a list of things I need to take notes for.
Showing you a novel one in work would ruin all of the fun, so you got the blog post's photograph.
Finally, Type 3: The Complete Plotting
There are times where I know I will not be able to pursue a project. Sometimes, I am inspired to write it, but I can't due to the timing.
I know everything about this book prior to drafting. I have my story bible prepared, my characters are developed with character arcs, and I have my plot completely outlined.
Will I change things while I draft? Most certainly.
Drafting on a story conceptualized in this manner often starts a year or more after I've written up everything. I don't completely plot something unless I can't start on it for a long period of time.
This way, there is still that sense of wonder as I write that would escape me if I tried to draft something I completely plotted immediately.
I'm not much of a plotter, so I don't use this type very often, but I have done it. It felt like I was pulling my own teeth. I much prefer types 1 and 2, truth be told.
Next up is the Drafting phase. I've successfully navigated the waters of conceptualization. Now it is time to start making something happen with those ideas.
I have three basic ways that I draft a project.
Type 1: Handwritten Draft
The handwritten draft is my favorite. There is no doubt about it. If I can write a draft by hand, I'm one happy person. I get to use pens, I get to feel the lovely texture of my moleskines beneath the hand, and I get to escape the real world for a while.
When I write by hand, the novel work is distilled to me, the story, the characters, and nothing else. It's easy to avoid distraction because all there is in my hand is a pen. All there is in front of me is my journal.
All I do is write.
I often draft a scene, then I stop to transcribe the scene. When I transcribe the scene, I do my first set of editing. I like it best if I can leave the transcribe for the following morning, but that isn't always the case. No matter when I transcribe the scene, my thought process changes. I write differently when I write by hand versus when I type on the computer.
Handwritten drafts are my highest quality drafts. They are also my slowest. (Still, I can crank out over 2,000 words a day doing it this way, so long as I'm not procrastinating. You know, by doing things like writing this blog post instead of working on my writing.)
Type 2: Computer Drafting
This is my fastest method of drafting, but it is also my lowest-quality method of drafting.
I did this for years, and I found that I just wasn't able to get my writing quality to where I wanted it to be, especially in the editorial phase. I'll explain why in the editorial phase.
I can do this form of drafting, but I don't like it as much as handwriting.
Type 3: The Hybrid Approach
Reality mandates that most of the books i write use a hybrid approach. I'll draft as much as I can on paper, but there are days where I transcribe and forget to stop writing and go back to my journal.
No harm, no foul.
Some days, I draft on the computer because my brain is in super-active mode and I can't force it to slow down to a speed where I can write by hand. When this happens, I draft on the computer, flag those scenes as ‘really in need of major editorial', and move on.
I like the hybrid approach just fine. Storm without End was written as a hybrid. Approximately half of it was handwritten while the other half was drafted directly onto the computer.
I think it is important to take a minute to talk about the work ethic involved in writing a novel from start to finish.
If you don't sit down and work on it, you'll never finish. That's just how the world works.
The process of bringing a novel to life begins with the drafting phase. It is called a draft because it is an unfinished work.
If you stop working on a book because you have written the first draft, you haven't finished your book. You've just completed a draft. A draft isn't a finished product.
Even first-draft perfectionists edit. Don't believe that there are those who make a completely perfect first draft.
These amazing people still do editorial work.
Now, there is an out-of-phase step in my drafting process. This is the inclusion of my ‘scene by scene' beta readers. These are people who read as I write. Do I need them? Probably not. Do I want them? Yes, yes I do. It's a way I hold myself accountable, get scolded when I don't produce the words I need to be producing, and have someone to share my pride and joy of writing with.
These people are few in number, but they're among my favorite people in the world, and they deserve a mention in my process, because they are an important part of my process. Especially when it comes to the editorial work that follows drafting.
Editorial is something that some view as a terrible nightmare that they can't awaken from. Editing is hard. It involves admitting you were wrong. We all have our egos, and we have to leave those egos at the door when we edit.
Yes, writer. You messed up. You didn't use the right word. That character sucks. Your plot is lifeless. You did what to who with a what?!
Editing is where you fix all that stuff you messed up. The sooner you get over the fact you were wrong and need to improve, the better off you will be in the long term. No one likes being told they didn't get something
I use a circular editorial process. This means I rinse and repeat various stages in a circle.
Step One: Print Revisions
The first thing I do when I finish a draft is to print the novel. Depending on the quality of the draft, this edit run might focus on large-scale items only. With The Eye of God, this was the case. I was going to rewrite. I wanted to identify the ‘must keep' and ‘must go' items.
Step Two: Note Consolidation
I find by doing this, I won't miss important editorial notes. Once I'm done this, I transcribe the line-specific edits in, if my edits include line-based edits. With The Eye of God, my first print edit did not include line edits.
I give myself as many note cards (or notepad pages) as I need to write down all of my editorial to-do list items.
Step Two: Burn That Baby
After scribbling pictures of unicorns and fairies and nyan cat fairy muses, and whatever else I feel like drawing on the scrapped ruins of my manuscript, I burn it.
With real fire, in my fireplace. Old manuscripts serve as excellent kindling. I also view it as a bit of a purification rite by fire. Once it is burned, I can really focus on improving the next run.
Sometimes burning a manuscript can take an entire winter.
Step Three: Implement the Edits
Sometimes, there are errors in a draft that prevent me from being able to send to my beta reader(s) and editor(s). I address these at this phase. These are the key fixes needed for the story to make sense to people who are not me.
The rest of the edits sit in my note card book and wait for the feedback of my editor(s) and beta reader(s).
Step Four: Send to the Reader(s) and Editor(s)
Bite nails. Wait. Find something else to work on. Wait some more. Rue and lament the chewed-off husks that were once my fingernails.
Step Five: Get Revision Notes Back
Finally! They've read the book! They have notes! I drown my sorrows that it wasn't the perfect novel in vodka or port. I read through their notes, add their commentary as to-do list items in my note card book.
Step Six: Implement the Changes
Now is the time to put that note card book to work. Item by item, I make all of the changes required. Read through, attempt to do proofing edits.
Step Seven: Print the Manuscript…
It feels like I've been here before. Oh, wait, I have been! This is the beginning of the circular process, and I rinse and repeat until I get to step six and step seven without finding errors.
After the second print run, I might skip step seven and use computer-only editorial. This depends on how well the process is working.
Step Eight: Import to Kindle for Proofing Edits
I save this for when it is time to leave the Mobius Strip of the editorial process. My kindle is where I catch the mistakes I just can't see anymore on the computer or in print.
Step Nine: Implement remaining corrections
I usually write the errors down on a piece of paper, writing out the entire sentence needing fixed, and noting down the correction. This is really when my manuscript is as perfect as I can make it.
Step Ten: Send to Proofing Editors
Because I will definitely miss things.
The editorial process is usually repeated Eleventy Billion Times. I usually only print twice, but sometimes I will do three printings. I do try to be considerate of the trees by single-line spacing the manuscript whenever possible.
That's my process. While I hope that you can apply something I do in my process to yours, there is no one right way to write a book.