Methods of Novel Writing: A Detailed Look at Process

Yesterday, I wrote about how two of my novel projects differed in process method. I'm going to take this a bit further and show you some more of the specifics of my novel writing process. I'm going to use Project Zeta, one of the science fiction novels I'm planning on finishing this year, and Blood Diamond.

Project Zeta is a bit over halfway written in a Moleskine journal. Fun Fact: My dream job would involve testing all of the Moleskine journals.

Blood Diamond is also being written in a Moleskine journal–the same model and color as Project Zeta, actually.

To get this party started, I'm going to show you a photograph of Project Zeta's first page in journal and then I will share the unedited transcription with you.

Project Zeta Page One

While you're reading the transcription, you will notice a lot of substantial changes between what I wrote by hand and what ended up on the computer. I cut out things, I added new things, I changed up some other things, and generally mashed up what I had on the page and what was in my head.

Chapter One

Athene wished her mother had named her Phoenix so she might rise from Earth’s ashes and be reborn among the stars. Of the fifty geologists and volcanologists ‘recruited’ to plant sensors on the edge of the world’s most dangerous volcano, she was the only one there by choice. She could hear the other scientists whisper about their cursed fortune and how they’d been robbed of their chance to board one of the twenty-four colony ships preparing to venture into the vast unknowns of space.

It was hard not to voice her disgust at their laments. If they had been worthy of the Project ships, they would be training for life in space and exploring new words. But like her, they weren’t.

Unlike them, however, she would face off against Yellowstone, and no matter what the costs were, she would win. She would find proof that the volcano was going to erupt again, and she’d do so in time to save the shuttles destined for space. If she didn’t, twenty-four dead ships would float in orbit for all eternity, empty of those who were supposed to flee the dying Earth.

Her future, what was left of it, was on Yellowstone, and she would face it with pride and dignity. Athene would die along with the rest of life on Earth, that much she knew for certain. Her dream always ended the same way, with her watching as the shuttles attempting to escape the atmosphere were destroyed by ejecta. Yellowstone’s eruption would only signal the end of Earth. One by one, Earth’s weakened plates would break apart. It would begin with the charred ruins of North America, rippling to the rest of the planet, until Sumatra’s fault ripped open, unleashing the world’s most dangerous beast. It would be Toba’s fury that would steal the lives of her mother and sister, unless Athene definitively proved eruption was eminent.

Her dreams always came true, and that frightened her far more than the inevitability of her death.

Lifting her chin, Athene awaited her fate in cold and proud silence. The other scientists prattled, fluttering about in their fear. They were older; they should have been the ones standing still, preserving their dignity. As the youngest, and as the only woman in the room, she shouldn’t have been the one setting an example. Maybe in a few years, if she hadn’t already been blacklisted, she would have been good enough to ensure placement on a ship, but time had run out.

In her dreams, she’d always, always been fifteen, and her dreams always came true. In less than twenty-four hours, Earth would die.

Athene drew a deep breath. The gray-tinged lounge, which smelled of smoke and ash, was her battlefield. Her opponents were men, all of them older than her, but she would win the war. She wouldn’t draw the cursed short straw, she’d claim it and make it her own. She’d prove being small, agile, and fit was more than sufficient compensation for her age.

Then again, Athene doubted the washed-out failures with her had any real experience at all. She’d been the first to dare approach the newly awakened Pilanesberg to watch it burn. When Antarctica had melted away to reveal a writhing mass of lava, she’d walked across the hardening caps and lived to tell the tale.

On her back, an oxygen tank lasted longer. Under her feet, the cooling lava flows were less likely to break. Her hands wouldn’t shake when she set the meters and checked the readings. Her courage wouldn’t fail under the weight of her inevitable death. She’d already been forged in the flames of other volcanoes. Yellowstone was bigger, but with her skills and her experience, she would reach the caldera and prove, once and for all, it stirred and would soon erupt.

And unlike the hundred or more before her, she wouldn’t fail. She wouldn’t make it back, but even if she had to send false readings from the heart of the best, the shuttles would escape Earth, carrying her mother and sister to safety. If her dream came true, it’d be her fault, and she couldn’t allow that to happen.

Athene swallowed, balling her hands into fists. Failure wasn’t an option. The escape shuttles wouldn’t fly until the ignorant bureaucrats were satisfied that either Toba or Yellowstone would erupt. Toba slept, of that she was certain; she’d been in charge of the surveying crew stationed at the dormant volcano’s caldera.

It's also worth noting that I have made notes in the margins with my thoughts on the story, where I wanted to go with some elements, and what I think needed expansion.

This is supposed to be a science fiction, but being perfectly honest, it's an exploratory Space Opera. Facts are present–and quite a few of them–but there is liberal amounts of bullshitting. I wanted to tell a fun story. If you're looking for hard science fiction, I recommend looking the other direction now.

So, how did the hand written piece become what was transcribed?

Draft Zero to Draft One Process

My handwriting is typically what I refer to as my draft zero. It's when I take my thoughts and try to turn them into something coherent. When I write free form, or pantsing to those who prefer that term, I vomit out whatever thoughts are in my head. The result is the sort of thing you see above.

When I take what I have written by hand and put it into the computer, I think about what my goal may have been when I was handwriting and I apply it to what I think my goals for the scene should have been. That's how I roll. When I plot, rework characters, or otherwise try to improve a story, I am taking what I already have and trying to make it better.

Making changes for the sake of making changes isn't an improvement–if I'm making a change, I need to justify it to myself.

It's the same basic thought process I use when I recommend changes for a client. A change for the sake of change isn't a good change; substantial improvement needs to support the necessity of a change.

Editing While Drafting

When I'm writing by hand, I limit how much I edit. I take notes in margins, or I take notes on a sheet of paper and slip it into the journal. I make a change moving forward, jotting down when that change needs to start in the book.

During transcription, I fix all of those little things that bothered me when I was drafting.

This is something I do regardless of whether I'm pantsing or plotting. Plotting doesn't prevent this from happening. All plotting does is cut out a draft for me, essentially.

Blood Diamond's Process

Blood Diamond was plotted almost a year ago. Project Zeta is completely pantsed, including the research, which has been done completely on a ‘as needed' basis.

To begin, here is an image of the first page of Blood Diamond's outline. It's worth noting that substantial changes have been made to this. To illustrate what stayed and what was changed, I'm highlighting this. Green means stayed, Orange means gone/changed.

The green post it notes are covering some major spoilers.

After the outline, you'll find the handwritten page, followed by the equivalent page transcribed into the computer.

Outline Blood Diamond

First Page Blood Diamond

Chapter One

The world was full of corpses, and I, Emmett Jackson, knew them by name. Unfortunately for me, my brother knew I knew.

That’d teach me to tell my twin any of my secrets.

When he had asked for my help, waiting on my doorstep when I had gotten home from work, I hadn’t expected him to call me in to be the getaway driver of an Inquisition field operation—let alone one dangerous enough to warrant my brother’s armored truck. He’d been spinning the keys around his finger with a smug smile, knowing he had me dead to rights when he told me I’d be driving. I doubted the red-painted, tempting seductress of a monstrosity could be eliminated by anything short of a missile or a tank. Even if someone wanted to blast their way in, they’d need a ladder to reach the door. I wasn’t small, not at six foot three, and I had needed the step rail and the roll bar to climb in. The rest of the team had needed me to give them a hand.

Maybe my brother hadn’t wanted me to play getaway driver, but as a way to make certain the Inquisitors could get into the Red Beast without needing a ladder.

I drew a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. I should have refused him and the lure of driving his absurd, stupid truck. I should have told him I’d do a stint in the Inquisition headquarters shuffling papers and naming dead people instead of pretending I was trained for field operations.

Drumming my hands against the leather wheel—probably the only normal thing in the truck—I waited. The manila envelope on the dashboard mocked me, reflecting in the windshield as I watched the darkening forest for any signs of the team’s return. Once I opened it, I’d know more about the operation and its Inquisitors than I wanted. I’d know the names and faces of the dead, and if my bad luck held, I’d get a glimpse of their last moments.

The remnants of spirits were vindictive like that.

I leaned forward, resting my forehead against the top of the wheel. My brother had been in enough of a hurry to get me into his truck and onto the road that I hadn’t had time to change out of my suit. Combat boots, fatigues, and Kevlar protected them. I wore a silk dress shirt and an equally thin jacket a bullet would ignore before tearing a hole through me.

Clenching my teeth, I bumped my brow against the wheel a few times as I muttered curses at my idiocy.

A smart man would’ve put the idling engine into gear and left. If I did that, I’d be the target of my very own Inquisition field operation, and I doubted even the Red Beast could withstand a pack of angry Fenerec armed with more firepower than the military. They had missiles—I had supplied all six of them to them. If they launched it at the truck, they’d smash the vehicle into teeny tiny bits.

I turned my head to check the clock. In ten minutes, it’d be time to rip open the envelope and find out how the operation was going. If things went well, the photographs would tell a story where the Inquisition’s victims would be dead and my team would still be nameless faces. My brother had been adamant about the next part of my directions: if half of my team was dead by sunset, I was to take the Red Beast and get out of the area as fast as the big diesel engine could go.

I’d clocked it at a hair over one hundred miles per hour over the rabbit trail of a road leading into the forest, much to the dismay of the nine passengers crammed into the cab.


The Differences in the Final Method

The main, critical difference for me between Project Zeta and Blood Diamond is really simple: I fix everything as I write while working on Blood Diamond. Ultimately, this takes a great deal more discipline (but I want to write now!!) but means I have less work to do as I edit.

Project Zeta will be substantially more difficult to edit because I wrote so much without going back and really fixing anything.

I'd love to pinpoint specific scenes or passages where the differences truly shine on the page, but the simple truth is this: I don't think either way makes that much of a difference on the quality of the story.

At the end of the day, the words are mine, the editing is done by me (at the guidance of my editors), and the storytelling is mine. What I find differentiates between the stories, in terms of quality, is how much time I have to play with it, how picky I get about the editing (more picky is lower quality, as I edit the life right out of the story…), and whether or not my editor needed to beat me into submission to get off my ass and finish the novel.

That hasn't been a problem lately. (To my relief and my editor's whip budget.)

I also write differently between first and third person. My editor is convinced that my third person is far superior to my first person. This is an ongoing debate.

I will say this much: third person is typically much easier for me to write and edit. First person is often a struggle, which makes the Witch & Wolf series a lesson in self-abuse. I really like Blood Diamond, though–far more than I liked writing either Inquisitor or Winter Wolf. (I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but Jackson's just so much fun…)

I've also been told I write men so much better than women despite being a woman. Sigh. I just write the people I want to write, damn it! Gender issues kind of comes as they come.

Anyway, every novel is different for me. Sometimes I pants, sometimes I pants while I hand write, but sometimes I pants while drafting directly to the computer. Sometimes I outline, but sometimes I outline without writing it down. Sometimes I write it down and immediately discard all of my notes and do a do over. Sometimes I stick to the outline. Sometimes I add things, more often than not, I cut a lot of things.

Sometimes I change things, sometimes I don't.

Every book is different. When you're picking which method works best for you, embrace those irregularities. They are what help you grow and develop as a writer. It's how, I feel, authors learn as they progress from amateur to professional.

This is merely scratching at the surface of how I write. I could write a novel on the subject and never really delve to the bottom of how I really make a novel come to life.

I'll leave you with this thought, however: there really is no right or wrong way to write a story. The right or wrong about novel writing comes into play for the finished product. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes (not done on purpose for impact), and other actual problems are things to be avoided, and, well, may be considered a wrong approach. The right approach?

It's writing the best story that you absolutely can.

(Mistakes happen, by the way. Winter Wolf has 125,000 words, which equals 676,183 characters. Out of those 676,000 keystrokes, there are bound to be mistakes. Accept it… but fix it whenever you find them. That's what I do. Because I've learned that no matter how many eyes go over a book, no matter how skilled the editor is, it is human to make mistakes.)

And yes, I've found mistakes in novels with some of the industry's best editors looking over the books. It happens.

What separates the professional and the amateur is what the author/publisher decides to do about it when they discover out it has happened. Me? I fix the file and upload a new copy to Amazon. Sometimes, all I hear is that ‘there were mistakes,' which is very frustrating, since I know there are mistakes (676,000 keystrokes has a lot of room for errors after all.)

When that happens, I just make the time to read over the book and fix the errors I do find as I find them. It's just another part of the writing process for me.

Leave a Comment:

1 comment
Rosie says February 26, 2015

I’ve been forced to change my process this week as my laptop died. I’m currently implementing edits. I’m still working but writing the changes out by hand. I never realised how much of my process involves typing a bit then deleting it again till the words look right. It’s a bit hard with handwriting. Great post thank you for sharing

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