The Process of Writing a Novel: An Unpublished Author’s Edition

Stage 1: Catch the spark.

This is the most thrilling part that any to-be-author is going to see for quite some time. Where the ideas come from is a bit of a mystery. It begins, I suppose, with an impression or an image that sparks the novelist’s mind in the form of a creative what if? They’re eye-catching enough that it can be difficult to leave some of them behind, but not every idea is novel-worthy. You will have many ideas, and unless you’re Stephen King (who has written, apparently, “at least 89 books” according to Google), you will not have time to write them all.

Stage 2: Eagerly jump into the writing bit.

You’re going to think that your spark is enough to carry the weight of an entire book. The idea comes in the form of a scene, a snippet of dialogue, the essence of a character, something. It’s not usually something from the beginning of the story, but any good story starts at the beginning, so you become determined to make the story travel the distance. You find yourself convinced that this is the idea that will make you rich, if only you can finish the story. You write the first chapter, maybe even the first several. You’re riding on the adrenaline of something new. Then the motivation begins to plummet. 

Stage 3: Realize you don’t have enough information to write the whole thing; try to plot.

Pretty soon, you’re going to find out that writing is nowhere near as easy as it looks. You have an idea, and it wants to be heard, but it’s hard to know how give it a voice. You do a lot of research. A lot. You can name seven different ways to plot, fifteen different character archetypes, and a whole load of conflicting nonsense about how to write a book. You try to plot, you get bored, you try again. In the end, it doesn’t really make the writing any easier, but you find yourself a little more knowledgeable about your characters, your world, and your plot, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

Stage 4: Begin writing again. Set a word count quota that you will be determined to hit, even if it means going to bed an hour (or three) later than you’re used to.

It’s not easy to write a book. We often find that out before we even hit stage 4, but the actual writing can only prove that point again and again. Still, one of the most useful writing tips you’ll probably come across is to set a word count goal. It doesn’t even have to be very big; just something that will get you writing down something every day. You may even tell yourself that you’ll make it a “work week” so you can get two days off from writing. You’ll try to use those two days off when you invariably hit the dreaded writer’s block. But, trust me, even at the beginning, it’ll feel pretty weird not to write, so those “days off” will end up simply meaning “writing at the last minute, sacrificing a bit of sleep in the process.” It’s better than losing whatever key will unlock the Impenetrable Writer’s Block Door.

Stage 5: Finish the first draft of your manuscript.

This is the time for elation and excitement. Buy your favorite ice cream. Treat yourself to a movie or a nice dinner date. Friends and family are welcome but not required. You’re going to be a little bit nervous about the whole editing thing, but now is not the time to worry about it. Give yourself a bit of space from your first draft; maybe toy around with a few other story ideas for a few weeks or so. Enjoy the knowledge that, after months of hard work, the first big step is finished.

Stage 6: Try to edit, only to realize how bad the first draft is. Start from scratch.

So here’s the thing: the first draft is going to be trash. There’s simply no getting around it. Some first drafts are more salvageable than others, but they’re all going to need a lot of help. So don’t be surprised if, when it’s time to begin rereading for editing purposes, you feel like it needs more than just a few minor changes. It will undoubtedly require a second draft, and for a project this big, that will probably mean starting over. It’ll be easier this time, though. You know what’s going to happen; it just needs to happen better. Don’t worry. You’re going to fall in love with the editing process. Maybe even love it a little too much…

Stage 7: Get stuck in an editing loop until common sense tells you have to stop at some point.

Once you start revising, it’s not exactly easy to stop. You’ve begun the endeavor of making an imperfect thing as perfect as you possibly can. There will always be some awkward phrasing, some questionable coincidences. Maybe there are too many characters, or not enough. You’ll try things out in one draft, realize they don’t work and try something new in the next. You will always find a point in the story where you think you could make things happen better, though in reality those things are no better or worse than the first five things you tried. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that, even though it’s not the “perfect” story, there’s a point where you’re going to have to take yet another big risk. Eventually, you’ll come to the realization that you can only make it so good on your own.

Stage 8: Share your precious with some friends.

This will not be the first time you’ve tried to have people read the manuscript, no doubt. People always get really excited when they hear that someone they know is writing a book. Invariably, it makes a person ask two questions: 1) What’s it about? and 2) Can I read it? But the manuscript is constantly in a state of change up until this point (and even through it, if we’re being honest, but at this point, the pace slows down a little), and it’s difficult for them to read an unfinished piece. Until now. Here’s the time for some feedback, some harsh truths, and a few last rounds of revisions before it’s no longer a writing project but instead a publishing one.

Stage 9: Enjoy being able to say “I’ve finished my first novel.” Anyone who second-guessed you before won’t be doing that now.

There were times you worried this would be a never-ending process. The writing was hard. The editing was hard. It all took such a long time. Plenty of people you told probably didn’t actually think you’d ever get published; you would be just another wannabe writer to them. Well, now the writing is over. The waiting is done. No, the journey is nowhere near over yet, but that doesn’t exactly matter, does it? You’ve already waited this long; you can wait a little longer still. It’ll all be worth it, in the end, to have your name added to the shelves.

Leave a Comment!

What stage are you at in the writing process? Has your experience of novel writing, thus far, been pretty similar or different from my own?


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