Write a novel in ten steps
Do you want to write a novel? Get it done in ten steps!
It’s the Easter break, and once more I am juggling the kids and work, though I am fortunate that I am able to choose the pattern of our days and we have had some lovely days out, visits with friends, and a couple of adventures. However, 2023 is the year that Novel 2 is being written, and it is well underway, though perhaps not in the manner you might expect - yet.
After this school holiday, I will be throwing myself fully into the writing stage of my second novel. Since the start of the year, I have worked through about a third of what I see as a ten step process to getting a book written. This is not an approach that works for everyone, but it does for me, so I thought I’d share it.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about decluttering ideas in TOO MANY WRITING PROJECTS. This is a great first step if you’ve yet to settle on your project. I did this at the start of 2023. Now I have one big idea for the next novel and it has been steadily brewing for the last 6 months - essentially steps 1 and 2:
1) The Big Idea. Character, themes, world and story – find the one you’re really interested in. All being well, you will be spending a couple of years immersed in these, so take some time to explore this - in notebooks or just in your mind. I have spent many a dog walk mulling it over.
2) Research. Ok, so this doesn’t necessarily mean spending hours in a library’s reference catalogue. I’ve been reading broadly across many genres, thinking about style, format, structures that I think might work for this project just as much as looking into writing on the topics I will broach.
You don’t need to take this long to work through these first steps, however I think it highly likely that when you do settle on a project, you will realise that you have been circling it for a while anyway. Between these two steps I reached the point that I know who my main characters are, where the story will take place, when, the main themes and the main crises in the plot.
In the last couple of weeks, I have been working on step 3 of my ten steps to a novel. I have definitely spun this phase out a bit, mostly due to work and poorly offspring, but the Friday before the Easter holiday I focused properly and it is done:
3) Outline the story. Some folk like to discover the story as they go, but the reality is that whether or not the outline is written, all writers know where they are headed. You don’t start in detective novel only to completely change genres and world to end up in a slacker comedy. Well, not unintentionally. Personally, I have a “roadmap” approach. I know the world that my novel is set in, the characters, the tone. I know roughly where I want them to end up. For instance in my last novel, I knew that the main character was safe in the end, and had found the resolutions that were positive for her. I know the big beats – if this were a road trip, I’ve worked out where we can stop for coffee, lunch and tea and our final destination. However, there will be detours, and roadblocks, we may pick up an unexpected companion, make an unscheduled stop.
Over the Easter weekend, I have been painting my garden fence. I allowed the story to swirl around my mind while mulling over what I call “technical bits” – this is not an official term!
4) Technical bits. Some folk like to nail their opening sentences at this stage. Personally I think the first two chapters that you write will probably need to be seriously pruned or cut off entirely in the editing process, as this will just be you finding your voice. Instead, I make what I call “technical decisions” at this point. Will I write this in the first or third person? Present or past tense? Omniscient or tight to the main character? Will I follow the actions of only one character or see what the different ones are up to at different times? Will I use flashbacks? If I use flashbacks, how will I keep track of them? (hello spreadsheets my love – not for everyone, of course). I want to keep track of things such as the physical appearance of characters and the settings. I find that easy for the main characters, but was that a green or blue neon sign? I have bought some record cards for this purpose. My record cards have arrived, I have decided on tense & POV. I am ready for STEP 5.
Next week, the kids will go back to school, I will go for a loop around the field with my dog and then, it’s GO TIME! These are my next 6 steps:
5) Set a schedule. You want to do this? Now is the time to put your pen where your mouth is and set aside meaningful time to write. I have worked out a schedule – how much time per week and when I will write. I have earmarked 6 x 2 hr slots per week, knowing some of those slots will get hit by various life, children & work things. I am aiming for 10-12am & 1-3pm Tues, Weds, Thurs for the next 12 weeks. I think I can average about 1500 per two hour block. That would come in just over 100,000 words. I expect to come in closer 70-80,000 for the complete first draft. This schedule will work for me. I have factored in time for work commitments, and for being able to shift things a bit – if I have a Wednesday meeting, I can move the writing block to a Monday. I work freelance in the literary world and am half of a small independent publishing press. I am fortunate that the people I work for / with / alongside are all very much in tune with what I am doing. When I wrote the first novel, I did not have this flexibility, however I wrote 3 or 4 times a week for two hours in the evenings rather than sit and watch TV. You will have to sacrifice something.
6) Writing space. I wrote about writing spaces in my blog post STAY MOTIVATED AS A WRITER. You don’t need to have a study or a special room. I have written in cafes, on park benches while my kids play, in the pool changing rooms during their swim lessons. I do the majority of my writing – that’s the blog, copywriting, press releases, ghostwriting projects - on my sitting room sofa with the TV on in the background as this allows me to sort of zone out other noises. I know though that the first few weeks on this project I need to find a different place while I find the voice of this project. I’m going to try moving to the kitchen table for my writing blocks. I think if I stay where I usually work, I will allow the timeslots to bleed into each other. I need to physically stop and move. My phone and the distraction of social media will need to stay in the other room!
7) First draft. This is where I will be come Tuesday morning. Set my alarm for midday and GO. Write. Just write. A messy first draft. There will be bad lines, and mistakes, and bits where I will type [insert place name] and things like that. You can’t edit a blank page. Two hours of writing, a dog walk and some lunch, and two more hours. Just writing. That’s it. No excuses.
8) Keep notes. I lied. It’s not just writing writing and more writing on the main project. I keep side notes as I go along. For instance if a character mentions a school they went to, I’ll pop that on my character record card so that I don’t need to search the entire document if I need to mention again. You don’t have to do this. I do. I’ll forget and I don’t want to waste time looking for these things.
9) Reward. I will lose steam. I will manage a good week and then I will get grumpy about it. I will lose confidence. I will get bored. I will get frustrated. All this will happen. I will question all the decisions that have led me to writing a second novel. I know this. I have two things in place for this. One is a simple as wee list in my notebook that says why I am doing this, and some of the things I achieved with the first one, to keep me focussed. The second is that I am going to reward myself. For word counts. For writing on bad days. I haven’t decided all my rewards yet, though I suspect the local café will see me come in for a takeaway flat white a lot more these next few months. Donuts and / or cake too. When it is done, the first week of July, I will treat myself to something glorious, yet to be decided. It will likely involve a day on the beach with my kids and the dog, and fish & chips with a sandy sunset.
10) Re-write & First Edit. This is a big job. Do not underestimate! This will take as long as writing the messy first draft. I intend to spend a good 6-8 weeks on this in the autumn. I will need to go through the whole thing again, changing, correcting, polishing, possibly even some big structural changes. Any words I have used too many times (I used “very” over 500 times in my debut initially. Almost twice per page. EEK!), that sort of thing. You need to do this too. I would suggest another batch of self-rewards.~ I will do a separate blog post about the first edit ~. Some people do re-writes as they go along, picking up on the previous day’s writing. That doesn’t work for me, but it might for you. Either way, you will need to go back over the first draft. At this point last time, I wish I’d picked back up on steps 1 & 2 for the following novel.
Those are my ten steps to a complete manuscript. You can then decide whether you want to get it proofread, or send it to beta readers. You may want to hire an external editor at this point. You may feel it is ready to prepare a query for agents and publishers, or to self-publish.
Are you ready? I am!
Let me know how you get on in comments.