What is my process for writing a novel?
There is no One True Way™ to write a novel. Writing your first novel is as much about finding what your process is as it is about the story. But it should break down into three phases … each a ‘marathon’ in its own right: drafting (discovering the story), editing (telling the discovered story well), and marketing (getting people to read the story).
So what about all those books by famous authors explaining their process? Read them for ideas, to be sure. But these books can only explain what those authors are conscious of doing. There may be missing parts of the puzzle. Not only that, but they cater to the unique strengths and weaknesses of those authors. The same applies to the description of my process (below). Remember that. Use as much or as little of this article as is helpful in finding your process.
I’m a visual person. Once I have a premise, I cast some characters and build some mental sets (as if for a movie).
First, I figure out an initial cast of characters I’ll need. I create a drama wheel; I draw a circle and place those characters around the rim, noting their essential requirements. I draw lines joining up the characters to show relationships (or potential future relationships) … green for allies, red for enemies or impeders. If there are not enough red lines, I add more characters (and lines) until it looks right.
Next, I flesh out each character (skills, biases, some backstory, etc.). Then I cast them: Who, in all of TV and film, living or dead, would I get to play each part if my story was to be made into a movie? This gives me mental images of them with better physicality and mannerisms/ticks/affectations.
At the same time, I do worldbuilding: things, places, social conventions, whatever. If it’s not a contemporary real-world setting, I usually use the aid of a tabletop RPG ruleset of the appropriate genre for consistency. (After all, a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time creating worldbuilding toolsets for interactive storytelling, you might as well use these and save yourself some effort.) I want simple, sketched floorplans of locations the characters will likely spend a lot of time in … these are my sets. And the reason for doing all this in parallel to creating the characters is that they will be influenced and shaped by their backgrounds.
Finally, I’m ready. I think of a starting scene that’ll introduce some of the main characters and set the narrative trajectory … and, if I’ve done all the previous steps well enough, each scene starts to play out in my head. At this point, I’m no longer strictly in control; I just write down what my characters do. Hopefully, when it’s done, the story will still bear some resemblance to my original idea.
But drafting is not about writing a good book; it’s about discovering your story (which might not be what you thought it would be when you started). Now, editing … that’s where, having discovered your story, you try to tell it well.
With editing, it’s best to work from the course to the fine. There’s no point spell checking a scene that’s going to be dropped. So, first, I review to make sure all the elements are present and remove any superfluous elements. It’s even possible at this stage that you have to throw away your first draft and write a second (albeit one that is informed by what came out of the first), though this has yet to happen to me.
I usually draft in yWriter, but for this stage, I copy all the scenes of a chapter into an MS Word document. (My chapters use the ‘chapters are a unit of story’ strategy, so they are quite long.) I print this out (double spaced) and go someplace else to read it … with a green pen. Your brain will tend to see what you intended to write rather than what you did write. I find looking at my WIP in a different context like this helps break that illusion, and I spot things I wouldn’t otherwise. Once I’m happy with it, I send it to my critique circle (a small group of writers I trust) for feedback. Their reactions are evaluated and usually incorporated to a greater or lesser extent. Then repeat for the next chapter.
I then edit each chapter again. Printing it out and reviewing it with the checklist from 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. I also run it through the Hemmingway Editor … to keep passive voice, adverbs, etc., under control and to check general readability. The stats for each of these factors are tracked in a spreadsheet; I want them to be consistent from chapter to chapter. (Actually, for my current WIP, I have one section that is action-heavy. Since action should have shorter sentences, the readability of that section is one grade easier than the rest of the book.)
Once all the chapters have been done, they are combined into a single MS Word document. This I check with the Grammarly add-on (premium version) and manually. Spellings must be exact; even made-up words must remain spelt the same throughout. Punctuation and other elements must conform to the Hart’s Rules and the Chicago Manual of Style. And even at this late stage, any changes of ‘facts’ that have slipped through must be detected and fixed.
After all that, I submit the whole thing to a professional editor.
That will have to be the topic of another post, sometime.