How To Write A Novel

Since I doubt the demons will ever deign to craft such a mundane, human thing as a newspaper, it’s up to me to report the news of goings-on in the world of Saltmarch. Saltmarch, in case you missed it, is a fictional realm inhabited by the demons of my paranormal trilogy. And, in case you missed that as well, the trilogy consists of:

Saltmarch, Where The Demons Live

Colors of Deception

Shadows After Midnight

Stains of Grace

Colors has a publication date of April 2011. (Oh, final edits, how I both desire and dread thee!) Shadows has no publication date yet, but it’s in the third draft stage.

As of this past Monday night, I’ve finished Draft 2 of Stains.

The First Draft

Now, allow me to clarify: When I write the first draft of a novel, I pound out the manuscript as coherently and quickly as I can. I started pre-writing for Stains of Grace on October 1, 2010; started writing on November 1, 2010; and typed “The End” on February 10, 2011. That’s the fastest I’ve ever finished a first draft in my life. The final word count was 80,421.

“The End” happened in the wee hours of the morning. After I’d slept (8 hours = a MUST!) and eaten (breakfast = a MUST!), I waded right into editing. Usually, I’ll let a first draft sit for a month before I go back to it; but this time, with the pub date of Colors approaching, I don’t have the luxury of taking my time.

Besides, my two foremost Saltmarch beta readers (Mama and Celia) have been admirable in not pressuring me for a complete manuscript — yet they’ve made it quite clear I am to deliver said manuscript into their eager hands, posthaste!

The Second Draft

And so, not ten hours after completing Draft 1, I started editing with the goal of completing Draft 2.

When editing toward Draft 2, I use the following approach:

1. I delete strikethroughs. As I pen a first draft, I try not to backspace. It breaks the flow of my thoughts, and sometimes it can break the flow of story. If I’m backspacing, I’m editing — and that’s a no-no for my first drafts. Strikethroughs mark words, phrases, and paragraphs I won’t need later.

2. I do light editing: fixing typos as I see them, changing a word here and there if it catches my eye. Sometimes, as I write Draft 1, I’ll write notes to myself in brackets. As I light edit, I judge whether or not the stuff in brackets is a quick fix or not. If it is, I’ll do it now. If it’s not, I’ll save those bracket notes for a later draft.

3. I just read the thing. I don’t allow myself the leisure of reading the story as I write the first draft, so now is my chance to read and see if this mass of words really is a story or not. If I get caught up in it and forget to edit, I know what I’ve got here is rough but usable material.

In the case of Stains, light editing took six days. The final word count of Draft 2 is 78,254.

Now, I hand Draft 2 off to my beta readers, and the agonizing yet exhilarating wait for feedback begins! Oy vey. 😉

The Third Draft

While I wait for my betas to chew through my story, swallow it, and spit out the parts they don’t like, I’ll tinker with the story a little bit. This means more light editing, a few fixes here and there, maybe adding a paragraph or three.

Or I might just leave the story alone and let it ferment some more. Taste-testing too much too early sometimes keeps me from appreciating the full flavor of what my beta readers have to tell me later. But for this part, I just trust my instincts.

When I get feedback from the betas, that’s when the real work on Draft 3 begins. Depending on what they tell me, I’ll do little stuff like correct typos, add dialogue attribution, and shorten sentences — and I’ll do big stuff like rewrite characters, move paragraphs from one chapter into another, and add scenes or entire chapters.

Once I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, I’ve got me a hot little number called Draft 3.

The Fourth Draft…and Fifth

Or Sixth — And So On.

After Draft 3, the rest of the drafts are basically wash, rinse, repeat — editing, handing off to readers, getting feedback, editing — until I feel like it’s clean enough. No book is ever squeaky clean. Especially from the writer’s perspective, there’s always going to be something that needs fixing.

But for me, it’s kind of like oil painting: If I go back to it too often, I’m eventually gonna mess it up. I must needs reach a point at which I wouldn’t be embarrassed to share the story with the public.

It might take me four drafts to get to this point; it might take me six. Colors is currently in Draft 4.5 stage. My epic fantasy novel, Triad, has gone through eight drafts and might require one more before it’s ready for the world.

Tell me, fellow writers:

Does my process look anything like yours?

How do you feel about handing your baby off to its first beta readers?

What’s your favorite tip/trick for the early draft stages?

I’m curious. Let’s talk. 🙂

4 thoughts on “How To Write A Novel

  1. Josh Unruh says:

    I don’t have a process, I’m inventing it right now for Hell Bent for Leather. However, what I’m inventing whole cloth looks remarkably like this. For myself, I’m excited to hand it to beta readers for two big reasons. First, it’s the first time I’ve felt like the thing was polished enough to hand to other humans and expect it to make any sense. Second, they’re the next big step! It is possible (though unlikely) that they’ll hand it back to me and say something like “it’s nearly perfect.” At which point I give it to the professional editors and let them murder it. 😉

    • Josh, I didn’t start developing a process until my fifth novel, which was three novels ago. So for my standards (by which, of course, the whole world should absolutely measure itself, please to be noting the sarcasm), you’re way ahead of the game already.

      I am terribly excited for you to start handing over your novel to beta readers! And yes, it would be grand for them to hand it back and call it perfect, or even nearly so. If they do that, I shall celebrate and applaud you and do my utmost to mask my intense jealousy. 😉

  2. J.J.Brown says:

    Hi, fascinating to read how you approach writing such a large piece, thanks for sharing this. One of my essential things is to carry around a small notebook and pen all the time when I’m starting a new work in case the flow starts coming in fast. Strangely, a new work will come to me all at once over the course of a few days and if I’m working too hard and not paying attention and miss recording it, it’s often really gone. Yes, I get odd looks when I whip out the book on the subway or standing on a line. But even if the thoughts are jotted down in very short phrases, this allows me to bring them back up later clearly for full scenes. Capturing that dreamy state when the creative thoughts are flowing in is vital for me.

    • Jennifer (or do you prefer J.J.?), I know just what you mean. I carry around a notebook, too; my friend Aaron calls it a “scribblebook,” and I’ve adopted the term. My scribblebook is one of my best friends, because it continually saves me from the dismaying consequences of my own faulty memory!

      And, in a pinch, if I’ve forgotten my scribblebook somewhere, I whip out my less-than-trusty iPhone and jot a quick email to myself. That’s a more awkward method, even though the scribblebook is bulkier than the phone…but still, it’s better than letting those flashes of ideas get lost in the memory murk!

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