Monday, June 11, 2012

How I Write a Novel

I think I've finally found the novel-writing method that works for me. It's a hodgepodge of organization I learned from screenwriting, advice from other writers, and my own experience. If you'd like to give my approach a try or pick and choose the tasty bits, here it is in eleven "simple" steps:

Hudson, male lead
Story build. Grab a piece of paper or a blank Word file and write down everything you want in the story, in a bullet-point fashion. For me, the list included everything from "Eva sees personality divinations" and "Hudson is cynical" to "Eva has to face her fear of men" and "Ninjas!" There are no limitations here, no plotting that needs to be done, and no censoring yourself. Anything and everything that sounds like fun to write about, slap it down.

This story was forming in my head for two years or more, so I had a lot of my bullet points ready to go. I liked this method of keeping track of ideas so much, I already have four pages of bullet points for the next novel in a completely different series and a few bullets for the story after that. It's an easy way to keep track of new ideas for projects that are next in line, or five projects down the queue.

Eva, female lead
Characters. You've probably got a good idea of a story now, and you know who your main characters are. It's time to flesh them out. I have a Character Profile sheet I use for all my main characters. It includes basic physical characteristics, personal history (family, emotional and physical scars, education and work background), and the more nebulous elements of personality, like weaknesses and strengths, what they fear the most, what their ultimate form of happiness would be but what they really think their ultimate happiness is. During this phase, you'll probably get even more ideas for your story. Add them to the list.

I also collect pictures of people who look similar to the character I have in my head so that if I lose that mental picture, I have an easy reference. The few here are just an example.

Outline. Take all those bullet points and put them into an order. Fill in the gaps. My outline for my Eva, a 443-page novel, was 23 pages long. That's about twenty pages of text for every page of outline, and that worked wonderfully. While I outlined, if I had ideas for dialog or specific descriptors, I wrote them right into the outline. When it was time to write, I had a few complete scenes to pull straight from the outline and simply edit into real text.
Chatter, character's cat

Review. It was so tempting to jump straight into writing, but I forced myself to read through the outline at least four times, each time looking for something different. One time I checked the days—was too much or too little happening in one day? Did the pacing of each day make sense? One time I made sure the scenes were starting as close to the main point of the scene as possible, and ending as soon as they could, so there's no unnecessary non-story text taking up space. One time I inserted chapters where I thought they made the most sense, making sure each chapter ended with an emotional or physical cliffhanger. Another pass was just for Hero's Journey notation to make sure I had the whole story (I didn't! Even after reading it through three times, I missed a few key ending elements.). Another pass to include notations of Eva's divinations. Another to make sure her emotional arc made sense. You get the picture. It is much easier to keep track of all the broad-strokes and tiny threads of a novel in a 23-page outline vs. a 443-page novel.

Write. Everyone has their own method and deadline goals. For me, it was write six days a week and at least 1,667 words a day. For the most part, I stuck with that goal.
A character's tattoo

Celebrate. Even if it doesn't feel like it, even if you're skating the emotional high of finishing a novel, you need to take time to celebrate your accomplishment. You will crash. You've just run a marathon. Give yourself some breathing room. It's also important to put some space between you and the words you've just written. It gives you perspective for the next phase.

Edit. And edit, and edit. I don't know that I have a hard-and-fast rule for this (or if any of 1-6 are hard-and-fast rules), but the general process goes like this:
  1. Read it through once for the fun of it, pen in hand for those glaringly obvious typos and the sentence that simply must be deleted. This is not the time for editing. 
  2. The second read-through is the broad-strokes and minor editing, fixing absolutely everything that you see. You'll miss stuff, but still, try to catch everything. I do this by hand, so the next step is...
  3. Enter it all in the computer. 
  4. Check to see how much you cut from the novel. 
  5. Realize it's nowhere near enough. 
  6. Go page by page and cut as many words as possible from each and every page. 
  7. Enter edits.
Critiqued. It always helps to get an outsider's perspective. They'll see the things you didn't (like failing to mention the sex of your gender-neutral-named main character in a recent novella I wrote).

Edit. Take into account what people have said and what rings true to you. Edit again. Hopefully this is your final pass (for now). Polish your novel.

Query. That's a whole separate post on its own.

Publish. There's a bunch of steps between Query and Publish, but for the sake of semi-brevity, we'll say it's one step.

Since this was the first time I've attempted this particular novel-writing strategy, I kept pretty good notes on the process. Here's a general time breakdown of the steps:

Story Build and Characters
Days: 17 Time: 22 hours

Days: 24 Time: 26 hours

Days: 72 Time: 127 hours

I include these incredibly nerdy calculations because I think it's important to note that already, I've spent nearly 30% of my total time on this project doing something other than writing, yet outlining and building the world and characters was just as crucial to a successful novel as writing the actual words of the book.

I have yet to finish edits (I've edited 38 pages on my first pass), but I think it's safe to estimate that the actual time spent writing the novel will end up being a fraction of the overall time. Anyone care to wager how many hours the first round of edits will take? Also, if you use this method, or a piece of it, let me know. Or if you think this is completely bogus, tell me your method. I love to chat writing methods with anyone who will engage me on the subject.

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