I’m not going to pretend I have tons of good advice to offer when it comes to writing literature. I teach literature, I teach students essay writing, and I read more than a hundred books a year – but writing long fiction is a whole different game.
I have completed and published one novel, I have completed and trunked another (for good, due to irreconcilable difficulties…), I have one that is complete but on hiatus, one that I have written 20.000 words on so far, and one that is more or less complete with revisions underway as we speak.
At present, this is the process I go through when I try to write a whole novel:
1) The great idea for the next great novel bubbles forth from a creative area in my brain, and I let it stew for a few days. If I come up with the idea at night, I don’t hurry to write it down so I remember it the next day. My philosophy is that if I remember it the next day, or the next week, then I keep thinking about it for a while longer so that when I do write it down, I know the setting, the characters, the start and the ending. I may also have a few ‘conflict scenes’ ready, or at the very minimum some kind of obstacle that the plot will revolve around. I have a folder on my computer where I have several potential great ideas stored for future reference, so I’m unlikely to run out of ideas any time soon.
2) Writing down that great idea: when I reach the stage where I write down the plot and such, I can usually hammer out 5.000 words in a night or two – including a general synopsis and character sketches – and this is how I have worked with all projects after I got going with Supermassive (which was written in an entirely roundabout and mostly inefficient way, but that’s the topic of another post). I plan the major turning points of the plot early on, and I also add subplot ideas at this stage – though I don’t always place them anywhere in the structure yet. I always have a suggested title for the project ready, though I don’t always save the file under that name until I’m a few chapters in.
2b) The title. I often come up with a title more or less at the point where I write down my idea. The title always mirrors an essential emotion in the story, or a characteristic trait about one of the main characters. Titles may change slightly, but so far they have been close to identical to the final titles. Supermassive, for instance, was originally four words long, but I chopped it down to three by the completion of the first draft, and then ended up with only the first word on all drafts after that. (Of course, publishers may want to change my titles, but I’m not too concerned about this. What happens, happens.)
3) Structuring the plot. I prefer to know the basics of the plot before I start hammering out chapter after chapter. I make a timeline of the story where I place different essential events in the story. At this stage, usually I have written the first chapter already, and at least a paragraph outlining the ending/final scene. Then I start listing all the chapters, say from 1 to 30, and proceed to place a sequence of events and developments in the plot, using keywords only. The chapters are never fixed at this stage, and there are always more blank chapters than ones with scene keywords – I simply do this to get an idea of how to manage the ups and downs of the story.
For example, the keywords for a proposed chapter 5 may read “X knocks down Y by accident. Banter back and forth” while chapter 21 may say “Y struck by lightning. Entire town goes dark.” (None of these fabulous examples are from my plots, so feel free to use them at your own leisure ;-))
The ‘structuring of the plot’ part of my writing continues until I have all the chapters outlined – but in between structuring, I also take time to write out whole chapters and scenes to get a better idea of where the plot is heading and how to integrate subplots that appear. In other words, I don’t have everything ready before I start writing – I come up with most of the filling as I write – but I always keep in mind where I want the book to end up, and that has, so far, been good enough to keep me in tow.
4) Carving out the story bit by bit. As mentioned above, to stay in touch with the plot and story, I make sure I write out long scenes and chapters in their entirety, and then I go back to check the structure and how I can fit in new elements. This part of my process takes a long time; months for me since I have limited writing time at my disposal. It is also a process I thoroughly enjoy, because it is great to see how my idea slowly develops into a full-fledged story with subplots and characters and some unexpected turns.
For the project I’m currently working on (working title FB, which is an acronym for two words that have nothing to do with the social media shortened to FB) I have written most scenes out of sequence and then pasted them in where I think they should go, and then I have filled a few plot holes with new sequences. If I have written a particularly emotional scene, I usually jump to something lighter next, and vice versa.
5) The first draft. Once I have written out the entire story and I have a bunch of chapters in working order and there is a coherent story in front of me, I put the thing known as a first draft away for about a month or so. I don’t have a long track record with this point yet, so maybe the process will change later. Anyway, during that hiatus, I may take some time off writing, but pretty soon I start working on other projects while I let the complete first draft simmer.
6) Reading the first draft with fresh eyes (and moving on to the next drafts). Reading through first drafts is painful for the most part. Some chapters still look great, but the majority do not. The language is repetitive and the dialogues are messy. Chapters end abruptly, or they don’t connect with the following chapter. The logic flaws are embarrassing. Still, it’s a book. I find that for each novel I complete, the first draft is better than on the previous one, so the revision process changes accordingly.
As I read the draft, I write down a list of changes to be made to the plot, to characters, mood – anything that comes to mind, really. I fill a binder with lots of post-it notes with ideas and plans that I need to carve out. After I’ve slaughtered much of the draft on my post-it notes, I copy the entire document and paste it into a new document called X Draft 2 and start working, chopping away some chapters, rewriting others, and adding new ones. I repeated this cycle with Supermassive many times – I think it was the 8th version that was accepted for publication. The different drafts went through different levels of revision, though – the most massive changes happened between draft one and two (mainly plot), and then between drafts six to eight (plot, dialogue, language). I also had beta readers look through the later drafts, which was invaluable.
One of my current complete manuscripts has been through its third revision, and needs another one before anyone else can take a look at it. I don’t expect it to go through eight drafts before submitting it, though, as I think I have learned a few things by now that saves me from having to make extensive changes. As mentioned, I (think I) have slightly better first drafts these days…
That’s pretty much it, I think.
It takes a lot of persistence to write a novel, even if it’s a bad one. It takes even more effort to make it into a readable and then possibly a publishable one, but as long as you put in time and effort and believe in it, I’d say you should keep working. Just remember that things take more time than you think. A lot more time. And once you’re ready to send your baby into the world of agents and publishers, you realize that the work has hardly begun, and now you have to juggle not only a day job, a family and a novel you want to get published, but you have all those brilliant ideas for your next novels to take care of too. Not mention when you do get published – that’s a roller-coaster ride of your self-esteem going from high to low constantly. But that’s the topic of another post.