People often ask me about my writing process. I’m almost always working on two novels at any given time–one in the first draft stage, and one in revisions. Since NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, I thought this would be a good time to put into words how I work on my stories.
I typically let an idea roll around in my imagination for a long time before I put anything down on paper. The idea will marinate and grow, and some characters will come into focus. This can take weeks or months, depending on the idea. If I like it well enough, I’ll type up a quick summary and save it in a folder on my desktop titled “Novel Ideas.” Sometimes an idea will stay here for years before I do anything with it.
There is supposedly a big divide between “Plotters”–those writers who plot our their stories in advance–and “Pantsers–those who write by the seat of their pants. In reality, many writers fall somewhere in the middle. I’m no exception, though I’m pretty minimalist in my planning, so I’m probably 90% Pantser.
Once I decide I want to write a particular story, I’ll type out a two-page summary of what the story is about–all the things I’ve been imagining about this story and its characters for the last several months (or years). I include major plot points, character names, how characters are related, etc. I like to have a pretty good idea who my main characters are, so I’ll include lots of biographical details about the main characters (that may or may not make it into the final version of the novel). Sometimes I’ll write up a one-page bio of a main character; and sometimes I’ll skip that step. Then, after that minimum of planning, I jump right into writing the first draft.
NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or expand a first draft, since it’s all about turning off the internal editor and just letting your imagination run wild on the page. You just write, and don’t worry about it. It really is fun, and I often surprise myself with what comes out of my brain. With my little two-page summary as a guide, I can usually keep from blowing too far off-course, but I still have lots of wiggle room for creativity and wild subplots.
After November, it usually takes me a couple of months to finish a first draft. I’ll do some clean-up as I go, but no major editing yet (unless I have to fill a major plot-hole). Meanwhile, I’ll submit the story ten pages at a time to my monthly critique group. They get first pass at edit suggestions, and their comments always help me with my second-draft (and sometimes third-draft) revisions. And meanwhile, I’m usually starting a first draft of something else.
It usually takes me about a year to eighteen months to get a story cleaned up enough that I want to give it to a handful of beta readers to review the entire thing, start to finish. This is always a bit of a nerve-wracking time, though also kind of exciting. I have been fortunate to have some great beta readers for my stories, who have provided all kinds of helpful feedback. They help me improve the story in ways that I couldn’t do alone.
Even after all of that, I usually give the story a couple of more read-throughs, catching little things I want to change. An out-loud read always reveals something that doesn’t flow quite right, even after many sets of eyes have been over it. And even after a book is ready to publish, I get a Proof copy of the print edition, and I give it still one more read-through to check formatting, and usually catch one or two little errors here.
So there it is. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write a good novel, and why it always takes writers so long, this is why. I hope you enjoyed this little insight into my process!