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Now that I’m at the final stretches of my novel in progress, it makes sense to take stock of how I’ve been doing and share some tips while I’m at it. This is by no means the first book I’ve written, but I’d say this is the first time I’ve taken a more methodological approach to my writing process. I totally recommend doing the same, I felt so fancy just writing that sentence!
So in this post, I’m going to reveal the steps to writing a novel that I take as a published author. You’re going to learn what is the first step of the novel writing process and all the way to the last draft.
Don’t make this writing process mistake
Previously my writing process has gone something like this: get an idea, start writing, add more stuff wherever because I’m a chronic under-writer, do some editing, done.
And really, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that if you’re just writing for fun and you don’t have plans to publish or to share your writing with a bigger audience. But if you’re hoping to become a professional writer, you have to ditch that “write from start to finish once and then you’re done” mentality.
Knowing what are the first steps to writing a book is important but you also need to know how to follow through. If you’re confused, keep reading!
No published book is a first draft
I’ve written about the misconceptions people have about writing a book before, but I just have to emphasize one thing: When you read a finished book, you have no idea how many different stages of writing and editing there have been. The writer did not just start writing, end up with 350 pages and then send the book over to be printed.
If you ever feel like your writing is similar to a stinky garbage fire, just remember that you’re likely comparing your early drafts to someone’s finished work. When it comes to working on your novel, you can, indeed, polish a turd. That’s just how it works. Here’s the real truth about writing your first draft.
But let’s get into the actual writing process now as I see it.
What goes into planning a novel?
The very first stage of planning doesn’t necessarily mean getting any writing done at all. You might be brainstorming ideas in your head or maybe making Pinterest boards for your setting – anything is okay if it stirs your imagination.
My story ideas are usually very, very vague at first. I think what sparked the idea for my current work in progress was a watercolour painting of a rabbit with some kind of a poem on it that I saw on Tumblr, and I just went “that’s cool, I want to write something that takes place in the countryside and there are mystical elements and rabbits woven into the story”.
Last year, at a Christmas party for the organization that I volunteer for, someone asked me where I get story ideas from, and I had no idea what to say to that. Where do you get your oxygen from? You don’t usually think about that as you breathe, now do you? I have no exact stats for you but I would wager that it’s the same way for most writers – the ideas just happen.
At this point in planning my novel I also had some very general ideas for my characters that were more about the dynamics between them rather than about specific personality traits. If you find yourself in a similar situation, it’s helpful to make mindmaps and draw different types of arrows between your characters.
Though it can be fun to read books with several different characters, it’s generally best to shoot for fewer, well-rounded characters, and at this point of planning it is a lot easier to combine different character ideas into stronger and more effective characters. For example, if there’s a character whose only purpose is to annoy your protagonist, see if you could combine that with the witty newspaper boy.
Related: Got all vibes and no plot? Do this
What is a novel outline and do you really need it?
I know there are plenty of accomplished writers who don’t have detailed outlines before they start writing their books, but that requires a very strong sense of how storytelling works and it probably means you have to spend more time editing your manuscript for plot holes and dead ends. It’s totally fine if that’s the best way for you personally, but for aspiring writers, I wholeheartedly recommend writing an outline first. But what, exactly, is an outline?
A novel outline should cover the key events of your story, and it’s up to you how detailed you want to make it. If you’re a complete novice when it comes to writing a book, I would recommend also looking up story structure. You probably don’t realise it, but almost all Western fiction follows certain types of structures and it has been this way for centuries.
The fact that your story follows a structure doesn’t make it formulaic or boring, it makes it readable, and although there are books that don’t follow any structure, they are rarely anyone’s favourites. You can be a rule breaker all you want, but you do need to know the rules before you break them.
If you’d like to learn more about all the things that go into outlining and you’d like to plot your novel in just a month, check out my course Outline Your Novel in 30 Days. It’s far more than just a writing challenge.
What goes in MY novel outline
Believe it or not, I no longer suffer from writer’s block. The solution was simple: writing a detailed outline so that I always know what’s going on. Having the sense not to worry about the quality of my writing during the first stages of writing helps, too, but it really changed everything for me when I started outlining my work better.
I start the outlining process by writing down the different plot events, or beats, that the story needs. My Structure Map can be used for planning and for quick reference, but you can use any other resource that suits you, or just your own intuition. If there’s something missing, it’s a good chance for me to brainstorm more plot events, and I can tell you it’s so much easier to do that at this point rather than after you’ve already got started with the actual writing.
This stage of the writing process also gives you a good bird’s eye view of your plot before you get too invested in writing, and if the story doesn’t get you excited, it’s easy to start over or make some changes. Has your story ever suffered from a saggy middle, or do you just not tend to know what needs to happen in all those pages between the beginning and the end? Getting your beats right helps with that, too.
If you’re writing a plot twist, you need to figure out where you plant its seeds when you’re planning your novel.
Should you think about scene structure when you’re outlining your book?
Do you know what is a scene? If not, you’d better find out! There are different definitions for it, but essentially it’s a section of your story where the POV character has a goal, something tries to stop them from reaching the goal and there’s a reaction to what happened which leads to a new goal. Chapters are not something I even think about at this point. Instead, I write myself a list of my scenes and I spread them out evenly over the three acts of the story.
I know some writers say that planning takes away the joy of discovery, but I disagree. Filling in those blanks that I have in my list of scenes is one of the most exciting parts of writing. What’s going to happen between the inciting incident and the turning point in the middle? I don’t know but I will find out! I know what happens in the novel’s climax but what exactly leads up to it? Now is the perfect time to figure it out!
Until I have everything together, I don’t write more than a sentence or two about what happens in any given scene because I still might need to move things around. If there’s too much action in the third act and not enough at the end of the second act, I can consider moving some of it to earlier scenes if it makes sense. Again, so much easier to do at this point than after writing hundreds of pages.
After I have an idea of what happens in each scene, I go deeper into what happens in the active and the reactive parts of the scene. Yes, I really go into that much detail, and I enjoy it immensely. You don’t need to do the same, but just know that it’s possible.
It’s also possible to do this work after you’ve written your first draft. Just read your manuscript and make notes of missing parts in your scenes and of scenes that lead to wrong directions, and then fix those things in your next draft. Cause and effect is the most important ingredient of a story that makes sense, and achieving that starts on the scene level.
Finally we’re getting some writing done: Working on the first draft
Now that I know what the heck I need to be writing, I can start working on the first draft. Everyone works in different ways, but I need two things to make it work for me.
Firstly, I write the first draft by hand. Yes, really. You know all that outlining I did earlier? I did all that by hand, too. Not just because I really need to find some use for all the notebooks that I’m hoarding, but because it allows me to do writing wherever I want.
Sure, laptops are very practical, but they require me to sit upright and they aren’t always ready exactly when I need to start writing. Maybe you like to do all your writing at your writing desk, but I can’t sit in a regular chair for very long, and with no time to waste I enjoy the convenience of whipping out my notebooks whenever and wherever I like. I even carry a small notebook in my handbag.
Another technique that I use is writing my earlier drafts in English, which I bet you’re finding really confusing right now. How is writing in English in any way a notable way to work? I’ll have you know I’m actually from Finland and I generally pursue publishing in Finnish, so using English is just a nifty way for me to get my words on paper without getting hung up on my word choices so early on in the writing process.
If getting self-conscious about your own writing slows you down and you’re fluent in another language, consider writing your first drafts in a language that doesn’t feel so personal. It doesn’t matter at all if you make mistakes, the first draft is just you telling yourself the story and no one needs to (or should!) see it.
Writing the very first draft is the only part of my writing process that I work on in one go from start to finish without ever looking back. I don’t even need to read what I wrote yesterday to refresh my memory when I’ve got my scene list, and in any case, it doesn’t matter at all if I accidentally write something twice or forget something.
The first draft is the soil that my story grows from – it can be utter manure and it makes no difference. I’m not saying that to be humble or to downplay my talent, it’s just a natural part of the writing process for everyone. Everyone. Yes, that means you, and that means your favourite authors. All of them.
Nobody’s first draft is a masterpiece, and if you can’t accept that, you’ll never get to the finish line. The sooner you understand it the sooner your real writing life can begin. Yay!
How long does it take to write a first draft?
When I worked on my first published novel, it took me almost a year to finish the first draft because I didn’t have an outline. The next time I started writing, I had an outline, so it took me only three months.
Writing is not a race, however. How long it takes you to write your first draft is exactly how long you need. It’s your book and no one else’s.
What happens in my writing process after the first draft
Remember how I wrote my first draft by hand? Now it’s time to rewrite it on the computer. At this point I change very little of what I’ve written, it’s just a good chance to get a better view of what exactly have I been writing.
Since I already have my writing separated into scenes, I can use yWriter and rewrite all the scenes in their own tabs that I can easily rearrange if needed. Some people swear by Scrivener, but it has such a steep learning curve that I haven’t even touched it (yet).
No matter how meticulously I plan and outline my novel, it still doesn’t mean that my story is flawless. When I type out my first draft, I take notes of things that aren’t quite right and about anything that raises questions and concerns.
Are you an over-writer or an under-writer?
There is miscellaneous writing advice regarding how much you should cut out during editing, but that isn’t applicable to everyone. I, for one, am a chronic under-writer. What this means is that my first drafts are never quite as fleshed out as I’d like them to be and not necessarily even close to being a full-length novel.
For others, it might be the opposite, and I’m not quite sure which way is easier to fix, but now is the time to take a look at your word count and see if your story needs a little more to it or if there’s going to be some serious slashing of scenes later on.
The second draft and what the heck are you supposed to do with it
From here on it gets a little foggy. How many drafts should you have? What do you do with them? There are no right or wrong answers.
For me, writing the second draft is another game of fill-in-the-blanks. I write the parts where I only left placeholders and I make the scenes flow into each other a bit better when needed.
Donald Maass has quite a few good books on the craft of writing, and Writing a Breakout Novel and the workbook were actually the first books that got me learning more about the craft instead of just writing away and hoping for the best.
The workbook has several assignments that help you deepen your scenes and bring more life to your writing, and since my first drafts tend to be a bit skinny, these are great exercises for me to do at this point. I don’t even keep everything that I write when I go through the workbook, but it still helps me deepen my understanding of my story. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun.
Editing on a scene level
Having my story separated into scenes is great for making sure the story progresses logically. At some point in my writing process I take out my scene checklist and look into each individual scene.
What is the turning point of the scene, as in, where do things change so that the story world or the protagonist’s world is different at the end of the scene than it was at the beginning? It doesn’t have to be anything HUGE, and more often it probably shouldn’t, but the main ingredient of a well-written scene is change. Does your protagonist realise she’s always been wrong about penguins? Does someone tell her that her poems suck? That’s change.
When things change, there also needs to be a logical outcome to the change, and that’s what I’m looking at during this stage of editing a novel. If there are loose threads or illogical outcomes, I go and fix them. I do this until it all makes sense from start to finish, following a single thread of plot at a time.
Each round of edits is different
Like I said earlier, most of my writing process isn’t linear. When you edit a full-length novel manuscript several times, you will get really tired of it if you read every single page every time, working on everything on the page.
But editing is the most important part of the writing process, so it’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t make you want to skip it.
What you need is a focus for each round of edits. Maybe one round you’re focusing on dialogue and another time you’re making sure the timeline makes sense, or maybe at some point you spend a week just making sure the climax of the novel is written for maximum impact. That’s why it can be difficult to say how many times you’ve been editing your novel, but fortunately, keeping track of that isn’t very important.
Moving from the bigger picture to the smaller details
When I’ve got my scenes in order and I know the story doesn’t need more elements, I take my writing from yWriter and move it to Libre Office Writer (it’s like Word, but free).
How do my chapters flow? Is each page captivating on their own? This is where I work on those things. Do I have clunky sentences and weak atmosphere? I fix those now. This can be the most tedious part of editing and revising because sometimes I just sit there, wondering what’s wrong with this sentence. I say that I’m going to write, but what I’m actually doing is staring at the screen, trying to will the right words to come out.
It’s a slow process at times, but it just has to be done. For reference, I’m now working on the last round of doing this and it’s a year and eight months since I started working on this book. Substract the four months I spent planning and writing the first draft, and you get sixteen months of essentially nothing but editing, and I haven’t even touched spelling or punctuation yet.
(Edited to add in 2022: It actually took me more than two years to write that book – I was nowhere near finishing it when I originally wrote this blog post.)
When all is said and done, by you and your characters, you can become the grammar sheriff
So now we’ve got a nearly perfect story and we can start working on what most non-writers assume to be the majority of editing: grammar, spelling and punctuation.
The level of perfection depends on what your goals are – are you going to self-publish or do you want to be traditionally published? Of course, you want your work to be as good as possible before you submit it to publishers or agents, but with traditional publishing houses your work will go through several hands before ever reaching the physical form and there will likely be more changes that you can’t yet anticipate. With independent publishing, it’s a good idea to invest in an editing service.
Do you really need THAT many stages in the process of writing a book?
You kind of do, but I’m not here to tell you that you need to do things exactly the way I do, and I probably didn’t even include everything that I actually do when writing a book. I went easy on the anxious pacing and pulling my hair.
Your takeaway from this post should be this: writing a book is not quick and simple, but you can get to the end one step at a time.
If you need more support with the whole novel-writing process, I’ve got just the thing for you. Writing Your First Novel 2.0 teaches you everything you need to know to write your first book from start to finish – yes, that means you’ll finally finish writing something.