So, you've decided you want to write a novel. Congratulations! You’ve already taken the first step into doing it.
But where do you go from here? What should you do first? Is there a set process to getting your novel written?
The answer to the last question is yes and no. Yes, because there are certain steps you can follow to get the most out of your time. No, because it’s a creative art, and as with any creative art, the process of writing a novel can’t—and, in my opinion, shouldn’t—be limited by hard-fast boundaries.
Ask any novelist and they will tell you their process changes, sometimes from book to book. With that said, my purpose of this post isn’t to give you strict rules or guidelines. My purpose is to show you what the process generally entails and what actually goes into it. I want to help young writers navigate the murky waters that is writing a novel.
But before I dive into the process, let me dispel some misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Writing a novel is easy
Ashamedly, I used to think this when I was sixteen and starting my first novel. I think the only reason I got into it at all was because it looked so easy. All you needed was a cool premise and the story will roll out from there, I thought. Interesting characters? Who needs them. World building? You can just make it up as you go.
How hard could it be?
Answer: really, REALLY hard.
In fact, if you’re anything like me, it’ll probably be one of the hardest things you do. Writing a novel not only tests your creativity. It tests your mental and emotional strength, your self-discipline, and, at times, even your sanity. You have to balance all these moving pieces, juggle multiple characters, and make sure your story’s world feels lived-in (more so if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi). Not to mention, you also have to know how to get readers invested in your story, and there are certain techniques to help you do this. Writing a novel is as much a learned craft as it is a creative endeavor.
Misconception #2: You can finish the novel in three months
This goes hand-in-hand with the first misconception. Because all we’re doing when writing a story is transporting fun ideas into words, people think it should take us no time to write a 50,000+ word manuscript, edit it, and have a quality story ready for the press.
My answer: If a story is only 50,000 words and you were really rushing, then yeah, theoretically, you could have an edited manuscript ready for the press in three months. But most authors would think this was crazy. Not even Steven King, who writes 2 books a year, can do this, and most of his books are at least 90,000 words (360 pages) long.
Ask any novel writer how long it takes them to write one manuscript—from first concept to completed edited manuscript—and you’d probably get an average of a few years (not including the additional years it takes if they get a traditional publisher involved).
Writing a novel is not a sprint. It’s a marathon that requires you to take your time.
Misconception #3: Once you type “The End” on your first draft, you can show an editor (or an agent).
I blame movies for this one.
You know the movies that depict a writer/novelist character. There’s a quick montage of him or her toiling over their manuscript; maybe there's a shot of them pacing, maybe they wring their hands in frustration. But, one way or another, the montage always ends with the writer putting down their pen, leaning back in their chair, and smiling at their finished manuscript, then promptly getting up to show it to their editor.
The thing is, that’s not how it works. You can’t submit a first draft to a publisher or editor. Even for self-publishing, you would be hard pressed to find a freelance editor willing to take on a first draft project and not have it cost thousands of dollars. In the publishing world, the author is expected to do some level of editing before shopping their manuscript around. It'll be a waste of time and money for everyone.
Misconception #4: You have to write what you know
This is perhaps the most misunderstood and quoted piece of advise from non-writers to writers. It is also largely untrue.
Good case-en-point: fantasy writers. I doubt any of them have ever ridden a real dragon, or slain real demons (the literal kind), or had fire spewing out of their fingertips. You know what I bet they can do though? Think of similar experiences they’ve had that closely resemble those things—draw upon past experiences and use them to imagine what it feels like to ride a dragon, fight demons, or spit fire from your hands.
If we only wrote what we knew, we wouldn’t have such diverse genres. I say, instead, draw on what you do know to write what you don’t.
Misconception #5: You have to be drunk, sad, or emotionally unstable to write good prose*
For this one, I blame Hemingway and his quote, “Write drunk, edit sober." This is 100% NOT TRUE.
In fact, I would bet if you tried Hemingway’s way—write drunk, edit sober—you would just throw whatever you wrote away. Same thing if you tried writing while always being sad (though I think you would find it much more difficult writing in general than worrying about if your writing was any good).
My point is, this is an inaccurate and dangerous belief to perpetuate. The better thing would be to try and connect to your story on an emotional level (through safe means) and make it as authentic as it can be.
General Novel Writing Process
Step 1: Brainstorming & Planning
When it comes to the novel writing process, writers typically put themselves into one of two camps: the plotters and the pantsers. One camp is more keen on planning out their stories before writing any of it down, while the other likes to jump right into the draft, discovering the story as they go. No matter which camp you fall into, there’s always going to be some level of planning involved.
Because there’s always going to be things to figure out and keep track of when writing a story. Even if you’re a hardcore pantser, your brain will just naturally want to fit the pieces together. You’ll want to know where you’re writing to and why.
Step 2: First/Zero Draft
Next comes the first draft—the part where where you’ll actually attempt to write the story for the first time. This is where you’ll be building the mold. No matter how you do it, the aim here is just to finish the draft.
Step 3: Revisions
Ideally, this is where the bulk of your writing will be focused. If the first draft is you building the mold, revisions is where you refine it, where you’ll flesh everything out. Ask yourself, “Does this character/subplot/scene need to be here, or can I take it out to improve the pacing?” “Do I need to add anything to maximize the emotional arc?” “What am I really trying to say?”
You can have as many rounds of revisions as you feel is necessary for your story, but at some point, you have to know when to stop. Most authors do two or three rounds before turning to edits.
Step 4: Editing
This isn’t the same thing as revising. Sure, it shares a lot of the same characteristics, especially in the very beginning stages. But this is where you really start focusing on the technical side of the writing rather than the craft side of storytelling. This is where you’ll look at the characters, themes, plot, words, and ask, “Does this make any sense?”
It’ll help if you start with bigger-picture items first before moving down to the minute, so you don’t have to go back and repeat a step. Bigger-picture things include plot development, character arcs, and scene-by-scene movements (what’s commonly known as developmental edits). Once you’re done with that, it’s time to look at the words, sentences, and paragraphs, and hack away at any that muddles up the story (line edits). Most publishers will do three rounds of edits.
After you get your story as good as it can get on your own, it’s a good idea to get other people’s opinions.
Step 5: Beta Readers
Beta readers are an important step if you plan to get your book published. Think of this like the beta phase for video games.
This is where you test your story on a group of readers and get their feedback to see if it appeals to a wider audience. They can be anyone you want. Ideally, they should be people within your target demographic, not just your family. They should also be objective and passionate enough to give you honest and helpful feedback.
Step 6: More Editing
And the last step in the writing process is, of course, more editing. If you story is like anybody else’s after the beta reading phases, chances are, there are a lot changes you have to make. Keep editing until you feel your story is complete.
What Happens After
If you made it this far, first of all, good for you! I know this is a long post.
Secondly, if you think that, after you’ve written and rewritten and edited the heck out of a manuscript, it’s ready for publication, you would be wrong.
Writing a novel is one thing, but getting it published is another. There are still more things to consider beforehand, namely:
Where do you want to publish?
How do you want to publish?
Do you want to go the traditional or self-publishing route?
Should you hire a professional editor?
Do you need a better title for your book?
Where do you find a cover design artist?
Normally, I would dive into all these questions. But, for the sake of brevity and your time, I’ll save them for later. Today is only about the novel writing process.
Lastly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be. There’s nothing more rewarding than getting your story out on paper. The process can be fun and exciting, but it can also be terrifying and difficult. In the end, though, it’ll all be worth it.
*Special thanks to the lovely people in my writing group for helping me come up with misconceptions and crushing young writers' dreams. You guys are awesome!
Tell Me About It
Are you writing a novel? What has the process been like for you?