How to Write a Novel
When I started Build Creative Writing Ideas back in December 2008, I was a novice writer who wanted to write about writing. I figured that if I cut my teeth on articles about writing inspiration and creativity, the work I put in would rub off on me. I combined more than 100 blog posts to create my first set of non-fiction books, but there was always a part of me that wanted to show I could complete a full-length novel. After several false starts, including four unfinished novels at various stages of completion, I hit the publish button last week on my first novel, Ted Saves the World. This YA sci-fi/fantasy novel is the first book in a new series and making it a reality has taught me a lot about writing in general. I'm no expert on the subject of novel writing, but now that I can consider myself a novelist, I'd love to share a few lessons I learned along the way.
1. Make Writing a Daily Ritual
I've preached this elsewhere on the site, but it bears repeating that a writing routine is key. In writing the outline and the first draft of Ted Saves the World, I spent 7 consecutive weeks going to a writers co-op space every morning from 7:15 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. By keeping things so consistent, my body and brain were prepared to write as soon as I got my butt in the chair. Going to a separate location from my apartment also kept me from getting distracted. Not every day was easy, but I knew that as soon as I arrived at the workspace it was time to write. It also helped that I often went without my laptop to keep distractions further at bay.
2. Create a Comprehensive Outline
I'd never heard the concept of story beats until I listened to the Self Publishing Podcast. Johnny, Sean and Dave use story beats as a guideline when creating their first drafts. Beats are a summary of the most important parts of each section or chapter of your book. Since I have a tendency to write myself into a corner when I'm not outlining, I made my story beats pretty specific to keep myself from veering too far off course.
First, I gave myself a one or two sentence explanation of what happened in each chapter. Next, I made a deeper outline of six or seven beats of the events that happen in each chapter. I used paper and pencil for this outline in a method that was reminiscent of my high school essay editing days. I split up a piece of blank paper into five or six rectangles and wrote bullet points in each section. By the time I was finished, I had a one-page broad outline and an eight-page comprehensive outline. I used a metal paper stand to prop up the outline so that I could look at it while I created the first draft.
I know that some writers aren't fans of outlining because they say its too rigid. I think the best way to avoid that is to let yourself diverge from the beats when you're creating your first draft. There were several plot points in Ted Saves the World that changed dramatically during the first and second drafts. Instead of sticking hard and fast to my beats, I let the story go where it would.
3. Set a First Draft Goal
Since I knew how many chapters I wanted my novel to be, it was easy to block out how many days I needed to write the first draft. I write my fiction at the workspace five days a week. I had 50 chapters planned for my novel. I write short chapters, so I opted to write two chapters per day, each weekday, for five consecutive weeks. I ended up having to throw in a couple of extra weekend days for writing sessions that didn't go smoothly, but having that goal of five weeks really made me strive to complete the draft in that time frame.
I would say I'm right in the middle writing speed-wise. There are some who can crank out 2,000 words an hour. Others tend to think more about their words as they go, resulting in 500 words or less per hour. I'm at around 1,250 to 1,500 word per hour when I write fiction, so a two-hour session often gets me to the 2,500 to 3,000 words I need to complete my two chapters.
Creating a plan for your first draft is easy. Determine approximately how many words or chapters your book is going to be. Using your assumed writing speed, break down how many days it will take you to finish the book if you meet your daily writing goal. If you can fit in 1,000 words per day, and your book is going to be 70,000 words, block out 70 days of writing for yourself. If you happen to speed up through your many days of practice, perhaps you'll finish the first draft even more quickly!
4. Use Beta Readers
After I finished my first draft, I took about a week to read through the entire thing and make some changes based on the pivots I made in the second half of the book. For example, there were four characters who became way more important than I expected in the later chapters. I used my second draft time to flesh them out in the first half of the book.
Once I finished giving the draft a little bit of polish, I sent it out to my beta readers. For those who don't know, beta readers are friends or dedicated followers who are willing to read an unfinished book and provide you with feedback. There are paid beta readers and unpaid beta readers, and since I'm just starting out fiction-wise, I went with the unpaid kind. I sent the book out to seven folks in total, one fan and six friends.
I asked my betas to not worry about proofreading, since I planned to send the book to a paid editor after I finished a third draft. Instead, I asked the readers to look for plot holes or give me general feedback to make the book more complete. My readers were superb. Several of them found little bits here and there I could tighten, while others had suggestions about scenes I could add to flesh out characters and give the genre readers what they wanted. There was one beta who wasn't a fan of the book's style, but since that wasn't commented upon by the other six, I didn't worry about it too much. You should get more than one beta reader for the same reason you might need multiple doctors for a diagnosis, it helps to get a second, third and fourth opinion when it comes to your fiction.
Now you might be asking how do you entice people to read your book for free on a deadline when you're just starting out. I picked out friends who I thought would be the best fit. These were people who were well read, intelligent and/or knew my sense of humor. When I made them the pitch, I told them I would send them a digital copy of the finished book, a paperback and a copy of the audio version, in addition to mentioning them in the book's acknowledgements. Eighty percent of the folks I asked to be beta readers agreed to be a part of my process, several of whom were flattered I asked. Don't assume nobody will help you out in this process. If all else fails, put out a general Facebook request. I did this early on in the process and found two betas who I never would have asked if I didn't know they were interested. Asking is scary sometimes but it's necessary when you need other people in the equation.
5. Edit with Patience and Manpower
This is a part of the process I think I could do better the second time around. I originally blocked out two weeks between when I received notes from my beta readers and when I would hand the book off to my editor. I ended up taking three weeks and I probably should have taken four or five.
Applying the beta edits and suggestions wasn't too difficult, but I should have taken some time to transition from a third draft to a fourth draft. If I could do it over, my third draft would be for the beta edits and my fourth would be one pass to knock out some of the proofreading.
It's true that I was paying my editor to find and correct my errors, but I think that I simply gave her to many mistakes to find them all. There were dozens of word omissions or word choice errors, in addition to grammatical mistakes and punctuation issues. If I would have taken the time to give it one sweep to catch 50% of the errors, I think I would have gotten back a cleaner manuscript after the editor took a crack at it.
I also rushed my editor with a hard, fast deadline. I think that kept her from giving the manuscript the double check it needed. You can't always get other people to work on your time. Patience is key in the editing process, so make sure to schedule yourself in some buffer time if you're planning a publication date far in advance. An extra week or two for editing would have made for a better post-edited product. Instead, I needed to give the document a pretty thorough final read to catch all the errors I should have fixed before I even passed it onto the editor.
6. Get the World on Your Side
There's nothing like some encouragement to get you excited about starting and finishing your novel. I've met so many great folks in the last few years as a blogger and non-fiction author and many of them were the very same supporters when I sent out updates about my progress. Friends from my high school and college days, along with people I'd just met during the June author events made me feel like a superstar for getting this novel together. I learned several years ago that living as a creative person is not about getting all of your friends to buy your book, because it's simply not sustainable. But what you can get from your friends is love and encouragement and a hearty congratulations. Make sure that means something in your life and the entire novel writing process will go much more smoothly.
There is no one method that works for all writers all the time. Use these six steps to inform your process as you develop your own. The only strategy for creating novels that you should adopt is the one that fits your life, your style and your goals. Trust me, after four failed novel attempts, if I can find a method that works, I believe anybody can. Happy writing!
If you're interested in checking out the finished product of all this novel-writing advice, visit Amazon to purchase Ted Saves the World, which is 99 cents for a limited time.
Done with How to Write a Novel? Go back to Creative Writing Tips.
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Written by Bryan Cohen
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.
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