Monday, May 28, 2012

How to Write a Novel

by Stephanie Morrill

Okay. I'm leaving on vacation today and therefore decided you all needed a 2,000 word blog post from me to tide you over.

Kidding. What really happened is that I became frustrated with the "Steps to Writing a Novel" page that I had posted from when we started our Write Now program in 2011. It began to feel very inadequate to me, though I was regularly receiving emails from writers who said they were using it.

So I decided to improve upon it. Below is the result. You can easily find it up top there by clicking that handy "How to Write a Novel" tab:

The good news is that every writer is different. I began my writing journey as a "pantser." A writer who writes by the seat of her pants without an outline. I wanted to be an outline type girl (After all, I love everything to be neat and orderly) but it just didn't work for me.

The pluses of writing as a pantser, I've found, is the creativity. The story can wander as you see fit that day.

The bad thing is ... the story can wander. Which means a lot of tightening up, trashing, and rewriting during the revision process.

After 11 years of pursuing publication, 8 years of doing it full time, and 4 years of being a published author, I've developed into a hybrid of pantser and plotter. I'm a plantser, you could say.

With every book I write, I learn more about the craft and more about what works for me as an author. It's hard to write a solid "Step by Step" guide for writing a novel, but this is my process more or less. Hopefully you find it helpful:

Before I Write Anything

• I might brainstorm with some writing friends and talk the idea over with my agent (who's amazing about dropping what she's doing to help me brainstorm ways to make the idea bigger).

• I write back cover copy, though at this stage I don't worry yet about making it quippy. Really, it's more of a "blurby thing" than it is back cover copy.

• I begin work on a one liner, which is my story boiled down to a sentence or two. They always take me forever, and I can never figure out the right balance.

Getting Started

• When I know my opening line and opening scene, I begin writing.
Related Posts: Writing a good first paragraphWriting a good first chapterHow to end a chapterWriting Chapter Two
• I write the first couple chapters. Typically three. Because I'm published, I can sell a manuscript before I've written the entire thing.

• After I've written my three chapters, I have a decent idea of who my characters are, what they want, and how they interact with each other. So I pause my first draft to make a book proposal. That way my agent can be shopping the idea while I keep writing. A book proposal involves:
  • A title. For a series this also means a title for the series and the other books.
  • My estimated word count
  • My target audience
  • My one-line, or "The hook" as we list it in the proposal.
  • Comparitive titles, which I possibly hate even more than the one-liner. This is a handful of titles that's similar to your book. The point is for the publishing house to get an idea of similar titles that are already on the market and how they're selling. It's tricky stuff because you want to show that your book will be successful, but I've also heard agents say to not put down books that are phenomenal best sellers. Like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. is a good resource for these, but I've actually found that my library's website is even better.
  • My author bio and a picture of me looking cute and likable and, "Don't I look like a professional, fun person to work with?"
  • Sales Hooks/Author Promotion, which is anything that will say to publishers, "I can sell some books for you!" I put endorsements here, awards my books have won, and stuff like being featured on the cover of The Kansas City Star. 
  • Marketing Strategies, which is what it sounds like. It's all the fun marketing stuff I've come up with for this particular book or series. 
  • Book summaries for all books being pitched.
  • Sample chapters
  • Synopsis, typically 2 to 3 pages.

Writing the first draft

• Once I've gotten the book proposal turned into my agent, I get back to writing my first draft. For me it works best to write without editing. It means my first drafts are lousy, but they're for my eyes only, so it's okay. I've learned to turn off my internal editor, and it's transformed the way I write. (And while many other writers are supporters of writing bad first drafts, many others like to edit as they go. Roseanna M. White wrote a guest post about that on here.)

Because of all the work I put into the book proposal, particularly with writing the synopsis, I now have a decent idea of what will be going on in my story. I've found this provides just enough structure for me that I know where the book is headed,  but I still have the "pantser" freedom to figure out how to get there.

The combination of composting and writing my synopsis has helped me determine all these things before I get into the meat of my story:
The first draft process will deepen all these things, of course. Some things that get deepened during the first draft are:

Even though I allow myself to write "bad first drafts" it's important that the structure of the story is solid. This means it's important for me to have:
If this is early in your writing journey, you might have some unique questions and struggles with the first draft. Such as:
• Because I'm more of a bare bones writer, I aim for about 10k less then I want the book to wind up being. That gives me plenty of room for all the adding I'll need.

• When I finish a first draft, I take a 6 week break before editing.

During my time off

After I've caught up on laundry and email, all of which were likely ignored as I finished my first draft, I often have a couple story-related things I want to do.

• Sometimes I'll do some general research. Like if my character is really into, say, trees, then I'll spend some time perusing books about trees just to build up my knowledge base.

• I often use this time to make a marketing calendar, listing all the things I plan to do to promote my book and when I intend to do them. If I don't have a release date yet, then I make the dates generic.

Editing the first draft

• The first thing I do is read through my manuscript in as few sitting as possible. I keep a notebook next to me so I can keep a list of things I notice that need to be changed.

Editing the second draft

Now that the big stuff has been taken care of, I zoom in and start working on my scenes. The first thing I examine is if the scene even matters. Then I can move onto:
Within each scene, I'll examine the following:
Editing the third draft

Now is when I make it sparkle. The big story stuff - predictable plot twists or flat characters - have all been fixed, so now I get super picky about word choices and grammar.
Related Posts: Some lessons on commas, CAPS, "Quotes" (and parentheses too)
Finishing up

• After I've done my best with it, I send it to my writing partner to get her input. She points out all my comma mistakes and also draws attention to anything that doesn't feel quite right to her. ("Why does your main character say this?")

• When I've input her edits and suggestions, I often read over the manuscript one more time before declaring it done and ready for an editor's desk.

• There are a couple spreadsheets that are helpful for editors. (Or so mine have told me.) If you're more of a plotter, it might benefit you to make these before you start. Sometimes I make mine while writing the first draft, but more often than not they happen after I'm done editing:
• And then the process begins all over again with another spark...


  1. Wow. What an amazing article! Thank you so much, Stephanie. I am definitely coming back to this ... maybe for the rest of my life.

  2. Thank you so much for this great post! These steps have answered every single one of my questions about writing a novel and I will definitely be referring to this often!

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  4. Thanks, this was so helpful. It can be hard to know where to go next sometimes. Thank you so much. Have a great Memorial Day!

  5. Wow. What a great article. Have fun on vacation! :)

  6. This was great! I'll bet you are excited for a vacation! =)
    When I edit, I always check for words I overuse. My favorites are; it and up. For some reason, I use the word 'up' a ridiculous amount of times. Like, "She picked it up, then turned and went up the stairs". That could easily be "She grabbed (the object), then turned and ran up the stairs".
    I need to hurry up and finish my WIP first draft so I can start editing!

  7. Great point, Sarah. Every author has a few habits that they tend to abuse. Mine is triplets. Ex: He walked into the room, flipped on the lights, and sat down. I tend to abuse that sentence structure, so I have to watch myself during edits.

  8. First off, that Rachel Smythe up there who deleted her comment is me. :) I created a new blog so that I would know the steps. Giving a presentation on blogging to my writers group next week! :)

    Second, comprehensive but succinct, Stephanie. :D

    Jill, I didn't know that was called triplet. I do that. all. the. time. :)