Are you struggling to complete the novel you started? Or want to write one but don’t know where to start? Writing a novel is a complicated and sometimes a long drawn-out process. However, it can be divided into five steps. These five stages of writing a novel can vary a little from author to author, but in my experience (after nine novels) the process doesn’t change that much.
1. An Obsession
I often describe writing a book as having a love affair. In the first stage when you are obsessed with an idea, a storyline or a complete plot, you feel nothing can go wrong. It’s incredibly similar to the first heady moments when you’ve met someone new and you are completely infatuated with them. You love everything about them, their smile, their laughter, their quirky expressions, even their smelly feet or their annoying habit of slurping down the milk with their muesli in the morning. It’s the same with a new book. You love the new plot, the new characters, the new setting.
Some people call this stage the planning phase, but to me, that seems too boring. Besides, I know many authors who do not plan anything about the novel they are going to write before they begin. All they have is an obsession with a scene, a character or even just an idea of a story. Unless you write something like historical fiction, which requires a fair amount of research, writing without a plan is fine. It can be hugely invigorating, too.
For authors who do minimal planning, the plot and the characters emerge as they write. I used to be a “pantser” like this, but now I am more of a “plotter”. I plot the story, do detailed character sketches and plan some scenes. There are writers who go further than this: they also do detailed sketches of all the scenes in the novel.
I can see the benefits of both methods of writing. (I wrote about how my writing techniques have developed in a blog post here). What is common in both instances, is the excitement you feel with the new story. You cannot wait to get going and the first words of the manuscript just fly onto the page.
2. The Bump in the Road
And then you hit a bump in the road. Somewhere in the middle of a new novel – or after a few chapters – you get stuck with the plot. Perhaps some new scenes have crept in that really don’t work, or you notice that there’s a major hole in the storyline? You are fed up with your characters and even the setting seems boring. All you want to do is give up.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what I do. I have several unfinished manuscripts in my virtual desk drawer. Stories that just didn’t make it past the 20-30,000 word point. Even though these stories don’t run the course, I still often think about them. One day, I will go back and make them work. To me, these unfinished manuscripts are both useful exercises in the craft of writing and a future resource that can be turned into a fully fledged novel at any point. If the story doesn’t work, let it be and start another one. Don’t forget, if writing the story bores you, it’s likely to bore your reader too. And that is the worst crime a writer can commit.
But remember, no piece of writing is a waste of time. It’s a craft and every word you put down will make you a better writer.
3. Fixing Common Problems
If, however, a few days or weeks later, the plot or the characters still haunt you – go back to the manuscript and start analyzing what’s wrong. Before giving up, it’s worth trying to fix the manuscript. Read it through carefully, trying not to touch it (you can edit the manuscript at your leisure later), and see what’s wrong. Take a step back and read what you have written as if you were someone else. Below are some issues you might consider.
Are you happy with your characters? Are their roles in the story working out and are their individual stories in line with the plot? Is every character’s own personal development clear in the story? Kurt Vonnegut says, ‘Every character has to want something, even if it is a glass of water.’ Could you add a storyline to a character, or do you need to remove some characters?
What about the plot? Is it developing the way you imagined, or is it too complicated or, even, too simple?
Think about the story arc. Does your plot have a beginning, middle and an end, with your characters moving from misery to ecstasy? (See below.) In a simplistic form, your story should have the following structure:
Boy meets girl. They fall in love. There’s a complication, a row or an awful secret. The lovers break up. But they miss each other, so they sort out their problems and live happily ever after.
If the plot isn’t working, change it – no story is set in stone until it’s published. You are the writer, the master of this particular universe, so you can make the characters do what you want!
What about the setting? Is the time and place exciting enough, and appropriate? Could you change the time-frame – make the story run quicker, or take longer? Perhaps you haven’t given yourself enough time to explain the setting, especially if it’s a crucial part of the story.
If your novel is set on a holiday island, for example, make sure you describe what a wonderful place it is. Or if your novel is a blood-dripping thriller, set in a violent city, it’s important that the reader gets a sense of how scary and dangerous the place is.
If, after analyzing all of these points, you just cannot get on with the writing, you may be suffering from Writer’s Block. Check this post out where I talk about how you can overcome this particular affliction.
4. Downhill Ride
The next phase – if the story runs the course – is the happiness you feel when you have been able to fix the plot, turn the characters around so that they work for the novel. You’ve got past the major arc of the story and you are literally on the downhill ride. You can lift your legs off the pedals and just let that bicycle carry you down for the rest of the book. This is when your relationship with your writing is working; you turn up in the morning, get your target words down, until you write the final sentence.
You’ve finished your manuscript. Jippee! Time for a glass of something nice. But, there’s still one stage of writing left: Editing.
Editing a manuscript can be even a longer process than the writing of it. Some authors revel in this, the final stage of writing a novel, while others hate it. Whichever camp you fall into, you cannot ignore this final step. Luckily there are professionals who can help you out.
There are several forms of editing. A Developmental Edit looks at the story and its structure, a Line Edit at how the story has been told, a Copy Edit at the spelling, prepositions, common expressions, word repetitions and such. Lastly, a final Proofread ensures a “clean” text without errors.
There Are No Laws for the Novel
Naturally, these five stages are not set in stone. They can also run in a loop. For example, I often stay in stage 2 and 3 for a very long time, until I have finally sorted out the problems and can just write the rest of the story. Even then I can get stuck and return to fixing issues in the book. How long you spend in sorting out problems also depends on how well you are able to draw the characters and the plot before you start writing. (If you are a “plotter”). But all authors and all novels are different, and so it should be. As Doris Lessing said,
There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor should there ever be.
I talk a lot more about the stages of writing a novel in my two nonfiction titles, Write Your Story and Write in Another Language. Check these books out here.
I wish you luck with your novel! Just start – remember the first draft of everything is just that, a first draft. And don’t forget that you cannot edit an empty page.
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