The stages of writing a novel

Now that I've finished five novels, I am starting to make assumptions about my process. It's comforting, because then I find writing is more predictable, and I enjoy predictability. When I write a story, it all hinges on an interesting idea, and then moves from there.

STEP 1: THE IDEA. Usually I'm writing something else when an idea comes. I finish that other project first before starting on it, so it has time to simmer really well, and I have a head start in how I want to develop it.

STEP 2: RESEARCH. I love research. I enjoy burying myself in the world I'm writing about. That's why fantasy is a harder for me to write, because it means I need to think up the world I'm steeping myself in, as well as characters and plotline instead of having something real to build on. For Lightning Tree I ended up reading or skimming several dozen hard-copy history texts, journals, ward histories, and biographies, and hundreds of websites. By the way, I have them all written down if anybody is interested in my sources. Usually I'm rewriting one story while I'm researching another. The two kind of compliment each other... when I get tired of reading and fine-tuning my own words, I can delve into someone else's for a while.

STEP 3: FORMULATING PLOT AND CHARACTERS. I have to do these at the same time, because the plot requires certain characters and certain characters (for me) elicit different plots. I do a loose outline at first, describing the several conflicts in the story and their resolutions, the personalities and struggles, strengths and weaknesses of my characters as well as real-life people they remind me of (usually several for each character.)

STEP 4: OUTLINING. Some people can just write a story off the top of their heads, but I find if I do that, I end up in a tangled mess about 60% of the way in. The plot just slows down... and stops... and I don't exactly know what to do with it. So I make sure I know what the beginning, middle, and end of my story will be. I let my ideas stew and come up with several events I feel will be fun or touching or draw the reader into the message or character that I'm focusing on. I write all these things down longhand in several pages of messy scribbles, and then I go through them and organize them into logical order. Finally, I take post-it-notes and use phrases or words representative of each of these things, dividing them into a chapter per post-it-note. This is a fluid process--I'll have lots of ideas while I'm actually in the process of writing, or I'll decide something doesn't work, and I'll add or subtract from my post-it-notes.

STEP 5: IMPROVISING. I use outline more as security than a strict task-master. I write, and the ideas flow. I guide them with my outline (e.g. oh, that's right, this scene comes next.) But I also improvise (for example I'll decide a scene having to do with *this conflict* belongs here instead of in the next chapter, or I think *these two characters* need to interact, we haven't seen it enough lately.) Sometimes plot will change to fit the characters better... I update the outline when this happens to keep myself on track and my plot threats tight... plotting is actually a rather complicated process. If you drop a thread, the reader will notice, and so you have to keep track of loose ends/make sure each central conflict is represented all the way through the novel.

STEP 6: WRITING. I give myself a word count. I decided to do this when I read on Phillip Pullman's website that he sits down and writes 1100 words a day each day, more if he wants to. But when he's done with 1100 words, he can be done. This really helps me, because I have so much to do that writing could easily be pushed out in favor of laundry, for instance. But if you don't sit down and write, it doesn't get done. So... 1100 words each week-day (I take a break on week-ends). More if I want to, but I don't lay my head down on the pillow unless those 1100 words are written. It's a daily task like the dishes (only far more enjoyable of course.) There are occasional exceptions when life really does take over (for instance, this last week was the girls' ballet recital.)

I find that there are stages in my actual writing process, too. When I first begin a story, it's awkward and frustrating for a while, like riding a bike uphill. I have to force those 1100 words out. Then I get to know the characters, and the story starts gaining momentum and flows me along with it. Then there's the "blocky" stage, where you reach that critical halfway point and your story suddenly feels like you're not sure where you're going.... that's why you have an outline. Where do I go next? I find myself asking that question a lot at this stage... that's what the sticky notes are for; ideas to get me going over the rough patches. And then, near the end, like maybe 80% of the way through, I hit what I call the race to the finish stage. Where I know exactly what is going to happen from where I am until the end, where I suddenly feel like I've unwound all the knots in my plot threads and am rapidly straightening everything out and sending my story to a well-resolved ending. Word counts tend to rise dramatically at this stage. In fact, sometimes I'm staying up far too late and end up a little cranky the next morning. It's both exhilarating and exhausting. And finally, I finish. Yeah, that's kind of an obvious observation, but I include it because it's monumental. Putting that last period on that last sentence is one of the best feelings in the world, even though I know I'm not really finished yet.

While I'm writing, I am also rewriting... I will go back over the previous day's material and smooth it out, look for any glaring problems before going on to that day's 1100 words.

STEP 7: REWRITING. I go back to the first page. I'm looking for grammar and spelling, word echoes, excess adjectives or adverbs, places where the characters do or say things that aren't like them. I evaluate word choice and see if I can find better, I make sure there's nothing boring or cheesy or choppy, I make sure my paragraphs and chapters flow well together. I make sure all plot threads are taut and that nothing is left hanging.

STEP 8: RE-REWRITING. Generally at this point i'm doing "find and replace" type edits... where I realize I've used a certain style of sentence too much, or used too many tags, for instance (He said, she said). Using the example of the tag, I'd type "said" in the find box in Microsoft Word, and go through the manuscript and examine every single usage to make sure I like all of them (and generally, get rid of half of them.)

Step 9: ALPHA READERS. Actually this is kind of an ongoing process. I go to a weekly critique group. On the day of critique group, I'll take whatever pages I'm reading for that day and go over them again for glaring flaws. Then at critique group, people will mark up my pages, and I will take a day every now and then and examine changes and suggestions and decide which ones are legitimate and which aren't (generally speaking, they're all legit.)

Step 10: BETA READERS. I print off a couple copies and send them to friends. I'll make a PDF and send it to other friends. While I'm waiting for feedback, I usually work on step 11.

Step 11: SUBMISSIONS MATERIALS. Cover letters require a whole lot of rewriting and re-evaluating. I'll come up with a paragraph summary of my book (kind of like what you find on the backs of books) that I can use to sell my story. I'll refine it, re-refine it, have people read it, re-refine it, come back a week later, re-refine it... also I will update the "selling myself" portion of my cover letter to include any new publications, awards, or recognitions. In addition to cover letters and paragraph summaries, a lot of publishers and agents want a chapter summary, a three page summary, a synopsis, a page of ideas on how you plan to market you work, or even an "elevator" summary which is basically a sentence or two about your story that will hook them. These are tortuous. By the end I usually feel like I'm swimming in the English language... how do you use commas again? Do you spell their with an i before or after the e? Yeah, that's why you have people read it.

Step 12: SUBMITTING. After getting feedback from some of my readers, I'll start gathering a list of agents and publishers that I think will be a good match. I use Writers' Market's online services for this. I'll scroll through agencies, rank them according to how much I'd like them to be the ones to work with me, divide them into tiers and submit them, tier by tier until I run out of people to reject me. (And since I haven't done a whole lot of submitting in the general market, this is a new process for me. There are only four LDS publishers and so when you're done with those, you're pretty much done and it's time to either rewrite or scrap the whole thing, sorry to say. Or self-publish, or make a podcast novel out of it, or something. I make a chart and keep track of submissions that way (when I submitted, how long the turnaround time is, what the response was among other things.)

Step 13: KEEP GOING. I start on a new project. I give myself maybe a week break, max, and get going on something new right away.

And that's all, folks. Different people do it different ways, but I find that, so far, this is my process every single time and it works for me.


Your process is similar to

Your process is similar to mine.

Oh, and I see you know my cousin, Javen Tanner.


Product over Process

I really like this post. Your writing method is quite similar to mine, so my ego obligates me to agree with everything you’ve said. I hasten to add that’s NOT the reason I like the post, however. You refer to the genesis as “the idea” while I like to think of it as the theme or premise of the story, and for me it’s the first page written. The story as it’s created pushes this page ahead of it (actually to the bottom of the manuscript, but you see what I mean), and I add story notes as they appear or occur to me to during the process; these are the threads you speak of.
We differ in how our characters come into being, (I’ve read Lightning Tree) but apparently your way of indentifying them before you start works very well. My characters, other than the protagonist, come into being as they are needed to support the theme/premise, and are fleshed out to the extent needed to make them substantial enough for their purpose. This is your “improvising.”
I like the way you use the sticky notes. I’ve tried the storyboard method, which is similar, but I got lost in the myriad notes that overlapped and contradicted, and I admire your ambition. I write when I feel like it, but I do insist I produce at least a chapter a week. I get the impression you don’t mind re-writing and that’s a good thing because the quality of the work revolves around it. I love the process.
And we agree on the trials that present after the book is “finished.” While book-signings are wonderful personal experiences because you can talk to the people for whom you spent all that time, the event can also be a royal pain in the tush. I won’t even mention the humiliation inflicted on you as supplicant to a publisher/editor/agent.
Yours is a thoughtful and well-stated article, Sarah, and I look forward to more of the same.

Wally, a fellow 'tribe’ member and wanderer.