I’ve finished revising my first novel, and it’s now in the hands of my eager beta readers. It took me about four months to write and revise. I haven’t published the novel yet — heck, I don’t even have an agent yet — so feel free to disregard my advice. But I wanted to explain my process to friends who are writing their first novel, and help fellow newbies who need a fresh perspective on how to write a polished novel in a short time-frame.

My Novel-Writing Timeline:

  • December 5th, 2012: Saw *the inspiring event*.
  • The next five months: Idea stewed in my brain. No writing/planning/outlining occurred.
  • May 2013:  Did preliminary research, outline, and wrote the first four chapters
  • June 2013: Got a promotion at work. Worked 80 hour weeks. Novel writing went on hold.
  • August 2013: Saw a talk from Arianna Huffington that inspired me to reclaim work/life balance and not work 80 hour weeks.
  • September 2013: Took a 2-week European vacation.
  • October 2013: Wrote the entire first draft.
  • November – December 2013: Draft 2, 3, and 4.
  • December 29, 2013: Sent “final” draft to beta readers.

The bulk of the writing happened between October – December 2013. If you were to combine my research/outlining/first chapters sprint in May, I would say it took me around four months to write the novel. I had just about zero personal life during this time of juggling writing and a full-time job, so this isn’t for everyone.

The Summary of My Novel Writing Process

  • Step 1: The Outline
  • Step 2: The Vomit Draft
  • Step 3: The 2nd Draft – Editing for Story
  • Step 4: The 3rd Draft – Editing the Copy
  • Step 5: The 4th Draft – Close Beta Feedback
  • Step 6: The 5th Draft – All Beta Feedback

The Details of My Novel Writing Process

Step 1: The Outline

The outline is imperative. Some writers like to free-flow their writing and let the story form as they go. However, a solid outline lets you:

  • Understand how your story ends. How will your character get from page one to the finish line? Your characters should have some major obstacles to overcome starting from chapter one. Your outline is a map to their “survival.”
  • Keep track of your characters. My favorite novels have more than just a couple characters (think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, etc.), and my novel has quite a few as well. It’s important to keep everyone straight and what their role will be throughout the novel.
  • Keep your characters on course. Your protagonist will need to change in some way, for better or worse. An outline lets you plan their progression.
  • Ensures you don’t forget anyone. Don’t forget about any of your characters that should have a presence throughout the whole book. You don’t want your main supporting character to go missing for six chapters (unless, of course, that’s part of the plot).
  • Keep the facts straight. As you progress through your novel, it will be easier to remember the events of earlier chapters, so you don’t have to sift through thousands of words to remember where/when something happened.

Even though I highly recommend creating an outline, there are a few points I kept in mind to keep myself from going crazy:

  • An outline is more of a guideline than rules.
  • Your novel will adapt as your characters adapt to the situations their in. And that’s ok.
  • Your ending may be completely different from the one in your outline. Again, that’s ok.
  • It’s ok to add scenes to your outline after you get started. Create your outline on your computer, rather than using pen and paper, to make it easier to insert stuff.

I did not write detailed character sheets, scene/location descriptions, etc. That’s a little too much planning for my taste, but that’s just me! I did, however, list out all the characters’ names (first and last) for easy reference, even if I never mentioned a character’s last name in the story.

Step 2: The Vomit Draft

WRITE WRITE WRITE. Get your novel out. Let your characters tell the story through your fingertips as you type away. Many authors find the blank page intimidating. IT IS. But it’s also exhilarating. Your story is yours to craft. You’re in control of this whole world and what happens to your characters.

Some helpful tips for the vomit draft:

  • Set a character target but don’t obsess over it. I set my target at 80K words. I ended up at almost 85K words by the end of the 4th draft, but my vomit draft only ended up at 74K words. In your later drafts you can add detail and color to your world while cutting a lot (we’ll get into that later).
  • You don’t have to write every day. Some authors like to set 1K or 2K word count targets per day. I didn’t. I was on a mission to write the vomit draft within one month, which I did. But I got through it with marathons and days off. Every writer is different, but after a long and stressful day at work, there were some days I couldn’t muster up the strength to keep looking at a computer monitor (and I’m not a morning person). I did most of my writing on the weekend; I wrote something like 30K words in one weekend — it was the last 3rd of the book, including the climax, so it was easy to just keep going.
  • Don’t believe in writer’s block. Staring at a blank screen is the worst. So don’t let the blank screen happen. How? Don’t skip step #1. Your outline is your first line of defense against writer’s block. If you don’t know how to start one scene, skip to the next until you get inspired. Never use writer’s block as an excuse for not writing one day. There are plenty other things in life that will get in the way

Quick note about Steps 3-5: they can happen simultaneously. For example, I did not complete draft #2 of the entire novel before proceeding to draft #3. Sometimes I did #2 and #3 of the same chapter back-to-back. Sometimes I’d do #2 of five chapters, then #3 of those five chapters. Other times I’d do #2, #3, and #4 of the same chapter at once.

Step 3: The Second Draft – Editing for Story

Some writers advise you to put down your novel for six weeks before proceeding to the second draft. I did not do this, and I personally wouldn’t recommend it. I wanted to continue while draft one was fresh in my brain, and I could remember all the changes I knew I wanted to make by the time I reached the end.

This draft is all about fixing the story, eliminating plot holes, adding detail to characters and scenes, and deepening dialogue. It’s not about perfecting sentences or fixing your typos. During draft two, I often rewrote entire chapters, or entire action sequences, or entire conversations. My writing had improved by the last third of my vomit draft, so I rewrote a lot of the first half of the novel.

The second draft is also where you can “show, don’t tell.” If you find a paragraph (or five) explaining something that happened between now and your last chapter, nix those paragraphs and craft a scene or dialogue where you make that thing happen.

Step 4: The Third Draft – Editing the Copy

Now that your story is set, it’s time to add detail, but more importantly, CUT words. This is pretty time-consuming and takes several hours per chapter. I will get into more detail in future posts, but here are the basics:

  • Eliminate needless elements. Cut sentences or paragraphs that don’t further the story, provide extra detail, or make sense.
  • Make your verbs stronger. Did your character walk into the room? Or did they stride into the room? Or amble into the room? Or tripped into the room? Making your verbs stronger will help you eliminate pesky adverbs that slow down your writing.
  • Cut the he said she said. The context of the dialogue should let the reader know who’s speaking. You can also add action between the dialogue.
  • Cut weak words: just, probably, that, definitely, literally, certainly, absolutely, etc. etc.
  • Cut character points of view that slow down the story. Don’t say, “Bob looked in the window and saw that Mary was watering her plants.” Instead, say, “Mary watered her plants.”
  • Cut passive voice. Most of your sentences should have a subject followed by a verb. Don’t say, “The apple was picked up the girl in the yellow frock.” Instead, say, “The girl in the yellow frock picked up an apple.” Or better yet, “The girl picked up an apple, her yellow frock whipping in the wind.”

These are cheesy examples, but you get the point. More details to come in later posts! In this draft, you should also fix any typos and grammar mistakes you find.

Again, my target length was 80K words, my 1st draft was 74K words, and my 3rd draft was 85K words. I cut a LOT from the 1st draft during the 3rd draft, but I added detail and conversations (“show, don’t tell”) in the 2nd draft, which is why my 3rd draft ended up being 11K longer than the first.

Step 5: The Fourth Draft – Close Beta Reader

Find someone you trust to be your first beta reader. This person should:

  • Be willing to invest some serious time in reading your chapters as you finish the third draft within a short timeframe.
  • Be accessible to you. Ideally, live nearby, or be available by phone on a regular basis.
  • Be good at giving critical, honest feedback.
  • Have a solid grasp of the English language and/or English literature.
  • Be a good writer themselves (not required, but helpful)

In my case, my first beta reader was my husband Bryan. Here was our process:

  • I sent him each chapter as I finished the 3rd draft in a Word doc.
  • He used track changes to provide comments, make typo edits, etc.
  • He emailed each chapter back to me and sat with me as I read through his notes, asked questions, etc. We’d talk about plot points and whether things the characters said made sense, how to make the scene stronger, etc. Having someone to bounce ideas off of made my story so much stronger.
  • I manually made all edits in Scrivener (so I never used the track changes “Accept Change” feature).

Step 6: The Fifth Draft – All Beta Readers

Yesterday, I sent the novel to eight beta readers (including my parents, in-laws, a couple friends, and a fellow writer). They will help me find typos and give me any other feedback they come up with so I can make my novel as strong as possible before sending it off to the agents.

Next up will be agent research and writing the queries, and then I’ll complete the fifth and final draft based on my beta readers’ feedback. I’m all about efficiency. I hope this helped someone out there! Please feel free to leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you.

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