Friday, December 4, 2009

The General Writing Process

Writing a novel, whether it is science fiction, fantasy, romance, non-fiction or any subject in between, is not an easy process. Many people are overwhelmed just on writing a novel. This is a normal response, as writing a novel involves a great deal of dedication. However, if you want to publish a novel, it is important that you understand the entire process from start to finish. This will help ensure that you have the best chances of possible of seeing your book on a shelf.

The ways of writing a novel are as numerous as the authors who write them. Each and every person writes their novel a different way. There is no one correct way to write a novel. So, how should I present the novel writing process to you then? This is simple enough. I am going to present to you how I go about the process as well as introduce methods that I do not use but have attempted in the past. I have tried many different styles of novel writing trying to settle into a method that suits my personality and needs. This is a journey that you must go about, although you can use my suggestions as guidelines for your attempts. Just remember: It is your novel. Write it how you see fit.

The following is my process for writing a novel.

Step One: Idea Conception.

The muse is rarely so kind as to present to me an entire story in a gift wrapped package. I will not claim that this has not happened to me before. It has. The current series I am working on was presented to me by my muse on a silver platter. I had every idea required to make this story happen.

What then, classifies as required ideas? This varies from person to person. For me, it means I have a beginning, a middle and an end. Huh, fancy that.

It is a little more complicated than that. In order for my story to have a beginning, it must have a conflict. I am the type of writer who needs to have characters actively facing conflict or be approaching a point where conflict will come to them. If there is no conflict, I do not think there is much of a foundation for a good story. Every story I have liked has involved some form of conflict within the first five to ten pages of the story. By pages, I mean standard manuscript format pages. For quick math, 5x250 to 10x250 words. When I read, I tend to lose interest if there is nothing holding my attention.

Please note that conflict does not have to be physical. It can be mental / emotional. Do not make the mistake that thinking that mental conflict can not engross a reader. It totally can.

Once I have a conflict, I have to have characters that are involved with my conflict. My stories are driven by characters. These people make mistakes, they are human. (Well, most times human.) Sometimes, conflict is bred from the very mistakes those characters have made. Without conflict and characters, there is not much of a story to tell.

And so, I have the beginning idea for my story. Once I have this, I can usually start writing. This can take me anywhere from one hour to a week to figure out. If it is in a world I have already written about, I can usually jump right in to writing. However, on a new series or a new world, I have to do some world building. I classify world building in the beginning portion of the idea. After all, there has to be a land for my characters to stand on. Depending on how desperate I am to write, I may only develop the village, town or city my characters are starting in and piece it together from there. However, this involves a lot more editing work later. I typically try to get a rough idea of the entire continent, the kingdoms on the continent, and as much information on the trades as my patience allows. (When the muse strikes, however, she typically provides me with decent starting information in this regard.)

That leads me to the mentioning of the muse. Many people blame the muse on their failures and successes. The muse, for me, is nothing more than an amusement. I write my novels on my own creativity. There is no outside force that makes me write a novel or gives me an idea. They are all mine. It just sounds nicer to say 'muse' rather than sound snotty and impressed with myself. Sometimes writers can be humble. Sometimes.

Step Two: First Draft Writing

Now that I have a world, a beginning, a middle and an end, I begin to write. The first draft is never a masterpiece, but I try to write with some quality in mind. This is where I am flushing out my characters and allowing them to grow. There are many things that need to occur, especially in an epic fantasy. Science fiction is little different, although there are rarely the 3.3 million word monster series in science fiction as there are in epic fantasy.

Since I am currently working on an epic series fantasy, I will be throwing out a lot of commentary in regards to how I approach this. While I have written science fiction in the past, it is not my forte.

If you are planning to publish, this is the draft where you begin to put your craft to the test. It is important, however, that you tell the story. Quality is important, but it is vital that you express your story. Now is the time to make mistakes and experiment with your plot. The first draft will be edited and changed. While there are some who can write publishable works on the first draft, do not make the error of believing you are one of them. Edits will occur, get used to the idea now.

When I am writing, I try to view all of my characters as real people. Real people make mistakes. Real people overreact to things. Real people make decisions that aren't always logical. Many writers try to have these perfect characters who never make a mistake. These books, frankly, are boring. Don't be afraid to have your characters do something stupid as you write. Who knows, you might even have fun with it!

Also, people die. It is natural. It is remarkably easy to kill a human. If you have a situation where someone is at high risk of death, they probably won't survive. This should carry on through your novel. If you have them live, you need to suspend disbelief and prove to us why they should live. This is your job as a writer.

If you have not noticed yet, I do not plot out my first draft. I write it. That is for the next phase.

The first draft writing phase should not end until book 1 has come to a close. Don't continue to book 2 of your series. Stop at the end of book 1. I will explain why shortly.

Step Three: Plotting.

Question: What? Why am I plotting after I have written the first draft?

Answer: Because I have to do a second draft OR major edits, and I do not want the important plot points to be missed.

So, how does one go about doing this?

You read your novel. As you read each and every scene, do the following:

Characters Present:
Major Plot Points:
Minor Plot Points:
Corrections Required:

You may have more or less on your list. This is what I use. I may have character deaths listed in a different field, if there are enough of them. In my current series, there are enough of them to justify the listing in some chapters.

You may wish to use note cards to do this. Note cards can help you keep things organized in such a way where you can see a lot at one time. You may also wish to do a character biography at this point. If you do, here is the sort of information you will need.

Eye Color:
Hair Color:
Basic Personality:

There are many things you can add for this section. Do as much as you need to succeed at keeping your characters organized.

Once you have done this, there is one final plotting aspect that you may wish to do. This is the overall plot line. I find this is best done with a storyboard of some sort. A cork board is fantastic for this if you can afford one. Take the major plot points from your scene cards, and put them on small scraps of paper. Lay them out on your cork board, then read them. If your plot makes sense in the order you have presented it, the plot checks. This is a great way to identify plot holes.

Do this with your minor points as well. Your minor points should tie in with your major plot in some form or another.

Now, you are prepared for step four.

Step Four: Edit or Rewrite.

You have a draft, you have a plot line. Now, you need to take what you have written and turn it into a work of art. Editing a novel is hard work. If you thought Step Three was intensive, Step Four may break your brain. But, stick with it.

You are a writer, and by extension, you are an editor. It is time to bring your editor out of the closet and let them work. If you rely on your 'muse', fire him or her. They are going to get in the way here. Now is typically not the time to add in a new plot line or do major revisions to the story, *unless* you discovered in Step Three that this course of action is required. If it is required, this will be a rewrite phase rather than an editing phase. If you are rewriting, return to step one. If you are editing, please proceed.

Editing may involve rewriting certain sections. Just do steps one to three for those sections. This will provide your checks to ensure clarity throughout your novel. Yes, this is hard work. Don't whine about it, just do it.

Please note the bold. This is the heart of being a novelist. It is *work*, not play. Get used to it. There is no easy way out. No one said you couldn't have fun doing it, but... even if you don't use my way of writing, there is no way to avoid the hard work portion.

I find the easiest way to edit is to read out loud and record what I am reading. It is slow, but it can often point out sections that I am missing when I'm just reading. Of course, I do read and edit as I go, but I read out loud to myself and record. And no, it isn't because I like the sound of my own voice.

Because I am masochistic/sadistic, I will do an edit example of my own writing below.

First draft example:

Demons were real, that much Laelia knew. It had not been that long ago that someone had attempted to create a demon from the bodies of a bear and a boar and had succeeded. The creature was nothing but beastial fury bred to unholy delight in the kill. Unlike a chimera, which was a more peaceful blend of several animals, the demon had been created for one purpose only: slaughter.

Editing examples:

Demons were real, that much Laelia knew. It had not been that long ago that Yetritris had birthed a demon from the bodies of a grizzly bear, a wolverine and a boar. His success was bestial fury bred to unholy delight in killing. Unlike a chimera, which was a peaceful blend of several animals, the demon had been created for one purpose only: slaughter.

Notes: This needs more work, but its just a quick example of how a few word changes can completely alter the mental images associated with a paragraph. Not only must you edit for the single paragraph in mind, you must do it with your scene and plot in mind. This can be difficult, but it is not impossible.

I find the editing process to take significantly longer than the drafting process. I typically do not do a full rewrite, but revisit steps one to three as needed for specific scenes. If I have a major plot revision, I may spend a great deal of time in one to three, but I don't typically scratch a first draft unless I do not plan on revisiting that story. Granted, there have been a few instances where a draft has not been salvageable. I put those drafts into my Hall of Shame and write a new story. I may use the same basic idea and the characters over again, but it is a new story.

Editing is vital. Take your time with it. Your novel should be sparkling and perfect before it ever leaves your home.

Step Five: Manuscript Format

So, you have survived steps one to four. Great work. Now, you need to put your story in manuscript format.

I am not the greatest of teachers on manuscript format, so I will let the masters teach you instead.

Tor | Forge Manuscript Format

Holly Lisle's Guide to Manuscript Format
William Shunn's Guide to the Manuscript
BBC's Guide to Manuscript Format

If you know a good resource for the manuscript format, please feel free to leave a comment. I will add good references at later dates. The starting posts I have added should be sufficient for understanding the format.

You will also need to write a query letter. The letter will often include information about your novel and your series, if applicable. Every publisher has different requirements, so take the time to do your homework. The query letter may or may not be required in order to submit your novel. If you are submitting chapters, the 'query' letter is very much the same as if you were not. Here are some resources on the query letter:

Holly Lisle's Guide to Querying an Agent

Manitoba Writers' Guild Query Letter Sample
Gail Eastwood's Query Letter Do's and Don'ts

Step Six: Submit.

SASE. Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. Never. Ever. Ever. Forget. This. Let me repeat: Never, ever, ever forget this. Always include a SASE with your manuscript for the reply and return of your manuscript. Never submit your original manuscript. Be patient, and make certain you mail it. After all, you can't be published if you never try.

Do NOT include bribes, art or anything or that nature. Do NOT bind your manuscript in anyway. Stuff it in an envelope in numeric order, do not embellish, and mail it. Get a tracking number. Most companies will not send you a notice saying they have received it until the date it is opened and review has started, and only if you include a postcard that is SASE'd.

Step Seven: See Step One.

What? See Step One? What does this mean?

Your novel is completed. Start a new one. If you are working on a series, you should be working on book two now. Wait patiently for a reply to your submission. By the time that horrible six month wait is over, you should be in process of editing book two.

You will probably get a rejection. However, good books will find a publisher. Keep trying.

Good luck. This is the basics to the novel writing process. Every writer is different, so please remember that this is how I do it. Enjoy.

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