The author blog of C. J. Ivory

Tinkerer with words. Dresser-Upper. Adorer of Steampunk and VictoriaNoir fiction. Occasional Lawgineer.

February 10, 2011

So You Want to Write a Novel: The First-time Author’s Road Map

Gentle Reader,

When, some years ago, I first sat down to write a novel, I had no idea what I was in for. Sure, I knew how to spell (mostly) and I understood the basic rules of grammar (mostly), and I knew how my book was going to go (mostly)... but when it came to the actual business of what went into completing a novel and getting an agent, I hadn't the first idea of how it all went. 

Partly because I was still honing my writing skills, but partly because of this lack of knowledge, my first novel turned out to be very average. Yes, it’s generally agreed that your first novel will always be a bit naff, but I don’t think this is because there is an inherent naff-ness about the first novel. I think it’s because we don’t necessarily know how to complete a novel.

Now, there are heaps of resources about how to write a novel – how to plot a story, create good characters, improve your writing style, etc. So I’m not going to attempt that here. What I want to do is to give my version of a basic road map to complete your novel, up until the time you begin to query literary agents. (Those of you who know me may laugh at the "road map" analogy, given my real-life habit of driving the wrong way up one-way streets, blissfully unaware that all that honking is directed at moi.)

Your published novel - the final step on a long road

1. Get to know your story
If you’re anything like me, you’ve leapt into writing your novel, and you’re already a couple of chapters. This is usually when nagging little doubts start to raise their ugly heads: Hmm, now where was I going with this? Or, Uh-oh, I’ve run out of story and I’ve still got 60,000 words to write...

This is as good a time as any to stop writing, and start planning your story (actually, before you begin writing is probably better, but that’s the sort of advice that we creative types never listen to).

So how to do you plan a story? When it comes to planning, most writers fall into one of two categories: Plotters and Pantsers. 

Plotters, as the name suggests, are very thorough with their plotting. They will write very detailed synopses and scene plans, and will know exactly how the book is going to go – chapter by chapter – before they begin. I am a Plotter, partly because it’s nigh on impossible to write a complex mystery if you make it up as you go along, and partly because that’s just how I was made – even when I’m not writing in the mystery genre, I still spend a good deal of time writing out scene plans.

Pantsers, on the other hand, write “by the seat of their pants” (hence the silly name!). They find endless planning and intricate scene plans may stifle their creativity, and prefer to write as the story takes them. They may have brainstorm sessions as they go along, if they reach an impasse.

Well, I’m definitely a Pantser – plotting sounds bo-o-ring
Don’t be too hasty in coming to that decision! Successful Pantsers aren’t Pantsers just because they can’t be bothered planning – they’ve learned it from experience. I would recommend that any new writer try being a Plotter before they decide they’re a Pantser (it may save you a lot or editing in the future).

Regardless of whether you are a Plotter or a Pantser, I recommend you have the main elements of your story in mind before you begin: the main character(s), the major plot developments, and how the story will end. Anyone who embarks on writing a book without these elements in mind may find they end up with a novel which is not the one they wanted – or may find they end up with no novel at all, because the process became too complicated.

2. Write the darn thing!

Yes, obviously this is a no-brainer. But you would be surprised at how many aspiring writers never make it to the end of their first draft (which, as we will soon discuss, is still light-years away from being ready to submit it). As mentioned above, there are many, many helpful books, websites and blogs on the craft of writing, but this blog post is not going to address the craft/stylle of writing. The only thing I will add is one I have talked about before: you will be more likely to complete your first draft is you have regular writing habits.      

3. Recognise that when you write “The End” – it is far from The End

So, I’ve just written The End after 86, 324 words – I’ve finished my novel!
Not quite. You’ve finished your first draft. A first draft is quite a different beast from what will eventually get published. It is like the undercoat that put on your house before you paint it vermillion: an important effort, but far from the finished product.

But my novel is already really, REALLY good – I’m pretty sure I could send it to an agent exactly as it is.
No doubt it is really, REALLY good in your eyes. But, just for now, resist the temptation to send it to an agent. She will reject it (because she can see it’s a first draft), and then you won’t be able to query her with the same project when it’s actually finished.

4. Make sure you have written to industry/genre norms

I have written a blog post on genre here. You should, ideally, know your genre before you start your novel. Why? Because all genres have some recognised norms. Some are more like guidelines, and some are hard and fast, break-them-at-your-peril, rules. (A good example of this is the Happily Ever After (HEA) in romance. If you are writing a romance, and you don’t have an HEA, guess what? Your novel won’t be a considered a romance in the commercial market: you’ve written yourself out of your genre.)

Genres also guide you as to word count. Most mysteries, for example, are 80,000 to 100,000 words in length. If my mystery novel’s first draft came out at 115,000 words, I’d know that the second draft will need to trim a lot of fat – otherwise it will be hard to sell the book to a publisher.

Won’t writing to a genre stifle my creativity?
Some people may think so. But in my experience, a writer has the scope to use 100% of her creativity, even when keeping within normal genre rules. Think of it like an architect designing a building – she has to observe safety regulations, industry norms and local by-laws – but that doesn’t mean her building is going to be anything like the one next door.
The other point is, of course, that if you want to be published you need to be prepared to meet the market, and your market (readers) has certain expectations of the genre you’re writing in.

5. Set your novel aside and leave it for a month, maybe three

This will give you a bit of breathing space, and a bit of perspective. Most likely the creative bug has bit you, and the last thing you feel like doing is taking time out from writing. That’s fine – in fact, you shouldn’t take time out from writing. Start a new project; fall in love all over again!

6. After a few months, read over your novel again.

Because you know your novel so well (or at least you think you do), you may be tempted to skim read it, or skip to the more important scenes. But don’t skim read it, and don’t read it out of order. Read it from the beginning to the end, just like an eventual reader will. I don’t recommend you do any substantive editing, but you can note grammar and punctuation errors, typos and spelling mistakes. 

After you’ve done this read-through, you’re ready to start your second draft.

Take a deep breath.

7. Edit for the second draft

After you’ve had some time out from your novel, you should be able to notice some of its flaws. You may have a character, for example, who is constantly stating the obvious. You may have the habit of including page-long descriptive passages at the start of every scene (sending your potential reader into narcoleptic episodes every three pages). You may have entire scenes, or characters, which are surplus to the story line. Working on the second draft is when you can remedy these things. 

For instance, here are some second-draft edits I have made to various novels in the past:
  • Tightened up the language
  • Removed flowery description
  • Cut out characters that were unnecessary
  • Added a character
  • Replaced entire first scenes with a better ones
  • Removed a diary entry written by one character, and replaced it with a scene where the things in the letter actually play out
  • On one memorable occasion, replaced one villain with another villain (very complicated; I wouldn’t recommend it!)
  • Cut out a romantic encounter
  • Added a romantic encounter
  • Moved scenes around so that certain things happened at different times
  • Fixed typos, spelling and grammar issues
  • Dealt with any continuity errors

The blog Murder Your Darlings is a good opportunity to see authors commenting on their early work, and discussing what changes they would now make to improve those first drafts.

8. Third draft or beta readers?

At this point, you can either go back to Stage 5 and set the book aside for a few months. Or, if you are confident that the manuscript is now the best it will ever be,** you can move on to the next stage.

**Note: prepare yourself for the reality that your novel will never be the best it can ever be. Period. Even after it’s published, you will still pick it up now and then, and agonise over the changes you should have made. Regardless, at the end of each stage described above, you ought to feel as if your novel is the best it can ever be – otherwise you’re not ready to move on to the next stage.

9. Beta Reader stage

This is when you hand over your precious story to others, who will read and critique it. The number of beta readers you have depends on you – some writers only have a few, some have seven or eight. Ideally, what you should look for in a beta reader is:
  1. Someone with experience in the industry (an author, editor, agent, or anyone involved in the business), and
  2. Someone who knows about, and reads, your genre, and
  3. Someone you can trust to give you honest feedback.
I already have two beta readers – my husband and my sister
That’s nice. But not particularly helpful. Your family loves you, and therefore will no doubt think everything about your work is wonderful – and even if they don’t, they might not mention it for fear of a domestic incident! If they somehow remain objective, and give you constructive criticism, you may find it a lot harder to take than if it had come from an outsider. Therefore I'd recommend you add at least one non-family member to the mix.

OK, I had my book read by a beta, and he loved everything about it. Now what?
Well, I would suggest you find a new beta. Whilst 100% positive feedback is flattering, any beta who loves everything about your book is not helping you. An agent will not be wearing rose-tinted glasses when she reads your manuscript, and neither should your beta. 

But won’t a beta reader steal my work?
This is a fairly common fear amongst new writers. Admittedly, there have been instances of intellectual property theft. These are very rare at the beta-read stage, however; bear in mind that you are an unpublished writer who probably has some way to go before your manuscript is ready to be submitted to a publisher. However, erring on the side of caution is never a bad idea, so get to know your beta reader. Never send your manuscript to anyone you know only as an email address. If you have real doubts about the integrity of the person offering to beta your novel, don’t send it. You’re almost definitely being paranoid, but there’s no point in losing sleep over it. 

Remember, be nice to your beta! He is doing this for free, giving up his precious time out of the goodness of his heart. Recognise this, and make it as easy as possible for him by:
  • Providing the manuscript in an easy-to-read format
  • Ensuring the manuscript is spotless in terms of spelling and grammar errors, typos, etc
  • Agreeing on a realistic timeframe, and being patient
  • Accepting that sometimes life gets in the way, and he may only be able to beta-read half of the manuscript before giving it back. It sucks, but sometimes it happens.

10. Make changes to your novel

After the agreed time, you can expect that your beta readers will return your novel. It will, by this stage, be rudely graffitied with electronic comments; anything from “I can’t stand this character” to “That sentence is very complicated” to “I don’t think people wore wristwatches in the Middle Ages.” Your beta reader may have identified plot holes and continuity issues in your manuscript, or may be pointing out that you use the word “little” three times per page.

A common first reaction upon reading beta comments is to be defensive. This person, who last month seemed so nice, has suddenly turned on you: what did you do to deserve this barrage of abuse? Probably he just doesn’t “get” your concept.

You will need to move past this defensiveness. It is a normal reaction, but it is also entirely unhelpful, and it will hold you back from your main aim: improving as a writer.

So take a deep breath, and read the beta comments in as open-minded a way as possible. Remind yourself that the beta is trying to help you improve your novel. 

Do I have to take all of my beta’s advice?
Heck, no! But be prepared to take his advice, and think about the comments objectively. Some comments, such as those about spelling or grammar issues, will be no-brainers to follow. Others need more serious thought, such as killing off a disliked character or changing the ending! Ultimately, it is your novel, and you need to be happy about it. 

11. Repeat Stages 9 and 10, if desired

There is nothing to stop you from updating your novel and sending it out to a few more betas. But bear in mind the old saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth. If you are confused because you’re getting a lot of conflicting advice from betas, adding even more advice may not help you.

12. Read through your final draft. Is it really your final draft?

Are you 100%, absolutely, positively sure that this novel is the best it can be? If not, go back to Stage 7. Note that it’s possible to get yourself in a “am I ready?” tizzy, and never submit to an agent because you’re too nervous. However, in my experience new writers are more likely to be over-confident, and send out manuscripts too early.

13. Hooray! You’re ready to start querying!

Phew. It's been a long road, but you’ve made it this far. Next week, I will be talking about the all-important query letter, and its unattractive brother, the synopsis.



muso-blog-hog said...

Hey CJ ~~ I felt as if this post was written for me ! LOL ! I'm just a little concerned that I may be "over-doing" the planning stages . Is it possible to "over-plan" ? Would it stifle creativity during the actual writing process ?

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Hi Muso! At the moment I have several online and real-life friends who are starting out in the novelling world, so I've recently been thinking about what I wish someone had told me, when I began writing my very first novel.
Anyway, I hope you got something useful out of it!
As to your question: "Over-planning" is subjective, of course. I am BIG on planning, as I mentioned above. It works for me, so I stick with it. In my honest opinion, I think it is better for new writers to have a plan to fall back on. You don't have to be obsessive about your plan - just jot down the general things you think should happen, and in what order (remember, you can go ahead and change things in later drafts). Make a note of any scenes you particularly want to include. For example, in my current WIP, I have an action scene in a shipping yard that I can see clearly in my head. But I'm not at the point of writing it yet, so I've made notes about it, and will fill in the blanks when I get there.
Why not try this: make some notes as a loose plan for your book. But don't feel as if you MUST stick to the plan. If the mood takes you, go off on a tangent and throw the plan out the window. After all, you're the boss of your novel. But have the plan available so you have something to fall back on. Once you've written a few novels you may not need to do this, but as a first-time novelist I think it could be helpful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. I pity all my future beta readers. However being dyslexic I know my readers will provide the very important service of proof reading for me. I am endevouring to put in a writting hour per day to get my book on the road :) Thank you for all your advice I really appreciate it. Lesley

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Hi Lesley! No problem, and I'm glad you got something out of the post. Well done on making a commitment to putting aside time to write - I'm certain it will pay off in dividends, and it won't be long before you'll have written a good chunk of your first draft :)

PS My advice is to make your proof readers different people from your beta readers. Get the proofer(s) to proof read before you dispatch it to the betas. For one thing, you'll get more volunteer beta readers if they know they'll get a polished manuscript. Also, if betas have to deal with spelling and grammar issues, they can find it hard to beta-read for the important points like plot, characters, story telling, etc.

Anonymous said...

It is harder to conceal ignorance than to acquire knowledge.

Anonymous said...

It is not enough to be industrious, so are the ants.

Anonymous said...

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Anonymous said...

There is no disputing about tastes.