In my last post, I talked about the importance of Pre-Production to the writing process.
This week, I’d like to shift gears into what most people think about when they imagine themselves writing. This is butt-in-seat, words-on-page time. It can be exhilarating, it can be daunting, and it can certainly be frustrating. I’ve found that it really helps to have a system in place to give structure to your creativity.
Perhaps you’ve already written a few opening scenes and blended into production. The important thing about this stage of work is the system you use to make progress every day.
A very organized approach will have you essentially putting a more detailed version of the outline inline with where your text will be written. Once I know that ‘X will happen’ and ‘Y enters’ then you can decide what other items are important to convey. You are not writing a draft yet, you are essentially blocking out how a scene will unfold and what information is absolutely essential to present in the scene. Think of it as story-boarding, if that helps. You are essentially listing what happens without the fluff or commitment of a draft: filling in important points of dialog that are crucial to the plot, or vital realizations, or a note to yourself that you need to figure out someone’s motivation. What you are doing in this stage is not only fleshing out your outline- you are actually working out many of the smaller logistical problems that you wouldn’t realize before now. You are getting a better idea of the pacing and length of your scenes. You are understanding what portions of the story need more research and making a note of that. You are blocking out when it is best to describe the setting or the characters. And, most importantly, you have a jigsaw puzzle of a plot that you can pull apart and rearrange however you see fit.
Many authors do not like to include this step. Indeed, I wrote my first novel this way but I am experimenting with skipping it for my second (I am toying with the idea of writing faster and finding a natural voice for the story). The trade-off is that my Editing phase will now be more difficult whereas it was very easy for my first novel. My advice would be, if you have trouble writing a first draft, either because the words don’t come or because you end up with a meandering mess of events, try using this Inline step.
If you have a daily word count goal, try to match it with this step. The prose is more note-like but it does live in your text document.
This is the first draft, the moment where your daily word count really matters. Some authors place great emphasis on having readable copy right off the bat and others vomit words onto the page and focus on moving forward. You will need to find which works best for you. If you have trouble writing then I would suggest not focusing too much on the first pass. On the other hand, if this isn’t a problem or you really don’t enjoy editing text you’ve already written down, you may prefer to spend more time making sure the first draft meets your standards. My first novel was completed with a slower first draft, 1200 words a day of eloquent copy, but I am now trying the opposite approach for the next. The fun part of being your own boss is that you can determine how you proceed- this can be both a blessing and a curse. Make sure you do what is best for you.
You may find that having a detailed inline really enables you to press forward without any stumbling blocks. As you write your prose, delete the inline text. This will make your daily word count more difficult to achieve but that should be balanced out by having the next event primed. This way you can maintain a word count goal between your Inline and Draft stages, and even go back and forth between the two for different sections of the book, as needed.
You may choose to Inline and Draft Chapter 1 and then repeat for subsequent chapters, or you may choose to run the Inline fully through the entire novel before moving on the the draft. Either works. However, while writing, it will be practically guaranteed that you will want to change details in earlier drafted sections. I would urge you not to go back and edit text now. Instead, keep a text file with change notes organized by chapter. For example, you may decide that the dead body the police found in the previous chapter was a woman instead of a man. Don’t bother going back and changing the text unless it is super easy. Just write ‘change dead body to woman’ in the chapter notes and proceed writing forward as if it were a woman. Some changes may not be confined to a chapter so you should have a global changes section as well. For example, you may decide in Chapter 10 that you wanted the one bell to be two bells and they are referenced many in instances throughout the story. Just put it in your notes instead of going back and changing the text. Why, you ask? For one, it is always better to press ahead and make progress instead of endlessly editing something that is unfinished. Even better, you may later decide that you want to change the detail again. Maybe two chapters later you decide that instead of two bells it should be three crosses, then later decide they should be gold, silver, and brass. Don’t drag yourself down making corrections when you really should be developing the story. Move ahead by making sure you take detailed change notes.
At this point you should have a “finished” story. Certainly don’t think of the novel as complete but you or others should be able to linearly read from the beginning to the end and have the impression of a good story. It may be confusing and misleading without a lot of corrections and the prose may be poor but the story should be laid out. It is absolutely essential that the entire thing is finished in this sense, from beginning to end, before you begin your Revision pass.
This step is simple. You start at the very beginning and move to the very end, referencing your document of notes along the way. Corrections to the story are most fundamental to this stage. You will also find yourself either cutting or adding scenes and dialog because you understand your characters better. A certain guitar may be significant at the end of the story so you may choose to highlight its existence earlier on (something like this should be in your notes!). You may choose to emphasize some themes throughout your work. The key concept is that now, you are very familiar with what your novel is about because the story is finished. You know what belongs, what doesn’t, what is missing, what matters, and you should act accordingly.
It doesn’t hurt to improve prose and fix grammar at this stage either. If you see a mistake or an opportunity for improvement, take it.
You are not done with this Revision pass until you have gone through the entire novel from beginning to end and fixed every single problem you have found, including addressing every single item in your change notes. Instead of deleting those items in that document, I like to preserve them but color the text to show how the item was handled (green=addressed, red=ignored).
Everything’s fixed, right? Wrong.
Now it’s time to read through your finished novel as a reader. Maybe take a day or two away from the work to distance yourself first. Make sure the copy flows naturally (read it out loud to help). Make sure the grammar is error-free. Make sure the plot makes sense. You can hire an editor to do this work but, as an author, this is the very first time you get to read through your product without a mass of changes to make. This allows you to really focus on the little details, especially emotional impact and theming. This is the time you can determine if you are really striking the right chord with readers. I highly recommend doing this yourself and improving your story as you see fit.
Some authors have a confidant, a friend or spouse who reads through their early work and gives feedback. Use this valuable service as you like but this is a great time to fit it in. You will be going over the entire novel at the same time as them and both be looking at the big picture.
Congratulations! You’ve written a novel! Are you really done? (Do I really need to answer that?) You should be proud of yourself and tweak your work until you are happy with it, but there’s more yet.
Next post, I’ll talk about the Post-Production process, the place where a lot of self published authors stumble.