I’ve been giving this first post in the series a lot of thought. It seemed logical to jump in at the beginning – at the ideas stage, where and how I first conceive of a book. But then it occurred to me to give a bird’s eye view of the whole process before getting down to the nitty-gritty.
So what follows is the procedure I’ve developed over the last five years. This is what I do, step by step, to get from initial idea to book on the shelf. Some of it alone, some of it in conjunction with my publisher. If you’re starting out as a writer, I hope it gives you some perspective on what it takes to produce a book. If you’re an established author, feel free to have a good laugh at my expense. I imagine other writers have a far more streamlined approach to the whole business, but this is what works for me.
Gird your loins, the list is long and may appear scary. But essentially it’s simply a breakdown of each step in the novel writing process; a guideline, so I always know what I have to do next. In reality, it’s less clinical and prescriptive than it looks. There’s plenty of room for inspiration and changes of heart, and I don’t necessarily do all these steps in this exact order. But I do them all, eventually.
And yes, I’m essentially a planner. Or partially. I’ve read about writers who plan exactly how a scene will unfold, even down to the dialogue. I don’t bother. I just know roughly what needs to happen in a chapter before I start writing. But if you’re a full on pantser, who wings it right from the beginning, then a lot of this will seem alien.
Okay, so here goes
- I note down ideas for stories, characters, snippets of dialogue, observations etc and store them in a folder on the cloud where I cannot lose them. Hopefully.
- When I have a rough idea of what story I want to tackle next, I gather together the notes that might just fit into this particular book and stick them into an online project file.
- Brainstorming an initial plot. This often involves mind-mapping, and journaling story questions, as well as character and plot prompts – more on these at a later date.
- If the publisher requires a synopsis, this is when I tackle it. It is not final. Much will change down the line. Publishers accept this, and so do I. (I’m monumentally crap at writing synopses, so it’s just as well.)
- I break down the synopsis, or rough outline, into individual chapters and scenes. I use Scrivener, as it’s easier to shift chapters around. This is the point where I decide on the main novel structure – eg. whether it will involve a dual timeline or just run from the inciting event to the end.
- Starting to write. I hate this bit. Seriously. I find first drafts terrifying and exhausting, having to dredge everything up out of nowhere. It all feels so… unfixed? Arbitrary? Like there’s no solid ground. I envy people who love this initial writing, but it’s rare for me.
- While I write Draft One, I keep a snagging list of all the things I know I need to fix/research/make my mind up about in Draft Two. I also try to fix any huge plot holes that arise, as they inevitably do.
- Draft One finished. Ideally the next step would be to forget about the whole book for a month or so, but I rarely have the time so it’s usually straight on to
- Draft Two. First I look at my Structure Checklist, and decide if I’ve nailed the main points. Is it pacey enough? Are the characters well rounded? Is the ending satisfying, etc.
- Once I’m sure no major surgery is needed, I port the whole document from Scrivener to Word, and tackle all the things on my snagging list, inserting reminders in the relevant chapters.
- I create the book spreadsheet in Excel. This contains everything I need to know about each chapter, but mainly it’s where I nail the timeline, so I know exactly when each chapter is occurring and therefore the season, weather, and things like where each event occurs in the school year.
- I go through Draft Two chapter by chapter, tidying it up, making the changes thrown up by the snagging list, and with the aid of another checklist – yes I am anal and BIG on checklists –ensure each chapter is pulling its weight in terms of scene-setting, character building, showing emotion, etc.
- At some point I précis the events from the point of view of each of the main characters, making sure I understand what they do and don’t know, and what they feel at each stage of the story. This sounds obvious, but it can get surprisingly complicated and confusing, especially with dual timelines.
- As per Step 8. Ideally I’d leave this draft to prove somewhere warm and dark, but I’m usually up against a deadline so it’s straight on to Draft Three. This is the Fun Bit, my favourite part of the whole process, where I get to tweak and polish and play with words. Basically it’s just a case of going through the whole manuscript making it pretty, and I use another, finer-grade checklist, to make sure I’ve remembered to mention the weather, for instance, or made full use of different senses like smell or touch. Most of all, however, I’m making sure the whole thing hangs together in terms of rising tension and emotion.
- Send my new baby off to my agent and editor. Wait for their response. (NB. This involves much agonising and wine.)
- Editorial letter arrives with first structural revisions. Weep, rend hair, then sulk for a week or two.
- I read through the whole book on my Kindle, deciding what I agree with and what I might need to stand my ground over.
- Once that’s all settled with my editor, I draw up another snagging list containing all the things I have to do.
- I tackle the big stuff first – deleting chapters, writing new ones, swapping stuff around. Amend the spreadsheet accordingly.
- When I’m happy with the new structure, I go through, cut-and-pasting my editor’s suggestions at the top of each relevant chapter.
- Now it’s simply a case of trawling through the book again, making all the changes I’ve noted at the top.
- As per Step 15, I repolish and tweak, then resend. Drink more wine and pray that’s it.
- If I’m unlucky, repeat the last step. (Drink all the wine, and the old bottle of Baileys that’s been sitting there since Xmas four years ago.)
- When I’m certain we’re close to copy edits – please, God – and there will be no more significant changes, I resend the whole thing to my Kindle and check the document for typos, word echoes, etc.
- Having made those amendments, I go through the whole novel with a piece of software called ProWriter, which flags up things like overused words and repeated phrases.
- Copy edits – in theory this is just going through the novel making all the changed suggested by the copy editor. At this stage they should be minor, addressing wording, logical inconsistencies, or continuity issues. If you’re very unlucky – as I was with Better Left Buried – the copy editor will flag up a whole posse of Quite Big Issues that they feel should be addressed. *trauma face*
- Proof edits – same as copy edits, only you receive a physical document with the pages laid out as in the book. So you can’t go feral and start changing anything beyond the odd word at this stage, or you’ll incur the mighty wrath of your publisher.
- Write acknowledgements and dedication.
- Get back on the promotional bandwagon, already mulling over the next book.
So how long does all this take? About six months to get to the initial draft I send to my editor. Which breaks down to:
* A month in brainstorming, researching and planning.
* A day per chapter for Draft One, and as I usually write around fifty chapters, so let’s call that a couple of months.
* A week or two to recover and cogitate before embarking on Draft Two.
* Another day per chapter to get to Draft Three.
* A couple of weeks to tweak and polish.
I could push myself harder and get that down to 4-5 months, but usually I’m doing other stuff too during that time, such as promotion and other writing. So six months is what I need to have the occasional day off and not go insane.
Structural edits – I usually allow at least a couple of months for the first set, given I’m also busy with other work. That time dwindles to 4- 6 weeks with subsequent, lighter edits.
Copy and proof edits: one week each.