Below is a VERY high level overview of how you get from a blank page (or screen) to a publishable novel. This includes the TOOLS, the IDEAS and the process: PLOTTING, WRITING, REVISING and EDITING.
For more in-depth tips, check out the blog posts in the category How to Write.
This might go without saying, but I’ve been asked multiple times whether writers have some kind of whiz bang writing machine. WE DO. It’s called Microsoft Word!
Microsoft Word is the modern equivalent of the pen and paper—of course, there are writers who still write long hand (I even have a few ratty old notebooks lying around), but those who prefer to go old school should be warned that agents and publishers will ONLY accept typed manuscripts and many only accept electronic submissions via email—no snail mail.
Now, I told a bit of a lie about the writing machines earlier. There are other word processing programs aside from Microsoft Word (I know—someone should really alert Bill Gates). There are even word processing programs that have been SPECIFICALLY designed for writing novels.
One of the questions that comes up a lot with writers is, WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
This varies depending on the writer, but generally they will bubble up like a spring or gush like a geyser from every day life—what you READ (books, magazines, newspapers, blog posts), what you SEE (that old lady walking her dog around the block four times is of course casing houses for a robbery in the mind of a writer), what you HEAR (water cooler gossip at work) and what you DO (many people are inspired by their day job, e.g. crime novelist Patricia Cornwell was largely inspired by her work as a computer analyst for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia).
The tricky part is extrapolating an idea—in other words, coming up with A PLOT. This will give your story a structure (and structure is VERY important, as I’ll cover in a moment!).
All writers plot to varying degrees—even those who claim to be pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Writers who avoid plotting will still be able to tell you their key plot points—they just like to let their characters work out the rest.
I like plotting because it saves time. There should be no need for major revisions if the structure, pace and any foreshadowing are all sorted in the first draft. There are a number of templates (for lack of a better word) that you can use to ensure your story is the next Maze Runner or Harry Potter (okay, NO ONE can ensure that), including the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method and Freytag’s Triangle. They generally all align with the basic five point plot structure: EXPOSITION, RISING ACTION, CLIMAX, FALLING ACTION, RESOLUTION.
Now you can start putting the flesh on the bones of your story (ever heard the saying, TO FLESH OUT? Well, you guessed it—it had its origins in writing). If you’re a pantser, you probably at least have a femur or a rib and will assemble the rest of the bones as you write.
Just remember: THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY. It comes down to personal preference. I used to fly by the seat of my pants when I wrote, but now I find plotting a time saver (and often a story saver too).
There are a few decisions to make before you jump in, including:
- point of view (first, second or third. And, yes, second IS a possibility. Think CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE or BRIDE STRIPPED BARE)
- tense (present or past and all the others that pop up for flash forwards or back),
- genre (this is a contract between you and the reader—setting up what they can expect), and
- audience (this will often determine style and content, e.g. no swear words if your book is for children).
A lot of this will have been decided during the plotting process, but if not you can take a leaf out of similar books.
Of course, there are a lot of other story elements you will need to take into account—such as characterization and setting—but I’ll cover them more in the blog.
Revision is when you make MAJOR amendments (as opposed to editing, where you make MINOR amendments).
All writers revise (except for the ones we never talk about because they make us mere mortals want to throw our computers through a window). Revision involves looking at a first draft and deciding whether all of the story elements are working: structure, pace, flashbacks, characterization, and so on.
You might decide to delete ENTIRE scenes or ENTIRE characters because you realize they serve no purpose, even if you ADORE them (this is what is meant by KILL YOUR DARLINGS—a saying coined by William Faulkner and made popular by Stephen King).
To stick with the metaphor—this is where you stretch the skin over your body of work. You want it to look like it belongs to a supermodel, as opposed to being pockmarked with flat characters and spelling mistakes.
This is where I bemoan not having one of those mind wipey things from MEN IN BLACK. You may like to put your manuscript down for a week or even a month, so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. You may find you need to do further revision, which is TOTALLY fine. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, ART IS NEVER FINISHED, ONLY ABANDONED.
The revision and editing stage can go on FOREVER AND EVER, AMEN. At this stage, you may want to get Beta Readers involved (a fancy-pants term for getting someone to read over it) or you may want to pay to get the advice of a professional editor.