This week I completed the first draft of my new novel (working title To Hemlock Run), the culmination of a bout nine months of daily effort. (Thank you, thank you). It currently stands at about 113,500 words and is basically a good effort, but still has some problems. I would imagine nearly all first drafts do. That’s why they’re called “first” drafts. They are nowhere close to being a finished novel.
Many more drafts will come before the novel is ready for publication.
So, several people (none of whom are writers) have asked when they will be able to read it. I tell them not for a while. The first draft is an important step in writing a novel, but only one step in the writing process. An important one, no doubt, because without it none of the other phases will be possible, but still just one step.
I thought I would devote this week’s post to all the steps I go through in the process of writing a novel. (I imagine the process would be similar were I to be writing a nonfiction book, or collection of stories or poetry).
Step one is to write the first or rough draft.
This is complete. Naturally, I try to write as accomplished a manuscript as I can, but I will not let an oversight stop my progress in the draft either. Some things I realize I mishandled on the first attempt, others I have decided looking back in hindsight, and I assume I will find a few issues I haven’t thought of yet. It is part of the process.
But the draft is finished, so I move on to step two.
Take a break.
I put the manuscript away, close the file and—regardless of how much I’m tempted—refuse to let myself look at it for at least a week. Two weeks is better, but I maintain a minimum of a week’s break between drafts.
Why? Because the creative mind needs a break to replenish the well. Just like anything else, constant stress will gradually result in lower and lower productivity. It’s why people like to take weekends off from their day job, and even a couple of weeks’ vacation. It’s a time to replenish the well. And for someone like myself, who tends to work every day when I’m in the middle of a project, it is important to take that break.
Taking as much time off also helps me return to the draft with a fresh eye. Often the biggest problem we authors face when we go to revise a work is that we see what we’re trying to say, not what we actually said. Staying away from the draft for as long as possible, helps keep your judgment objective.
Step Three: Revising the big things.
This is the step where I got through the work and attempt to fix the larger, structural problems. I look for plot holes, subplots that seem to go nowhere, and incomplete characterizations. In this stage, I also pay much greater attention to the structural markers, such as the three pinch points—plot point one, the mid-point, and plot point two—and make any adjustments necessary. I may add new scenes, or delete scenes, depending on what the story needs.
When I finish with revision the big things, I move to:
I close the file and keep it closed for another week or two, for exactly the same reason I did the first time, to recharge the well.
Step Four: Revising the little things (and any big ones left).
This time, as I go through the manuscript I’m looking for internal consistency, what I call the little things.
If I described a house as made of red brick in chapter one, then of yellow vinyl siding in chapter seventeen, I’ve got a problem. This goes for descriptions of scenery, locations and characters. The goal is logic and consistency. Sometimes, in the heat of writing something I simply forget what I said before and have to correct it. I might have the characters blocking the sun from their eyes as they talk in a certain location one morning, then, several hundred pages later, the plot calls for them to be in the same location at the same time, but in shade. Either the plot needs to change, or the description.
For the same reasons and for the same amount of time.
Step Five: Characterizations.
In this run through the manuscript, I concentrate on making sure the characterizations are exactly as I want them to be. (Actually, they will never be exactly what I want, but I need to get as close as my abilities will allow). In To Hemlock Run, for instance, I already know that I’m unhappy with one major character’s depiction. I think she should be more badly effected by some of the events, perhaps even losing her temper a time or two. My gut tells me that, as it’s written now, it doesn’t ring true. She’s too even keeled.
Of course, I will fix any other large and small things I might find, but these will not be my primary focus.
When I’m finished with this step:
Yet another break.
Step Six: Re-writing.
In this step, all the basics of the plot, structure and characterization should be about as fixed as I’m going to get them, so now I concentrate on the actual words and sentences, the prose. I try to create the most beautiful, poetic, prose I can. I create and use similes and metaphors whenever possible. I do my best.
In this step I also try to correct any spelling and grammar issues my prose may have. (Which is usually a thing, because grammar is not my strongest suit, particularly some of the more obscure rules).
Step Seven: editing.
Step seven is where I turn to outside help. I have several beta readers, whose opinions I trust. Each of them gets to read the manuscript and offer any thoughts or suggestions they may have. When those are incorporated or not (just because someone doesn’t care for a certain part or aspect of the story doesn’t necessarily mean I will change it. It just means I will consider changing it). I will then send the manuscript off to a professional editor.
There is a break here, but primarily because I’m waiting for people to read it and get back to me. Until they do, there’s nothing I can do.
Step Eight: consolidating.
This is the final step. I take all the suggestions from my beta readers and my editor and go through the manuscript and decide individually whether each instance needs to be changed and, if so, how to change it. Sometimes there is a lot that needs to be redone. Sometimes there isn’t. (My goal is always to send her a manuscript with nothing for her to do. She says it’s impossible.)
Once these decisions have been made and the necessary changes made, the manuscript is as good as I can make it, at this time with my current skill set. It is ready to be shown to the public.
Simple math will show that this process takes about a minimum of six months, depending on how long each step takes. But that is just a guideline. Each step takes as long as it takes, as do the breaks.
So when will you be able to read To Hemlock Run? My guess would be at least six months from now. Until then, it isn’t worth reading.