I recently asked friends on social media what they’d most like to know about writing—the most popular response had to do with writing a book. How do you start? What do you do when you’ve finished?
Since we’re heading into NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the beginning seems like a very good place to start.
Where do you start?
How do you grow a baby idea into a full-fledged novel? There’s no one right way to start; some people start with plot, others with characters. Today on NPR, I listened to Jennifer Egan explain that she often starts with a setting and works out from there. The method you use may vary from book to book.
Starting with Plot
Some people (also known as pantsers) prefer to discovery write their story–that is, they might start with some idea of how they want the story to end, but they figure out the story as they write.
In this case, not much prior planning is needed, but if you get stuck, I find Mary Robinette Kowall’s method for pantsers helpful. She suggests that when your character attempts to do something, ask: what’s the smartest thing my character can do here? Did it work? The answer to this should follow a yes/but or no/and sequence: Yes, but complications ensued. No, and this aspect of the story got worse.
Most writers (aka plotters) use some form of pre-plotting before they write, though the level of detail varies immensely. When I’m plotting, I like to use Dan Well’s seven-point story structure, which gives me enough structure to hold the story together, but still lets me discovery write between major plot points.
Author Jami Gold offers lots of useful beat sheets on her website–these give you basic plot points to help shape the story (and generally an approximate idea of when in the story you should hit these points). They work for plot driven stories and romances alike. If you’re looking for more details on plotting, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University has great posts on brainstorming, developing the idea, plotting, and all kinds of other craft stuff.
Starting with Character
Although most novels have a whole host of characters who make up the pages, when you’re starting with character, we’re really talking about the protagonist(s) and the supporting characters who help or hinder (or both) the protagonist through the story. In choosing the protagonist, you generally want to consider who has the most interesting story to tell–most often, this is the person with the most at stake in the story, but not always. (EK Johnston’s wonderful Story of Owen features a protagonist who is not the main actor in the story, but the hero’s bard).
If you’re starting with the character, you’ll want to flesh out the character enough that you can figure out what the character wants–because your character’s pursuit of a goal will be the backbone that grounds your story. K.M. Weiland has one of the best series I know on building a story around the character’s arc (their growth and change over the course of the story).
Matt Bard at the Cockeyed Caravan has a series of useful posts on building a compelling character. Janice Hardy at Fiction University is currently running a series of posts on building a novel in 31 days: recent posts addressed creating characters and developing the protagonist. The website Writers Helping Writers also offers a variety of posts to help you flesh out and understand your character. And of course, we’ve got lots of posts on character that you can find through the search bar on your right.
I’ve got a story idea. Now what?
Once your plot and character are in place, you write. It’s both as simple and as hard as that. I find that one of the hardest things is pushing forward while drafting and resisting the urge to go back and edit what’s already been written. Everyone’s process on drafting is different, but I see lots of beginning writers (and some experienced writers) get stuck fine tuning early chapters and never finishing. I’m a strong proponent of pushing through the draft until you’re done, and then making it pretty. A first draft just has to exist to be perfect–that’s really it’s only purpose.
If you’re having trouble breaking down the large scale of the novel into manageable chunks, try thinking about the action in terms of scenes and sequels.
I finished a book, now what?
*Let it sit for a while. Really. Put it away where you can’t see it. (Do NOT on any account send it to an editor or agent at this stage.) A significant part of good writing is good revision, but re-vision can’t happen until you have the distance to see the thing clearly.
While you’re waiting, read something that fills your creative well. Or read some writing craft books. Elaine has an excellent list of TToF contributor’s favorite craft books.
Once you’ve gotten enough distance to see your story, revise what you can. Jenilyn has some useful tips on getting through a revision, and I’ve got specific tips for breaking down your revision in terms of plot and scene. Go revisit your earlier notes on your characters, and make sure they behave consistently through the story.
Once you’ve revised what you can, the story is ready to get outside eyes on it. I often tell my students that we write for ourselves, but we revise for others. (I recommend doing some of your own revision first, because otherwise, you’ll do what I did with an early novel–sent it to readers as soon as I’d finished the first draft, and almost to a person, they told me to fix stuff I already knew was wrong with the story. Fix what you know is wrong, so you can get feedback on the stuff you don’t know).
Almost all writers need readers as they revise–but not just any reader will do. You want someone who can point out the places that the story needs work, but ideally do so in a way that motivates you to keep working, instead of crushing your soul.
Some writers work with alpha readers, people who read the story in progress. I’m part of a regular writing group that meets every two weeks to read each other’s work.
Some writers work with beta readers, or people who read the story once it’s drafted and somewhat polished–these people give holistic feedback on the story, what works and what doesn’t work.
If you don’t already have people in your life who can read creative work and give critical feedback, Melanie has some great suggestions where to find beta readers. Brooke MacIntyre also has a pretty comprehensive list of places to look for such readers (on Jane Friedman’s website–another excellent resource for writers).
I’ve revised and polished my book, now what?
Once you’ve revised (usually multiple times–my book that sold had been through 9 revisions before my agent saw it), then it’s time to consider publication.
The first thing you need to consider is publishing options–do you plan to self publish your work? Publish through a small press? A national press?
I can’t say much about self-publishing, not having done it myself, but there are lots of great resources out there on how to approach it. Indie author Susan Quinn has a ton of posts on getting started.
Many smaller presses will allow you to submit your work to the press directly, without needing an agent. If this is the best route for you (particularly if your work is something that appeals to a niche market), then you’ll want to spend some time researching presses before querying them. Robert Brewer has a helpful post considering the pros and cons of small presses.
For most national publishers, you’ll want a literary agent to represent your work. Some presses won’t look at unagented submissions; and while others do, your book might languish in the slush pile for months. Literary agents can typically get your work seen faster and help you negotiate a better deal for your book, in exchange for (usually) a 15 percent commission. Jane Friedman has a helpful post about how to find an agent (and how to evaluate if you really need one); and in this post I talk about my experience querying agents (with links to finding agents and writing query letters, which have much the same function as cover letters for job hunters–to persuade the reader to take you on; in this case, represent your book).
Once an agent agrees to represent your book to editors, you might do additional revisions, or you might move directly to submissions, where your agent sends your book to editors who might be interested in publishing the book.
If you’re lucky, someone will offer to publish the book! If not, you try again, with another book. If this seems like a daunting process–it can be, but it can also be a lot of fun. I find writing a book feels a lot like gardening some days: I finish the work dirty, sore, but deeply satisfied at having created something new, at bringing order from chaos. (The garden analogy is particularly apt if you’ve seen my garden recently–overgrown with thistles and the zucchini has taken over the world. My garden, like my writing, is a constant work in process).
If you’ve written a book before, what sources have you found most helpful? If you’re new to this, what questions do you have?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.