As you have undoubted already realized, writing a book is an enormous project. A grand labor of love, requiring hundreds of hours to draft and then revise many thousands of words. Standing here at the base, looking up at this towering mountain of work looming before you can be intimidating, even downright overwhelming. But fear not, for with the right approach and a bit of daily effort, you can reach the peak before you know it and have a great time along the way.
As completing a book entails such a significant amount of effort, it is critical that you learn to organize yourself and work efficiently so you can continue to make constant progress throughout the span of the project. With that in mind, putting some time into planning out your approach before you start writing will save you a great deal of stress and wasted minutes down the line, enabling you to eventually meet your goal.
In this orientation section, I will first provide an overview of what I consider to be the three core aspects of the writing process (each of which will be further explored in later posts), and then suggest some helpful ways to get organized and then started on your novel.
The writing process consists of alternating cycles of planning, drafting, and revising.
Planning your story
Any noteworthy project requires careful planning to reach a successful conclusion and writing a story is no different. The good news is that you have already completed a major portion of the planning of your novel, simply by deciding to write one.
Aspects of the planning process include:
- Brainstorming: Writing down ideas or story elements as they come to mind without any formal organization.
- World-building: Fleshing out aspects of your narrative so they are rich and crisp in your mind, such as developing characters and constructing settings.
- Timeline and plotlines: Structuring key events and scenes by determining their order and overall position within the story. This helps you to know where things are headed as you draft your early text. It is generally helpful to outline a scene before attempting to draft it, especially longer scenes involving multiple characters and complex events.
Drafting new text
Nothing is more iconic to the writing process than committing ink to the blank page. Different parts of your novel will involve drafting:
- Scenes composed of action-based sequences.
- Dialogue as well as characters’ inner monologue.
- Interpersonal relationships and character interactions.
- Description, narration, exposition, and summary.
Revising existing plot, scenes, and text
Many writers will tell you not to revise your story until you have completed a full first draft. I find this advice to be generally unhelpful as going back and tinkering with your existing text can help you to:
- Refresh older parts your story in your mind.
- Add key details that lead to new ideas.
- Place yourself in the reader’s perspective when evaluating your story and balancing your narrative.
One key caveat is that you should not attempt to revise a piece of text while you are still in the middle working on the initial draft, as spending too much time playing with the words themselves instead of deciding what happens next can kill your inspiration and momentum.
Aspects of revising a novel include:
- Embellishing: Improving word choice, adding colorful details, and fleshing out scene and dialogue.
- Pruning: Removing unnecessary text and even entire scenes to help improve the overall flow of your story and maximize the reader’s interest.
- Proofreading: Correcting spelling errors, grammar, formatting issues, and typos from completed text.
Finishing a novel will require alternating cycles of these three processes, but deciding how much of which to do in what order is something that will develop naturally as you become more adept at the writing process. Of course, there will be more drafting at the beginning of a project and more revision at the end, but all three elements will remain in play until the novel is complete. This is a good thing, as having options for what to do next on any given day can help you to maintain momentum in the midst of a long project.
While you are still standing at the starting line of writing your novel, it is good time to discuss the organizational tools that will help you to stay on top of things once your pages and notes begin to pile up (see my post on finding ideas for more details). The goal is to create an organizational system over time that makes it easy to brainstorm and allows you find things quickly as needed, including:
- Binders and files: Create a filing system that facilitates your creative process.
- Whiteboards: Sometimes having more physical space than is available on your desktop is incredibly helpful. I suggest you start by reorganizing your office space by using magnetic whiteboards.
- Notepads: I highly recommend carrying a notepad (or digital equivalent) with you wherever you go in order to jot down ideas on the fly. You will find that getting into the habit of recording stray thoughts while going about your day results in significant progress on your story over time.
Once you have put your initial organizational framework into place, it’s time to get started on writing your novel. Congratulations! You are now considerably further than most people ever get in crafting your story. There is no right or wrong way to go about these early steps as you establish your daily writing routine, but it is important for you to work efficiently in order to stay motivated and make constant progress. During the initial stages of story-crafting, most of your time will be spent planning, brainstorming, and drafting onto the blank page, with small amounts of revision mixed in to add breadth and depth to existing scenes as well as to review your overall progress. You may already have some text written or characters and scenes in mind, but even if you are still deciding on core elements of your story, I will show you some solid techniques to help get the ball rolling.
Never force yourself to work on any one task if you feel totally uninspired, as this will make your hobby start to feel like a job and begin to sap your energy and focus. Find a task that excites you and put some work into that instead, as you will naturally perform at a higher level and work longer without feeling drained afterwards.
If you are not sure what part of your story you want to develop on any given day, try the following exercises:
Meditate/brainstorm on what parts of your story you find to be the most interesting, engaging, or exciting.
- Identify early scenes that are important to your story and list them along with any key events or character interactions you know will be included.
- Then jump right in and start writing a scene as soon as you have at least one in mind that inspires you. Simply put your pen to paper at an interesting place in the narrative and keep on writing down what happens next until you run out of ideas. Sometimes you will only wind up with a few new paragraphs, but often you may find that you have written many pages without even realizing time is passing.
- Each time you complete a new scene or are finished drafting for the day, brainstorm for a few minutes and decide what happens next (either add to the current scene or skip ahead to the next major event). This will not only help you to develop your plot organically, but will give you more options when you begin the next drafting session.
Add text to as many existing scenes as you can, then go back and look at your outline.
- Continue to work on the overall plotline for your novel a little bit every day. You can begin to divide these scenes into chapters and subchapters eventually, but until then just list these plot events in order.
Take a revision pass over your existing content.
- If you don’t have any drafting or outlining that inspires you, go ahead and take a pass at revising your existing content. Even early on in your project you can often add additional paragraphs to scenes in development, as well as flesh out important events and character interactions that will help you to build and embellish your settings and characters.
Read your work out loud as you revise, as this can help you to catch errors you would otherwise miss as well put you in the perspective of your readers, at least as far as pacing and mood are concerned.
As your story grows and gains depth, you will often find yourself thinking about a scene as you go about your daily life. This means that a scene can mature in your mind over time and when you sit back down to work on it later, you may discover that you have gained additional insight and creativity on that section of text. As I mentioned before, keeping a notepad with you whenever possible will assist in this process.
Establishing a daily routine
Although you may catch yourself working on your novel at various points throughout your day, most people find that establishing a core writing routine dramatically improves their overall consistency and productivity over the course of constructing a novel.
Aspects of a solid writing routine include:
- Setting aside a dedicated hour per day for writing (ideally around the same time).
- Removing as many distractions as possible from your writing environment.
- Setting a goal to only write one hour every day. Anything else is bonus points.
- Having fun so that your writing doesn’t turn into work. Focus on whatever excites you the most today.
- Keeping your writing tools close at hand and making them easy to find and use.
- Tracking your daily progress on a calendar/journal to boost motivation.
If you do happen to find yourself in a place where you can’t think of any scenes to draft, organize, or revise, see my articles on finding ideas and beating writers block for a number of helpful exercises.