This article is about the parts of writing a novel that don’t involve writing.
It’s not about the business side of being an author. It’s not about book design and production. It’s also not about book marketing or promotion. This article is about the process of getting your story onto the page, and a lot of that process involves time not spent actually typing words and scenes.
Let’s look at some of the other processes involved in developing a story: the prewriting process.
The prewriting process
Step 1: Lie fallow. The fallow period between writing projects isn’t strictly one of dormancy or inactivity. This is the time to fill your creative well. Get out of the house and live life. Immerse yourself in something besides reading and writing. Meet new people. Travel. Eat. Move. Fiction is essentially an examination of the human condition, so get out into the world and practice being human. This period is a time for doing, for absorbing entirely different approaches and outlooks and insights.
Step 2: Fertilize your creative soil. Start ticking down the ten types of novels every novelist should read. Get your hands on a new must-have craft book on writing fiction. But there’s more to developing your story sensibilities than reading. Watch TV and read movies, too—for entertainment, for studying the craft of storytelling, for inspiration.
Step 3: Brainstorm. Keep notebooks in every room, in your bags and pockets, and everywhere you go. Your goal is to build entire lists of ideas: ideas to write soon, ideas you’re not ready to write, ideas other people have suggested, ideas you think are too hard to write, ideas outside your creative wheelhouse, ideas you can’t grasp how to finish, ideas that lend themselves to book series … Fill the pages with so many ideas that you can loosen your grip on your favorites and begin to weigh the merits and strengths, drawbacks and weaknesses of all of them.
Step 4: Test and develop your next story idea. Does the concept hold water? Can you identify a story question or what-if question? Have you found your protagonist? What point of view will most effectively allow readers into the experience?
This is a good time for talking out your ideas. The act of verbalizing your story will push you to clarify and forge connections. You could talk things over with friends or family, but sometimes it’s easier with a listener who won’t talk back. I often dissect a knotty story problem with one of my editorial assistants, who wag their furry tails at the best ideas and go back to napping in the sun for the rest.
This is also a good time to pull out your books on the craft of storytelling and review the elements that make stories vital and compelling. How can these theories and techniques inform the ideas forming on your own pages?
Step 5: Research. Do you need more information about your story setting or the characters? Google makes research relatively simpler today, but life experience is vital. Try to go, see, and do or try for yourself, as the possibilities permit.
Step 6: Outline your story. You’ll become a more efficient, effective author by bringing more creative energy to this phase of development, instead of spending weeks or months auditioning options in your manuscript. Spend that effort in your outline or notes, where re-visioning your story means fifty new words, not fifty new pages. Allow outline versions to rest between drafts just as you would drafts of a manuscript.
Next: Six manuscript drafts
Spending more time in the prewriting development stages will help you lay down the first layer of your manuscript more efficiently. I recommend six steps for that, too. Each draft has its own purpose and—get this, because this is the part that trips most authors up—only one of them involves dithering over grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- The foundation draft
- The story draft
- The plot/scene draft
- The feedback draft
- The writing draft
- The tweaking draft
If you’re only writing one or two drafts before turning to a professional editor, you’re using less than half of the ways I recommend strengthening your manuscript on your own. Follow this six-draft method of writing your novel.
Prewriting vs. writing
Many authors look at writing a manuscript as a suspended moment of almost mystical creativity. Experience shows that you get out of the process what you put into it—including the entire prewriting process.
All these tools and methods are homes and handholds for your ideas.
Here’s the thing. Writing, prewriting—it’s all creative development. There’s nothing innately mundane or stiff or uncreative about developing a story using a spreadsheet, or a notebook, or a floor covered in index cards, or a wall covered in sticky notes.
Or a manuscript.
All these tools and methods are homes and handholds for your ideas. None of them is innately more creative than another.
As a creative person, then, it behooves you to explore the full range of opportunities for creatively developing your novel. Every new tool is uncomfortable and awkward the first time you try it, so give new tactics a fair shot. You’ll never know what works best until you try multiple methods—all part of my insidious plot to get you to finish more manuscripts and write more books.
Good luck, and good writing!
Read More: Types of Editing: A practical guide
Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author.
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