National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), or NaNo for short, occurs during the month of November. It’s a writing challenge for would-be and current authors to commit to the writing process. Writing a novel isn’t easy. It’s like anything. It takes hard work to get a published product. BUT, Nano helps a lot! The goal is to find the time, energy, and resilience to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It began in 1999, with 21 willing participants, mainly from California. Today, thousands of writers from around the world heed the call of NaNoWriMo.
When I announced I was participating in NaNo in 2019, someone asked me about my writing process. After I explained it, they suggested I write a post on my process of writing a novel. Hmmm. I thought about it, long and hard, and decided: Why not? I struggled when I first started to find information. Most writer’s processes were buried in paid courses.
So, in the spirit that we can all learn something from each other, this is the process I go through when writing a novel. You never know, maybe you’ll find a bit of magic somewhere in here that will help you with your process. (Or, maybe you’ll just think I’m a crackpot.)
NaNo is an excellent opportunity for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the ‘writer pond’.
It’s also a great incentive for established writers to stop faffing around and get fingers on keys and just write! The NaNo organization provides tons of tools and resources to help keep the words flowing, which is helpful because facing a 50,000-word challenge can be a rather daunting process. Especially when everyone’s writing process is different. Ask a dozen different writers what their process is, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers.
It’s generally agreed though in the writing community that there are two types of novelists: ‘pantsters’ and ‘plantsters’.
A ‘pantster’ is a writer who cranks out a story by the seat of their pants. The story to reveals itself to them as they go. I wrote my first novel this way. My story began as a dream. I woke thinking “that would make a great scene in a story.” Eighteen hours later I was still writing. (That original scene was cut after the first edit by the way.)
A ‘plantster’ is a writer who plans out their novel. They create an outline, sketch out their characters, and plot out where each stage of their novel will occur. After five rewrites of my first novel, I am definitely thinking that the plantster strategy would have been the better way to go.
The creative process is a curious thing. There are times when you should definitely wing it, letting your creativity lead you in unexpected directions. I love writing prompts for that. I have written some short stories that way. It allows for the release my creative flow.
Writing a novel is a different beast. Even a little bit of planning goes a long way. There is no major wand, but there are processes to make it less intimidating.
When it comes down to writing in general, it doesn’t matter how we get it done, as long as we get words on the page. The editing process sorts out the bumps.
Here’s my writing process for writing a novel.
1. Ideas folder
I have a thick file of story ideas. Well, it would be if I printed them out. Instead, I keep a folder on my computer called “Writing”. I also have a folder in my Notes App on my iPhone that is called “Writing”.
I type out ideas, character names, and sometimes real-life scenes I find interesting.
I sketch out rough outlines in Word.
And then there are my dreams. Two of the four books I have outlined began with a dream. I’ve always had vivid dreams. My Dad used to ask me every morning when I was a teenager to tell him about the dream, I’d had that previous night. Now, I take what I think may make a good story and type those out as well.
From these, I pull what I want to work from. Some of the notes work, some are written into other stories. But it’s a file I would be lost without.
Once I have an idea for a story, I log on to Pinterest.
Now this can be a wormhole for me. I’m easily sucked into its vortex, so I focus on just one search at a time. If I’m looking for character inspiration, I only search for the idea of what the character looks like in my head. For example, one of my characters is a fifty-year-old woman with shoulder-length silver hair, so I only search for a person of that description. I get my results and get out! I find what I need, save it to my Inspiration board and move on.
I focus my reading on the genre in which I’m writing.
I search my library and bookstores for anything in that genre. My second book is a fictionalized story of a long-distance walk based on an actual walk I did. So, I read memoirs from people whom have participated in these kinds of walks (Camino de Santiago, Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail). As I read through these, I pay close attention to the lines that make me stop in my tracks. Why was it written this way? Did it have a particular meaning? Was it profound? I store them in a file called “great lines” to use as inspiration.
3. Rough outline
Once I have an idea of my story, I grab a sketch pad and rough out a general outline.
I think of the following:
Who are the characters? I start with an idea – the details come later.
Where do they start in the story and where do they end?
What brings out the characters?
What does the world look like?
What’s the inciting incident, the climax and the falling action of the story?
What scenes need to happen? Where are they in the story?
4. Character summary
This is the part where I REALLY get to know the characters.
This is the fun part. I think I know more about my characters than I do friends or family sometimes. When I start out, I know in my head what they look like, their age, where they are from, so I write that out. This part probably takes me the longest, as I really want to know how my characters are, before I write their story.
Here is the template I use to create my characters:
Where they live:
Status (married, single, divorced, widowed):
Hair colour and style, eye colour and shape, build, skin colour, scars, facial features
What style of clothing does the character wear?
Introvert vs extravert, insecurities, strengths:
Habits / Mannerisms:
What is their background (childhood, teen years etc.)?
What is their role in the story?
What is their motive?
You can read more creating complex and believable characters here:
This part of the process used to take as long as writing the first draft. But I’ve learned some lessons along the way.
Once I have an idea, I let the story percolate a while. As I think of scenes, I write them down. When I think of conflicts, I write those down. I create the characters using another template and all of those pieces go into either “Notes” on my iPad or Scrivener on my laptop – whatever is closer.
Once I am ready to actually write the outline – when all the characters have been created, when all the jiggly ideas have been wrangled – I can usually crank an outline out in a day or two.
I get out my excel spreadsheet template and start mapping out the chapters.
I outline every chapter, so I know what happens with the characters and how the story progresses.
This is a great visual way to see if the story flows, where my gaps are and whether the story is working. I can move chapters around, remove parts of the story from one chapter if it doesn’t work – the spreadsheet allows me to drill down into details and the flow of the story. Is the setup clear, before moving to the inciting incident, then to the climax, then to the falling action and finally to the resolution? Hopefully by the end my characters have evolved by the end.
6. I let the story mull
I don’t begin writing right away. I let the ideas stew for a while. Usually a week or two. (This is when I take LOTS of naps.) I make sure the story is solid in my mind, that I know the characters inside and out. My characters often talk to me in my dreams, or when I’m showering, so I give them the space to do that. Any changes that I decide to make are tweaked in the outline spreadsheet as needed.
A writer’s group keeps me on task, and I have a great writer’s group in Tasmania. But with this group, few of the members write – or read – in my genre. That’s where my street team is gold.
The Lovelies are made up of superfans, readers, beta readers, advanced readers and other people I trust with everything.
Having this team is imperative to my success. I bounce ideas. I ask questions. I get their input. What may sound amazing in my head may not make sense to a reader. This group gets that. They tell me honestly whether something works or not. When I’m thinking through ideas for a book, I check in with them.
I truly could not do what I do without them.
8. Write, don’t edit
This part of the writing process challenges everyone. It’s hard not to edit as you go, but I find by just writing, I can purge that story from my soul. I set a deadline for myself to finish the first draft of the manuscript, usually 4-6 weeks, depending on the length of the story.
9. Let the editing begin
Once the draft is finished, I can’t leave it. I begin editing and thus begins the hard work. I hate editing my own stuff, so I break it up into phases to make the task less daunting.
First pass: I start with typos and grammar.
Second pass: I look at the story flow. Does it make sense?
Third pass: I look at the characters and make sure they are robust, believable, evolving. That you can not only hear their story but see the story.
Fourth and final pass: I look at the world. Is it clear? Are there enough details? Can I see myself immersed in every scene?
10. Find a beta reader – or ten
Once I’m happy with the final initial edit, I find as many Beta Readers as I can.
I look for people who will give me their honest feedback. (This is where The Lovelies come in.) These are people who are readers, writers, and amateur editors (everyone has a grammar friend in their lives). Beta testers review manuscripts for the love of it, not for money.
Along with the beta draft of the novel, I give my beta readers a list of questions. Questions about plot, setting, characters etc. I ask them what they liked most? What they hated? When did they first put the story down, and why?
The most important question I ask however, is if the deadline will realistically work for them? We all have lives, so I need to make that deadline a realistic one. Past experience tells me that if I don’t set deadlines, I’ll never get the feedback. And even then, I’ll hear from about ten percent. But that’s better than nothing!
11. Then I edit again
Once I have all of the feedback returned, I set time aside to read through each piece of feedback. If I have questions, I gain clarification immediately. If I get feedback that says simply, ‘looks great’, I remove that person from my future Beta Reader list. I want honest feedback. I want the beta reader to give me what they really think, both good and bad. I need a beta reader, not a free customer.
Then I look to see where the common threads are. One beta reader may feel something doesn’t work but the majority of beta readers do. If there is no reason given, I will put that feedback aside to ask later. If it goes against the grain but makes sense, I’ll factor it in.
Then I go through the story and make the appropriate edits, ensuring I get the typos and grammar issues as well.
12. Read the manuscript through one final time
Am I happy with it? But more importantly, am I proud of it?
13. Then I send the novel to my editor. (And cross everything I have.)
I have an ‘in house’ editor. A lot of people will tell you not to use your spouse to edit your work. I didn’t listen to that advice. Truth is, I’m fortunate to have someone who is constructively brutal with a red pen. Granted, I have fired him a few times. After some frank discussions, we set home and work boundaries, because without them, this arrangement would damage any partnership. You have to go in with strong union, because think about it: your editor is picking apart everything you have put your heart and soul into. You are putting yourself out there for all the world to judge.
Having said that, I have decided to use my in house editor for proofreading and grammar/typo checks only moving forward. I’ve found a new editor, to help with structure and copy-editing through the Institute of Professional Editors Limited.
Reedsy is a great resource to find editors. But first check with your writer’s group. They tend to share resources, including who they use for editing. (Although if they’re gold, your writing friends may not be willing to share.) There are also a huge amount of Facebook groups that can help you find an editor that works for you.
14. I review the editor’s changes.
The thing to remember is that this is your novel. You may not agree with everything the editor says. But, I do suggest you take your ‘writer hat’ off and look at their suggestions from an editor’s – or even reader’s – point of view. If something looks left field, ask why they’re suggesting it. Working with an editor should be a two-way conversation. If it’s not, find a new editor.
With the changes understood, I makes the final changes to create a final manuscript.
15. I read through the book one last time
I read the book aloud. Slowly and intentionally. You’ll be surprised at the little things you – and possibly your editor – have missed.
16. Then it’s on to publishing…
But that’s another post altogether.
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