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. 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. During November of 2019, I was one of them.
When I announced I was participating in NaNo this year, someone asked me about my writing process. After I explained it, they suggested I write a post: “How to Write 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 to write 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.
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?
Then I go about filling out details about them, using these resources to guide me:
5. Chapter Outline
This part of the process for me takes about as long as it does to write the first draft. It takes me weeks to work through. Once the who, what, where and when are defined, the outline can come together.
I go back to the sketchpad.
I outline every chapter, so I know what happens with the characters and how the story progresses.
Then, I write out each chapter on index cards.
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 cards allow 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.
Once the index cards are finalized, I create a Chapter outline in Excel or Word.
I have the Chapter Number and an overall idea of what happens in each chapter. I can utilize this when I pitch my story.
6. 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 Chapter and Character Summaries as needed.
Not only does a writer’s group keep me on task, I find I become competitive with myself when I’m writing with goals in mind. NaNo was great for this. I wanted to finish the book during NaNo. Knowing I was one of many with this same goal helped keep me focused. Even outside of NaNo, we continue to support each other.
Having other writers around is great to bounce ideas from. What may sound amazing in my head may not make sense to a reader. Other writers get that. They can tell you honestly whether something works or not.
Lastly, when I’m part of a writer’s group, they have a general idea of my story from the beginning and make for great beta testers. (More on that later.)
8. Write, Don’t Edit
This part of the writing process challenges everyone. It’s hard not to edit, 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? 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. 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.
Then, 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 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 maybe, just maybe, I will send out pitches out to the publishing world.
But that’s another post altogether.
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