The Wrong Way to Write a Novel
When I first started writing The Winter Riddle, I’d been reading too much George R. R. Martin. I’d gotten ideas.
I started without a plan, just a theme and a handful of characters. I wrote about a dozen chapters, completely out of sequence, from the perspectives of different characters that I had every intention of bringing together in the fog of the future. About 30,000 words in, I got a prophetic glimpse of what the book was destined to become. It wasn’t an epic saga like A Song of Ice and Fire, it was another resident in my drawer of unfinished manuscripts.
Loathe as I was to start over, I knew that it was for the best. Using what I could as supporting material, I plotted out the story from beginning to end, chose a single character, and wrote it from her point of view. At the end of a long road fraught with edits, whiskey, and more crying than I’ll ever officially admit, I’d done it. I’d written a novel worth publishing.
The Least Wrong Way to Write a Novel
Most people who’ve tried writing a novel are familiar with the opposing concepts of plotting (meticulously mapping out your story before you write it) and pantsing (flying by the seat of your pants, writing without notes). I learned the hard way that I am most definitely not a pantser. Nowadays, the writing doesn’t start until my notes are up to snuff.
I start with ideas. What did Santa Claus do before he got into the gift-giving game? What else is there to do at the North Pole? Who else lives there? I play with these ideas, add some more on, and eventually, it becomes a story. Outline the beginning, middle, and end of the story, and I’m ready to write the first draft.
Some authors can jump around in time, writing their chapters out of sequence. I lack that ability, and gleefully join up with mobs that viciously root out that sort of witchcraft. I’ve got my own pitchfork and everything.
While writing the first draft from beginning to end, I’ll inevitably decide to change some facet of a character. A man becomes a woman, or perhaps she gets a wooden leg. That sort of thing. I don’t go back and make corrections, I just continue with the first draft as though it had been that way the whole time.
Once I’m done writing the first draft, I make a series of passes through the manuscript. I call each pass either a revision or an edit, depending on what I feel it needs.
The pass after the first draft is always a revision. I go through from beginning to end, adding or removing big chunks of the plot based on decisions I made during the draft. I also fix the aforementioned man-to-peg-legged-woman sorts of changes.
After the first revision, I almost always do an edit. I read it through, from beginning to end, often aloud. I clean up sentence structure, add witty asides, remove asides that I thought were witty when I first wrote them.
Revisions differ from edits in that the former deals with plot and characters, whereas the latter deals with grammar and language. I don’t try to do both at the same time.
“Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
– Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation
Once I feel pretty good about both, I’ll send the manuscript to my editor. She’ll catch the split infinitives that I missed, point out some plot holes, and otherwise disabuse me of the notion that I’m anywhere close to finished. Moving on to the next project is for patient authors who follow the process. They don’t have to eat any vegetables, though. That’s why I became a writer.