Novel writing is serious business.

February 11, 2009

As shemeliarockie puts it, it’s “like having a full-time volunteer job”.  You pour your blood and sweat and tears into it every day, and for at least the first six months of its existence you never see any money from it.  For those six months (or a year or more), writing is a thankless job.

For that reason, you can’t just write a novel for money.  Like a volunteer job, you have to do it because you enjoy it, or there’s no reward to it at all.  Unlike a volunteer job, however, you have to balance your enjoyment of it with the need to sell it, because you are usually going to try to do that eventually.

It’s a tricky business, writing a novel.  There are basically three facets to it: getting the work done, making it good, and enjoying yourself.  If you don’t take the time and effort to make it good and get it done, there’s no profit.  But if you don’t enjoy the process, chances are that you’ll hate it and it won’t turn out good.  It’s a tricky balance.

For this reason, there are basically three stages to writing, which come out in three or four drafts.  The first draft is the best-known phase – that’s the part where you “sit down and write a novel”, penning the entire story from start to finish, every scene, all the dialogue.  While you may occasionally erase and rewrite a part of the story that you don’t like, editing isn’t the focus of this stage; the point is just to write.

The second stage, where you produce the second draft, is where you make the story into something you like.  Cut out the plot points you hate, work in the things you wanted to add but never quite made it, etc.  Again, you don’t touch the actual prose.  Just make your first draft in the story you want it to be.

At this point you move into the third phase – making it good. First take a long break from your novel – not long enough that you forget about it, but long enough that you forget how you think the story should be going.  Then go back and read it.  Note any glaring plot holes or inconsistencies, as well as scenes that don’t make sense or don’t contribute as much to the plot as you thought they did.  Note if you thought the ending was anticlimactic or too contrived.  But most importantly note your impressions – did the story seem to be going too fast or too slow?  Did Character X drive you up the wall?  Are you still having trouble figuring out what the Amulet of Power does?  Once you’ve finished laying out the plot (with the help of some additional readers – hire a few intelligent strangers to read your plot and show you where it needs work), take these impressions into account and fix your story accordingly.  You’ll probably be doing this concurrently with part of Phase Two, making compromises between the things you like and the things other people like.  A good rule of thumb to remember: it’s better to remove something you like than leave in something your readers hate.  In the end, they’re the ones who decide how profitable your novel will be.  Lastly, you’ll give your novel a good polish, editing out the bits of bad prose, switching out those names that you hated, and finally fixing the typos.  A good editor will help you find all of these problems.

With Letters from Blackboot (current working title for my three-year novel), I’m still stuck in Phase One.  And although I enjoy the sweet abandon of typing out everything I can think of, this phase is still incredibly grueling and at times headdesk-inducing.  In the words of Jonathan Stroud, “this [is] the time when the novel [has] to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into existence.”  And as many authors have said before me, it’s a lot like childbirth – you spend agonizing hours of labor just getting it out of you, and when you’re done you’ve got this messy, unattractive thing that will spend the next eighteen months keeping you up late at night, driving you insane with its caterwauling, and generally dominating your life.  And yet you enjoy the entire thing.  You weird person, you.

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