Here’s our January writing prompt:
Any project requires a certain amount of work or effort before you start it, but there are as many methods for starting (or restarting) a story as there are writers. How do you kick off a writing project? Do you take certain steps before you set pen to paper or do you dive right in and start writing as soon as inspiration strikes?
In the fall, I ‘restarted’ a book I first wrote about ten years ago. It was my second full-length novel. The first was an arcane topic I knew would interest few, so wasn’t surprised at the lackluster greeting my queries received.
Undeterred and on the advise of a publisher who liked my writing but not my topic, I wrote my second book–a present-day military thriller–and wove my first book in as a sub plot.
I loved how it came out and was excited about its prospects, but again got zilch from agents. I put a lot of time into fixing it–so much, the story became stale. The only option I had was to move on.
Which I did. I wrote the sequel. This was the magic third book–the one lots of experts say is required to Make It. In fact, this third book did garner interest from a New York agent, but eventually that also didn’t work out.
I don’t have to tell you-all–it takes a lot to write a 400-page novel. There’s research, plotting, character development, understanding setting, weaving plots and subplots, wordsmithing, beta readers, blood, sweat and tears. Have I missed anything? I still felt good about all three of my completed novels, so decided to ‘fix them’ rather than start fresh. I picked Book #2–To Hunt a Sub, the first in the Delamagente-Rowe series.
If you’ve ever tried to return to a fully-fleshed novel and prepare it for publication, you know the typhoon I stepped into. Here’s how it went:
- I made a slew of changes in the novel. Some were minor (instead of telling readers what the character is wearing, use clothing to build interest in the character); some were structural (move this piece to there; weave a new thread throughout the story). I didn’t bother to perfectly blend these changes in, just got their flavor inserted, figuring I’d smooth the rough edges when I did the first read-through. Time required: over two weeks (5-10 hour days).
- I did a quick read-through (say, 100 pages a week) to see how the changes worked. I found lots of problems–timelines out of whack, details that no longer fit, information the characters should (or shouldn’t) know because I moved a fundamental piece. There were parts I didn’t like in their new spot and moved them again or back. Time required: a month.
- As I went through the entire novel this first time, I paid attention to pacing (is the action moving quickly enough for a thriller?), characters (are they likeable? Will readers want to spend 400 pages with them?), showing not telling (this sounds easier than it is. I really had to pay attention not to miss these), active not passive voice, and those sorts of basics.
- Before I started wordsmithing, I wanted to check for the kind of mistakes a line editor would catch, not a copy editor. I have a subscription to a program called AutoCrit that checks a lot of details for me–dialogue, pacing, momentum, strength of writing, sentence length, word choice, repetition. It even compares my writing to my genre to see how all these details compare. Each hundred pages takes me about five hours because of the level of detail the program includes and my insistence on fixing problems. Time required: about twenty hours, spread out through the first few months.
- With the skeleton in place, I’ll wordsmith–make sure I’m saying what I mean, drawing the reader in, not using more words than necessary (which slows the pace down–a killer in thrillers), that I have constant crises that are solved only to have new ones arise, that chaos takes over at times. This is where I am now. This could necessitate one full read-through, or more. Time required: over six weeks.
- When I think it’s perfect, I’ll do a final read-through before engaging beta readers. At this point, I know from experience it will be almost impossible for me to tell if the book is any good. I’ll have been with it too long. But still, I’ll try. Time required: a few weeks.
- Before sending to beta readers, I’ll confirm a title. I believe a title comes after a book is written (I know–lots of people have the title before they write. I like the story to tell me its name). For example, though my current WIP has a working title of To Hunt a Sub, it’s had other names, like A Girl, Her Dog and a Rogue Submarine.
- I’ll turn the book over to beta readers. I don’t know how long beta readers take. I have other writing projects I’ll work on while I wait, but they won’t be fiction. I don’t want to mix up my plots.
- When I get the comments back, I’ll make necessary changes. Time required: a couple of week.
- When I send it out to beta readers, I’ll start developing a cover and marketing the upcoming book release. I’ve been collecting ideas from writers I respect who do exactly that. I’ll shamelessly steal their ideas (with credit) as I prepare my release.
- I’ll have a professional line edit for me before publishing. I don’t want input on structural pieces like pacing. I just want to have spelling and grammar fixed.
If you’re curious how other people write their novels, check out Joseph Finder’s post. Joseph is one of my favorite thriller authors. He’s written at least eleven books that I’ve read. He knows what he’s doing.
More on writing a novel:
8 Steps All Writers Follow When They Edit
15 Traits Critical to a Successful Writer
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.
I tend to get stuck in a loop in those first two bullet points you have listed. I think it ultimately means that I don’t really know what I want the story to do, but until I’m willing to really admit that to myself I’m not going to get past it.
I had that problem too, Rob. As I read this 2,756th rewrite, I have a tingling sensation that I got it this time.
I love your tenacity Jacqui. It’s one of your best qualities. I’ll be using this list one day!!
I am tenacious, a trait some refer to as stubborn or pig-headed. I like ‘tenacious’ better.
You are like a university of writing how-to. Best wishes for all success.
Haha. If only it would work.