For Davida: Writing a Novel

>> Saturday, May 9, 2009

Davida asked: How long did it take you to write each of your books? What was your inspiration? Did you follow a particular format (like writing an outline or making sure each chapter was perfect before moving on to the next or some other method)? How many queries (I think that's right) did you send out and what happened? What would you do differently, as far as getting one published, the next time?

This is a nontrivial question and it deserves a nontrivial answer. But first, some caveats. First, although I've published three short stories and some technical papers, I am not a published novelist. I can point you to some directions for publishing advice, but I wouldn't put much stock in mine because, hey, it hasn't worked yet. I also am not qualified to answer that last question, but maybe someone who is published can chime in.

Secondly, I truly believe there is not one right answer, one right method, one perfect tool for writing a novel. Some people live and die by the outline. Others do it in fits and spurts. Others sit down and write a minimum number of pages whether they feel like it or not. Some write through and then revise. Others constantly revise and tweak as they write it. I'll be happy to tell you what I do, but don't throw out a method that's working for you because I do something differently. In fact, you might have to try a dozen or so different things before you find out what works and what doesn't.

However, there are some rules I think apply to darn near every writer (this is to write good stuff, not necessarily to get published - though it sure would be nice if those two synced up, eh?)

  1. Write stuff you like to read. Many say write what you know - that's fine if it's what you like to read, but not if it's not. You will never be happy as a writer unless at least you like your own stuff.
  2. Read stuff of the type you want to write. Mix it up, try a few more authors. Find what works for you (and no adopting a style that makes you uncomfortable just because a popular writer adopts it - you have to like it).
  3. Read your stuff out loud (preferably with an audience that is willing to tell you if something sounds wrong). Not only can you catch more typos and grammatical errors this way than you ever though possible, you can find sentences and dialog that sounds awkward. And, if it sounds bad, it can almost undoubtedly be written better. I do this multiple times. Always.
  4. Get someone to read it when you have a working draft and after each revision. Get someone willing to tell you what they really think. If they do nothing but gush (or just say, "not my style"), you need a different reader. No first draft is perfect.
  5. When your reader has taken the time to read your novel, give them the courtesy of taking each suggestion and comment seriously. That doesn't mean you have to agree with it or change it, but think about it. Perhaps they are the only person on earth who would see it that way, but they might not be. If you can address their suggestion without changing your book essentially (or compromising your vision or your voice), consider doing so. Come up with a compelling reason for every comment you decide not to implement and if, at the end of the day, you've implemented none of them, either your reader was just not right or you need to reconsider (and I'd check you first). :)
  6. When you think you've finished a draft or a revision, while others are reading it or not, let it lie for at least two weeks, preferably a month or two. If you jump right back into it when you've just finished it, it will either be perfect to you or it will be crap. You need a little distance to look at it objectively. NEVER send off a novel or a book the day after you finished a major rework. Wait, read it again and clean up small stuff, but, if you find you need major rework, you'll need another cooling off period.
Those are all recommendations I'd given any writer and that I follow myself.

Now, to actually answer your questions.

I have completed three novels, all while working full time. Cumulatively, they have taken me 20 years. However, the first one is in serious need of a major rework. One is only on the second draft and one has gone through several major revisions and is, I think, "done". The "done" one, with all the reworking, took me twelve years. The first one, I worked on for about six years, off and on. This last one, complete with its first draft, less than two years. During the first two books, I took off multiple years several times. Life happens.

Note also that I work on eight or so novels at one time. While I have three completed drafts, I have 5-15 chapters completed in at least five other novels. I grow stale on one, I'm quite likely to switch to something new (or, heaven help me, a new novel).

Note however, that the first novel, in serious need of a rewrite, taught me a great deal about character development and dialog. The second helped me with plot and world-building. And, with each one, the first draft improved immeasurably from the first draft of the book before. I'm actually quite pleased with my newest novel despite it being in first draft form. That one, by the way, I wrote the first half (~50,000) in one week. I was inspired. I wrote like five more chapters than Vista ATE the whole thing (OFF the hard drive; I'd backed it up) and I had to reconstruct it. It was so disheartening, I didn't touch it for a year (oh, and I had a baby and revised the other "done" novel and started another one and got 12 chapters in).

I write in spurts and don't write every day; for me, writing stale makes my work so bad I get disgusted and put it away, sometimes indefinitely. I don't use an outline, but think up characters in detail, then put them in situations that interest me than generally stand back. I sometimes make character cheatsheets, but usually to make sure I don't mess things up and change eye color or something. I often have ensemble casts so it's easier than you think to get mixed up. You will not be surprised to note that plot is still not my strong suit.

I tend to write along gangbusters until some plot twist comes along I didn't see (or I find a useful change) and then I'll stop moving forward and rework what I've already done to make it work. Many prefer many revisions, but only doing it as a whole. I really do both. I'm too anal to leave something I know is broken behind.

As for queries, there are many websites devoted to that kind of thing and it depends on whether you want to troll for an agent first or try your hand at publishers. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but I think most publishers would tell you that, if you can get an agent, do so. Kinda like having a lawyer when going to court.

I hope that helped you. Remember, there are dozens of different ways and speeds to write. There are very successful authors that generate half a dozen books a year or more. Others take years for each. Pick your own speed.


  • Quadmama

    I hope you'll visit my new blog "Buried in Laundry" ( It's a work in progress but it's up and running

  • Davida

    Ahhhh! Stephanie--and you should already know this by now--you are truly the BEST! Thank you for your detailed answer.

    I'm glad to know that even without knowing what your recommendations would be, such as reading aloud to someone (poor, Danny) and getting someone else to read it (that would be my friend Tasha), I had already implemented some of them. It's also good to know there's no sure method that works for everyone.

    I was wondering if I had missed out by not majoring in English or Literature or something more artsy. I was also worried that I was being too anal by going over and over the same chapters I'd written instead of just putting down everything first. I have notes everywhere because I've written my thoughts down for later usage, even though I haven't gotten to that chapter yet. I spent a week developing the characters and have a cheat sheet, like you described--and it keeps changing. I'm currently on chapter 5 and really want to finish the novel fast. I guess I just feel it's long overdue.

    Your not having a published novel is surprising. I've been reading your blogs for a while, and you are really good. Honestly, that's a little discouraging. Getting published must be waaaaay harder than I thought (and I didn't think it was easy). But, as you said, I should write what I like to read and let the chips fall as they may.

    I'll probably have more questions on this subject later.

    Happy Mother's Day!!!


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