How I Write a Novel (For What It’s Worth)
The Iron Ring is getting closer and closer to publication. I’m going over my editor’s revision notes, putting on the final rounds of spit and polish, and soon this little dragster of a story is going to hit the road. You know, assuming there are no cataclysmic failures anywhere along the line. Obviously.
Anyway, I’ve had enough people ask me about this in the recent months that I figured I may as well write about it. “Auston”, they ask, “how do you write a novel?” This is a question that probably has as many answers as there are authors, and if you’re going about writing a novel, you’re probably going to do it differently than anybody else. Writing, as everybody and their sister will tell you, is a personal and solitary process and, as such, it is prone to idiosyncrasy.
This, however, doesn’t answer the question to anybody’s satisfaction. I must, therefore, answer it literally: how do I, Auston Habershaw, write a novel. I feel at this juncture it is important for me to note that nobody taught me how to write a novel. Nobody. It’s something I figured out myself, ultimately, and all the novel workshops I attended through my MFA program and before have mostly taught me how to write chapters, which is a very distinct thing from writing a novel at large. This should not mean my teachers were bad at their jobs by any means, but rather reflect upon the limitations of the semester-based (or workshop based) education system for teaching somebody how to do something that takes years to perfect. I’ve written about 7 novels to date, some of which will never see the light of day (and rightly so), but each has taught me a lot through painful trial and error.
Anyway, the point is that my process might not work for you, but it is a process that seems to produce results, so here we go.
Part 1: The Rough Draft
The first thing I do when writing a novel is to write it. Well, not exactly – I do spend an indeterminate period of time thinking about it and getting the novel into a rough shape in my mind. Main characters, a central conflict, and a beginning/middle/end arc are all loosely defined, and then I start writing. I write the whole thing in one shot. I revise nothing (NOTHING). I don’t so much as fix a comma or proofread a paragraph. I learned early on that, if I did that, I’d get trapped in an endless revision loop of fixing what was, essentially, a tiny part of a large work that might just get cut, anyway. I don’t worry a lot about keeping continuity through the draft – if a character stops working and is messing with the story, I let that character drop and leave myself a footnote explaining why I did it to a future, very skeptical me.
The point of the rough draft is to toss as much junk on the table as possible. The plot usually winds up an ungodly tangle, there are all kinds of pointless tangents, and a lot of things make no sense. That’s okay – the objective is the generation of an entire book’s worth of raw material. It is very hard to tell precisely what will be useful or useless in the future, so I don’t worry too much about it. The point is to get the whole thing done.
Now, I realize there are people out there who extensively outline and, thereby, sort of side-step this. Well, in theory, I guess. Me, I’ve found extensive outlining at this stage hobbles the novel for me – it restricts my ability to improvise and allow the story to grow organically.
Part 2: The Chainsaw Stage
The second draft (and sometimes a third draft, too) involves chopping apart that pile of trash until you’ve got a workable plot and have the general pacing of the novel under control. I call this the Chainsaw Stage, as it often involved hacking out big hunks of stuff you wrote. Other people call this the “Killing Your Babies” stage, as it often involves killing things you love for the sake of the whole. It might be a lovely little tumor, but it’s still a tumor – hack it out.
Of course, once you’ve hacked a bunch of stuff out, you need to fill in those gaping holes you left. This involves writing new scenes that shore up and improve all the stuff you’re keeping. This very process – the act of hacking up and pasting back in – is why I can’t revise until I have a complete or essentially complete rough draft: until I see the story in total, I can’t make responsible decisions of what must go and what must stay. The Chainsaw Stage is only as successful as the Rough Draft is.
These two steps comprise, what I feel, is the lion’s share of the work in novel writing. The first part is tons of fun, though the result is disheartening. The second part is enormously difficult and painful, but the result is incredibly satisfactory. These two parts should (for me) solve all the major problems of the novel. After this point, I know what the story is, I have all the character arcs, conflicts, and resolutions roughly in place, and I have a draft that might actually be readable by outsiders (you know, if they forced me).
Part 3: Buff, Wax, and Polish
The last part (well, discounting what your editor wants you to revise and so on) primarily involves buffing out the stuff you’ve already got. Most of the new scene writing is behind you. Yeah, you might insert a little thing here or there, but generally all the bones of the book are firmly in place. This is when I start to actually worry about style and really start proofreading the thing. This is when I start fiddling with particular words or set rules for the spelling of certain specialized terms (I’m a fantasy author, remember?). I rewrite dialogue a lot (I know what I want them to say, but they can always say it better) and revise action sequences (Quoth George Lucas: Faster! More intensely!).
This stage takes a surprisingly long time, since it is very easy to fiddle. I put it off for two or three drafts prior to this, so finally indulging can be cathartic. I strive to keep myself under control, honestly. Stage 4 kills a lot of the point of fiddling sometimes.
Part 4: Professional Editor
By the end of Stage 3, the book should be about as good as I can possibly make it. At some point it becomes clear that all my edits are lateral moves – nothing is getting better, just slightly different. By then, it is time to submit it. If you’re very persistent and very lucky (as I have been), you’ll actually get a professional to look at the thing and tell you what to change. In my (extremely brief) experience, they are almost always right. You fix as directed.
This is the stage I am currently at. I know there are other stages, but all of those are involved in the professional publication end of this spectrum – copy editing, marketing, etc.. By that point, I obviously already have a novel (and have had one for some time), and the question was “how do I write a novel,” not “how does the publishing business work.” As far as that second one is concerned, I have legitimately no idea what I am doing.
Wish me luck!