There is no one process everyone must follow to write a book. All authors must find methods that works best for them. Some write plot outlines that range from general overviews to chapter by chapter details before they put down prose. There are writers who create descriptions of each main characters with their background, history and traits. As with outlines these vary from general to in depth. Others, like Salman Rushdie, David Mamet, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King Margaret Atwood and me don't write either.
Like the other authors mentioned above, I start with a concept I want to explore, place characters in a situation under pressure and see what happens. The way the characters react reveals their true natures and moves the story forward.
As I write, I learn more about the characters and story. New concepts come to mind. I may realize a setting is wrong. I may turn a hero into a villain. When these ideas come, I don’t go back and change previous martial. I make a note of them and continue from that point as if I had already made the changes.
I keep going until I finish the first draft. Before making any changes, I read the entire first draft. It will have grammar and spelling mistakes, dead ends, missing martial and inconsistencies. It will also have the core of the story and character development.
It’s then that I sit down, consult my notes and begin a second draft where I edit the manuscript and fix not just grammar and spelling, I make the adjustments I noted, alter character relationships, adjust scenes and so forth. I will find that some of the notes I made no longer apply to how the story or characters turned out. As I work, I’ll think of new story elements and characterizations that were not noted. Things shift and change. That’s good. The manuscript is taking on life and consistency.
When I finish the second draft, I read it without making changes, then start a third draft. You may be tempted to think only one pass is needed, yet you will be shocked at how many problems and mistakes you’ll find while writing the third draft; grammar mistakes, missing words, duplicated words, spelling errors, character development, story elements, etc. With the third draft complete, I start the fourth. I keep writing drafts until I’ve combed the manuscript to be the best I can produce. It will never be perfect. It is said a novel is a long piece of writing with mistakes. The stopping point for me is when I see the things I wanted to talk about, the representation of the characters, and the entertainment value express what I set out to deliver. For the final book of a fantasy trilogy, I wrote ten drafts because it had to tie up all the lose ends.
After I complete my drafts, the book goes to my editor. We than work together to improve it. This method has served me through five novels and an illustrated edition of one. Three of these books have won awards. Writing a novel is really rewriting until it sings.
The first draft of a novel is the initial creation of the story. The result will produce a manuscript, not a publishable book. The manuscript must be rewritten several times to craft a book. There will be many false starts, weak writing and mistakes. That doesn’t matter. I never write outlines; I just begin with a situation, put characters in it under pleasure and see what happens. Not everyone works this way. If you do write outlines before starting a book, don’t feel you must constrain yourself to them. You don’t fully know the story you’re writing or the characters you’re creating until you work with the prose for a while.
As you write, concepts will come to mind that you hadn’t thought of. You will realize the true nature of relationship between characters and imagine new twists in the plot. Put these things down and let your imagination run free. If you start on a divergent path, follow it to see where it leads. You may eliminate it later, but explore it anyway. It might lead to something better than you originally envisioned. The final book may bear little resemblance to what you considered in the beginning.
Never go back and edit anything in the first draft as you write. If you realize something needs to change at the beginning, make a note on the side and continue as if that change had been made, then fix the beginning in subsequent drafts.
Now there's only one true rule in writing - you can do anything you can get away with, however the trick is in knowing what that is, and that requires a knowledge of writing guidelines. It also takes experience.
Practice good writing from the beginning. Watch grammar, avoid clichés and be selective with adverbs as you create the first draft. Don't fall back on sloppy writing. Build a story, don't just dump words. Train yourself to be a better writer with each sentence. This will allow you to grow as an author because writing is a life long learning experience. It also makes life easier with the second, third, fourth and subsequent drafts to craft a manuscript into a book, short story or article.
Many companies, large and small, still live with the 19th century notion that managers have to stand over employees to make certain they’re working. Yet, evidence shows when managers set clear goals and allow employees, who know the details of the work, the leeway to function in their most efficient ways, productivity and profits increase. In too many respects, western business culture still holds feudal attitudes of lords and peasants rather than as partners who are all required to achieve goals and all deserve equal respect.
Don’t try to write to trends or opinion polls. These change too often. By the time your book is ready for publication, tastes can vanish.
Be bold. Sit down and write your book. It's all you can do.
The Lord of the Rings was a modest seller when it first appeared in the early 1950s. Nothing like it had been published before.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, when college students discovered the books, that it became the hit we know today.
J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t write to please fans or media swings. He wrote from his heart. Write from yours. Tell your story. It has just as good a change of selling as trying to catch yesterday’s fad.
There is a fine line in writing between foreshadowing and telegraphing. Foreshadowing consists of facts, incidents or dialogue that appear to be insignificant at the time, yet prepare readers for future events in the book.
For instance, a character might say, “Sara used to deliver newspapers in college to support herself. She had a great arm and could put the paper on a porch every time. She was always good with her hands. I remember how she wanted to be a sculpture from the beginning. Her job let her stay in school where a professor noticed her work and suggested she enter the state competition. That was the beginning of her art career.”
On the surface, the conversation seems to be about Sara as an artist because it moves from throwing newspapers to Sara being good with her hands to Sara being able to stay in school because of the job to Sara’s big break so she can become an artist. Her ability to throw newspapers accurately is hidden within dialogue and will fall to the back of the minds of readers until a later scene where Sara has to throw a key to a character who is trapped in a cage. The seemingly unimportant fact about her ability to always hit a porch with a newspaper leads readers to believe she can toss the key accurately. Without that piece of dialogue, the reader will not believe Sara capable of this act.
Foreshadowing can be taken too far. If the dialogue had said that Sara practiced throwing objects because she was always worried she would come across animals caught in cages where she couldn’t reach them and wanted to be able to knock the cages open. Her throwing ability in the piece of dialogue would become as import as her art career and readers would be waiting for Sara to encounter something locked in cage. When the scene comes where Sara finds a person locked in a cage where the key is hanging on a shook, readers will think, “Oh, yes. Sara will throw that key into the cage.”
This becomes telegraphing and removes the suspense. When Sara tosses the key, readers will have expected it instead of being surprised when she comes up with the solution. Her action is now mundane instead of satisfying.
Foreshadowing is all about subtlety.
Beyond the Shallow Bank, my women’s historical novel with elements of Celtic mythology, won first place in the Magic, Legend and Lore category and third place for Historical Fiction at The BookFest Awards for Spring 2022. The awards ceremony took place on 2 April 2022 in Los Angeles as part of the semi-annual conference. The ceremonies and panel discussions were held online this year. https://www.thebookfest.com/book-awards-spring-2022-first-place/2/.
Beyond the Shallow Bank is told through the perspective of an artist named Margaret Talbot who fights her way into the male dominated world of publishing in the late 19th century to become a magazine illustrator. In 1901, she suffers a life changing crisis and comes to a small Nova Scotia fishing village where she meets another woman rumored to be a selkie, a magical being from Celtic mythology who walks on the land as a human and swims in the sea as a seal. With the influence of the villagers, and Margaret’s own self-determination, she strives to discover who she is and what she truly wants.
Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize said, “Wimsett's novel is quickly paced without the events of the story feeling rushed… Engaging characters and the right amount of fantasy help elevate the novel above standard genre trappings while retaining enough of the conventional elements of historical fiction. Margaret is an engaging protagonist…”
Nova Scotia writer Susan Haley, author of a number of Canadian titles including A Nest of Singing Birds and Petitot said, “The wonderful romantic plot of the book with its magical twist and turns gives substance and resonance to Margaret’s multiple dilemmas. Beyond the Shallow Bank presents a delightful picture of a Nova Scotia fishing village with all its characters: the madman inventor and the man who carries the ashes of his dead wife around with him. Beyond the Shallow Bank contains descriptive passages of the sea which are wonderfully poetic. The writing in this book has both depth and psychological complexity, as well as humor, in the interactions of its large cast of village characters. Perhaps best of all, for the lifelong reader, it is a book to sink into, put down reluctantly, and wonder about long afterwards.”
Crafting a novel takes place through the process of rewriting the book. The first draft is only a framework of the story you want to tell. Some beginning writers run their first draft through spell check and send out the manuscript, thinking they are finished. This is a mistake.
Even this article has gone through eight rewrites. After putting down ideas I wanted to discuss, I reread and edited the first draft, changing words here, taking some things out there and adding new material where it was needed. This was followed by a second edited draft with more changes as I looked for the exact words to use while making certain that the points I wanted to express were clear. After the eighth draft, I posted the article.
Of course, you also need to check for misspellings, typographical errors, missing words and other grammatical problems. I’m always shocked by how many times I can reread a manuscript I’ve written and come across a sentence such as, “They walked into building” when I intended to write “They walked into the building.” My mind subconsciously added the word the each time I read the piece. Sometimes these things go undetected until after the manuscript goes to my editor.
This is one of the reasons why anyone who intends to write professionally must hire a professional editor and not just have a friend or relative look over the work. Your friends and relatives may not be trained and experienced in editing manuscripts and they will usually tell you that the writing is wonderful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Worse yet, some writers send out manuscripts without having anyone else look at them.
Those who want to write on a professional level must invest time in rewriting. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
There are many things to consider when rewriting. In the end, the writing itself must disappear to reveal only the story and the characters. A book can present themes and ideas, but without a story that involves readers in the characters, the book becomes a lecture and not a novel.
When readers pause to say, “Wasn’t that a clever turn of phrase”, they are taken out of the story and slammed back into their ordinary lives, dispelling the suspension of disbelief that is essential in storytelling, which must immerse readers beyond distraction.
Here is a good rule of thumb. If, in rereading your work, you come across something that stands out and causes you to become conscious of the writing itself, remove that word, phrase, description, piece of dialogue or characterization. If you noticed it, so will your readers. The story will stumble and any points you wanted to make will be interrupted.
Professional writing is not an academic excursive in showing off how much you know about writing craft, it is using the craft of writing to reveal the material with such impact that the physical presentation becomes invisible. Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, says to “Kill your darlings.”
Writers may believe that they can’t remove material because they might not be able to think of something else. In truth, writers have an inexhaustible source of material within themselves and their imaginations to create new prose that describes characters and situations. Others hope to impress readers by demonstrating a command of language. This is like drawing a set of gorgeous drapes across a picture window and blocking the view.
You are the first editor in a rewrite, and you must be ruthless with yourself. Fight your ego if it tells you to keep material that does not serve the story or revelation of the characters.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a world of gender equality where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.