So, we’ve covered the preparation stages in part 1, now it’s on to the main event:
Finally, we’re ready to start the fun part. It only took us 3,000 words to get here. All of that preparation might have been a pain, but there are two bits of good news. First, if you made it through the pain, there’s a good chance you’re definitely writer. Second, you’ll be glad of all the planning and research while you happily write away, fully aware of who your characters are, and their motivations and whatnot.
While fun, this part is also tricky, because it’s where people are unsure if they are ‘doing it right’. It’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to tell someone how to write something good. It either happens or it doesn’t. That said, don’t expect to have something publishable come out of your first attempt. Some authors have numerous fully completed manuscripts lying in drawers that will never see the light of day, because they’re not good enough.
The best advice I have heard or can give is to simply write for yourself. Write something that you would want to read. Try never to think ‘ah, that’ll do’. Enjoy the process and the work itself. As for knowing when it’s properly finished, or if it’s publishable, that’s pretty much up to you to decide for yourself – but don’t forget you have friends and family!
- Just Write
This part of the process is all about getting everything out of your head. Don’t edit what you’re writing. Don’t worry too much about your sentence structure, how many adjectives you’re using, and how many iterations of ‘was’ and ‘that’ you’re using. Hopefully, you should be writing fairly well by default, but all this will come in the rewriting and editing stages.
If you’re not sure where to start even after planning, just start with anything you’re sure of: maybe a scene you have in your head, or have the protagonist do something normal and everyday, like going to the corner shop, so we’re introduced and you get into the flow of writing. You’re not chiselling into the side of a mountain, so you can afford to do things out of order and write stuff that will never make it near the finished work.
Your characters will take you in directions you didn’t expect, and reveal things about themselves that you may not have known without a thorough background check. This is part of the fun, and you will do more harm than good if you scold them and force them back onto the path you’ve set out for them.
Remember what I said in part 1 about my computer deleting all of the work I’d done? Save to multiple computers, flash drives, external hard drives, Dropbox, even send your work to yourself in an email attachment. And backup very regularly.
You don’t have to decide how you want to do your chapters at this stage. You may find your scenes splitting themselves up into natural chapters as you go, or you may have to go back through later to insert them. You may decide that you don’t want to use traditional chapters. In my NEXUS series, I haven’t so far used chapters in the normal way, with numbers and/or names. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Terry Pratchett book in which he uses any kind of chapters.
It’s up to you and what you think suits your particular book. There isn’t really a right or wrong here. Choosing where to insert your chapters can be surprisingly tricky, and you may find yourself doubting your choices. Equally, not using chapters may have its own issues.
- Take A Break
Know when to stop writing for the night, or for the morning, or whatever it happens to be. A good piece of advice for finishing is to never write until you’re empty. When you are in the mood to write, and it’s all flowing out of you, it’s tempting to just write and write and write, but if you finish while you still have ideas, it will be much easier to pick it up again when you return. But don’t stop after an epiphany, obviously, as you don’t want to come back the next morning and realise that you’ve forgotten where you were taking things!
Now might also be a good time to revisit your notes and plans. Perhaps not to edit them, but to add to them. I prefer to update my notes with new information and ideas, rather than ‘correct’ the old notes. Apart from anything, the planning and note taking – and especially the editing – is a different kind of writing to what you’ve just been doing, and you don’t want it to break your creative flow. So perhaps just jot down important revelations and the like, and then go to bed. Or work. Don’t forget to go to work.
- Don’t Fear The Internet
This could have easily gone in the research section, but it’s as relevant here. The internet isn’t just for Googling your name to see if you’re a famous author yet (hint: you aren’t; you haven’t finished the book). There are a lot of people on the internet:
some most are a******s, but plenty will be a lot like you. Websites like Authonomy are good places for writers to learn, meet other writers, and even ask for help.
If you are active in a website such as Authonomy, you can learn a lot about writing, as well as receiving (hopefully constructive) criticism of your own work. Not only does the latter help you improve said work, but it will help thicken your skin for the inevitable bad reviews and so on later. You can also make a lot of good connections.
Hooray, you’ve written a book! Calm down. At this point, I usually go straight back to the beginning and start going over it again. The better plan would be to take a longer break of anywhere between a week and a few months, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
How you go about this is up to you, but I’m going to dictate anyway. Rewriting and editing are fairly in-depth topics in their own right so, as with everything else here, you should probably read (or have read) a book or article specially written for the subject. That said…
Don’t start with edits. I didn’t say ‘rewrite/edit’, I just said ‘rewrite’. You could say they are practically synonymous, but here that means that you should start with structural changes, not line edits. Line edits being rearranging sentences and the words within. Structural changes are drastic things that may change even the basics we planned out: genre, setting, narrator, etc.
You might, as many of us do, find that your opening just doesn’t work. Perhaps you have a prologue, the information in which would be better scattered throughout the first few chapters. Information dumps are bad!
Perhaps a character turns out to be quite boring and unnecessary, and should be deleted. Or perhaps the book is missing a vital character that you need to insert.
You might start by reading over your book with a notebook beside you. Skim over it, ignoring the wording for the moment, and just concentrate on the bigger picture. Anything that strikes you as out of place, unrealistic, overflowing with information, or anything that trips you up or catches your eye, write it down to come back to it once you’ve finished your read. Apart from anything, skimming through like this is more likely to help you catch plot holes or scenes that are too slow or too fast, etc., than a normal read, or while editing.
Some people go for a more literal rewrite at this stage, and will write the book again from scratch. Presumably, you would write an outline of each chapter and work off that, but I don’t think that method would work for me. The closest I’ve got to that is with the novel I’m currently working on. I have already written a fair amount of it, and now that I’ve finally gone back to it, I have it open on one screen while I write it again on the other. This means that some lines are identical between the two, while others are added to, or taken away; in other parts, entire chapters are added. But, again, I don’t think this benefits me any more than simply rewriting in the same document.
Now it’s time for the line edits. Would this sentence work better if it came after that one? Would they both work better if they were merged into one? Should that whole paragraph be condensed into one sentence, or deleted completely?
You will almost certainly find yourself rewording individual sentences at this point. If you can avoid doing so until you make a dedicated edit run for that, it may be for the best, but it may also be unavoidable.
Just as when you finished your first draft, it is a good idea to leave the book to rest a while between edits. Fresh eyes will see new issues every time.
The final step of an edit – for me at least – is to look at the individual words. You will probably have reworded many of your sentences by now. But even when looking at the big picture, it is hard to see when you’ve overdone things. Using a character’s name too many times in quick succession, too many iterations of certain words, etc. I have a list of words I do a quick search for, to begin with. I have a tendency to use the word ‘suddenly’ a little too often. While I have slowly weaned myself off this habit, I still search for iterations of it. It’s one of those words that is rarely necessary. If I have more than, say, three iterations of it in the entire book, then it’s overused. I try to aim for only one or two but, again, only if it reads well.
Other things to look out for are unnecessary/superfluous words (usually adjectives or adverbs), correcting misused or mistyped words (it’s/its, their/there/they’re, your/you’re, learnt/learned, though/through/thought, quite/quiet, etc.), common mistakes that have become ingrained in most people’s minds (percent vs. per cent, alright vs. all right, damnit vs. dammit/damn it, affect vs. effect, etc.). I’d like to give a special mention, American readers, to ‘I could care less’. This is NOT the phrase. It’s ‘I could NOT care less’.
Some words that are commonly used unnecessarily are ‘that’, ‘very’, ‘suddenly’, ‘just’, ‘then’. The list goes on, and it’s not difficult to find whole articles (and probably books) written on the subject of such words. Don’t say ‘ran very fast’, say ‘sprinted’. Don’t say ‘very angry’, say ‘furious’.
But don’t go through your work changing words for no reason. Don’t go through and think ‘Uh oh, I saw that on a list somewhere; I’d better change it’. For example, some people say that the word ‘said’ is overused. Well, I’d like to see a writer not use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag without crossing into highly irritating, contrived territory. Other sources will say that ‘said’ is by far the best dialogue tag, because it becomes all but invisible to the reader, allowing them to be aware of who is talking without having to focus on contrived tags.
It can be difficult not to fall into the trap of changing words simply because they’re listed as overused or unnecessary or whatever. If you do start changing words for no real reason then at best it will come across as contrived or pompous, or at worst…remember the episode of Friends when Joey used a thesaurus to make his letter ‘better’?
In other words, use your own common sense and stick to your own style. Sometimes an overused or cliché word simply works. Again, people complain about J.K. Rowling’s overuse of adjectives and adverbs, but has that damaged her writing and career? If it works, it works. Just make sure if you break ‘rules’, and leave things in that might be topics of complaint, that it’s for the right reason (i.e. it reads well).
Consistency may need its own pass. Do you have something capitalised sometimes and not others? Is your character wearing a jacket in one scene and in the very next, he’s scratching his bare arm? Consistency in the writing itself and in the content is, obviously, very important.
There are some automated writing services online that may be of use, especially when you’re just starting out. I can’t for the life of me remember the one I used for Shadow of the Wraith, but it looked for a lot of stuff, from spelling and grammar errors to word usage and those overused words I mentioned earlier.
Whether or not you use such a thing as a basic part of your editing stage is up to you, but I would suggest you’re careful not to rely on it any more than you do on Word’s spellchecker. DO NOT RELY ON WORD’S SPELLCHECKER!
If you make it all the way through this guide and don’t notice any errors or inconsistencies, you might need to give your own work some extra goings over. For example, I’ve capitalised some words for emphasis, while italicising others. If you pick up on stuff like that, it’s a good sign.
I mention it in part 3, but it’s worth noting here too that it’s notoriously difficult to proofread your own work. You will end up reading what you know is meant to be there rather than what is there.
The next stage for a lot of writers is to send the book off to beta readers. This basically means you give the book to family and friends, perhaps writers’ groups or websites, for feedback.
While this is a good idea, it can be quite disheartening. While professional or pseudo-professional writers will likely be pretty harsh, you might find friends and family will let you down completely. I sent Acts of Violence to a handful of friends, and not one of them read it. So don’t rely too much on beta readers, as there are a few too many people out there who don’t know how to say ‘no’, and it ends up screwing things up for you a lot more than that ‘no’ would. Plus, it’s difficult to be totally honest about the negatives to a friend or relative.
So places such as Authonomy are probably your best bet, but there are downsides here, too. You can’t just upload your work and expect people to flock to it; you have to put work in. You will end up reading and commenting/critiquing more than you receive comments/critiques, but even that will help you. Even while you are identifying problems in other people’s work, you may realise that you’re making the same mistakes, for example.
In this stage, you have to be ready to take (constructive) criticism. Even pretentious writers who consider themselves wordsmiths of the highest order, yet can’t get an agent any more than anyone else, may have valid points. The main thing to remember is that, much of the time, it’s just one person’s opinion on how writing should be done. It may or may not be relevant to you, your writing, and your style.
In short, read/listen to and take in everything, but don’t make these assumptions: A) That these opinions and views all need to be implemented into your writing; B) That none of these people understand you/your writing, and they should be ignored.
If you have no desire to take things any further and get published, or just print out a nice paperback copy of the book for yourself, then read no more! Otherwise, part 3 will cover what you need to know next…