Every author’s process for writing a novel is different. They may even have several different approaches that they use for different genres. I wrote my first novel TELESĀ ten years ago and I’m now preparing to launch my fourteenth novel, MATA OTI. In that time, I have changed how I write, often according to my circumstances.
When I started, I had three small children under the age of 8, and was also homeschooling kids for a while. So I wrote at night after everyone had gone to bed. That’s why my blog is called Sleepless in Samoa! Then by my third book, all the children were in school, so I could write in the mornings – after the housework was done. And in the afternoons, I multi-tasked writing at the kitchen table while they did homework around me and I had dinner cooking on the stove. (Okay so dinner was often burnt, but hey, the book turned out great!)
As time went on, I was able to make writing an actual ‘job’. I have an actual office now, with blessed air conditioning and gorgeous framed prints of my book covers, and I keep to office ‘hours’, starting work at 9am and clocking out at 2pm when I get Bella from school. My current office is at our construction company headquarters, Young Steel so that I can also manage our office staff in between writing. I set my publishing schedule and make my own deadlines (in co-ordination with my editor and book formatter as they of course have their own work schedules that my books must fit in to.) Writing books is now a daytime activity and far more structured a process than it used to be.
So how do I go from an empty page to a finished draft that’s ready to publish?
Step One – Making it up.
Duration – Anything from one week to a few years!
This is the fun part. I start with an idea and brainstorm it. Sometimes with pen and paper, sometimes tapping on the laptop, sometimes just thinking and imagining stuff while I’m in the shower/doing weights/going for a walk/driving the car/baking cookies. Then I share the idea with my kids and they add their ideas. We can get quite excited talking about it all, everyone throwing in their bit. We can end up with an entire movie or TV series all plotted out ‘in the air’. It’s fun, lively, and anything goes. Will I use all of our plotted story ideas? No, probably not. But some of them will stay with me and make it into the final book. The most important thing about this step is that I fall in love with the idea and with the characters. That I get excited about them. Enough so I will stick with them long enough to do a novel. Enough so I will move on to Step Two. Note: Many ideas never make it out of Step One. I have brainstormed and dreamed out so many novels that to this day, are still only scribbled notes in a drawer, or a ‘movie’ that lingers in the back of my mind, waiting for the day when I get enthusiastic enough about it and make the time to actually write the book. Some even have covers already…
Step Two – Planning
Duration – Two weeks.
This is where it starts to get serious. I plot out the novel. Not in chapters. But in action steps, asking WHAT is happening and WHY. What drives my character, what do they want, and what/who is standing in their way? For me, it’s conflict that drives a story. Internal – an emotional struggle or journey. And external – she wants to get to X, but he’s trying to stop her. My plotting is not super detailed though because I like to keep things open-ended for when I get to the writing stage. If I already know everything that’s going to happen from start to finish, then I’m bored and feel like, what’s the point writing this book when I already know everything? So I outline SOME structure, but not too much. Just enough to get me going. Once I start the writing, I will continually return to my plan outline and revise it as the story takes shape. I’ve found the outlining to be vital because otherwise, I can get lost and wander off on random tangents.
Step Three – Writing
Duration – Six to Eight Weeks. Can be longer depending on wordcount total but I prefer it shorter not longer. I don’t like to be stuck in writing the same book for too long. It kills the buzz for me and I start to resent the story.
This is the least fun stage. Now the hard work begins. Where you need things like discipline, routine, commitment and endurance. Organization is crucial. I set a target date to be done with the draft. Calculate how many words I need to write a day, five days a week since I don’t write on weekends. I purposely set the daily wordcount lower than what I know I can do, so I’ll feel HEY THIS IS EASY, rather than OH SH** HOW AM I GONNA CLIMB THIS MOUNTAIN TODAY?!
When I wrote LOVE BY NUMBERS back in January, I set a daily target of only 500 words, because it was my first book of the year and I needed to gradually get back in to the writer work flow. When I started writing MATA OTI in March, my daily target was 1,500 words because I knew that was an easily attainable average by then. I was actually getting up to 2 – 4 thousand word days, but I kept my target lower so it was manageable. Sure some days, I didn’t hit the target, or I didn’t get to work, but then other days I went way over so it evened out.
That’s the plan, so how do I actually do the writing?
- I set time limits each day to write my words, or else I will dawdle about doing useless things. Check the outline for what part of the story I’m supposed to write, remind myself what’s happening, read a little of the previous day’s writing as a refresher. Then write. At the start I will even use a timer and write in 15 minute bursts where I’m not allowed to stop typing. I use a chart to record my progress and a reward system. Did you ever use star charts to motivate your kids to do stuff? Same concept! My grownup rewards range from…being able to read a book, go for lunch with a friend, watch that Netflix show I’ve been wanting to watch, have a massage, a manicure…and yes, sometimes my rewards are donuts!
- Be okay with writing ‘rubbish’. Give yourself permission to write without self-editing and critiquing as you go. Otherwise, nothing will ever get written. Key is to remember that this is the rough draft only, and everything can be made better later.
- Be okay with not knowing everything. If you’re unsure of a detail, don’t waste time researching it RIGHT THEN. No, leave it blank and keep going. If you’re stuck on a word, a name, a description? Make a note for yourself, and keep going. Eg, I have a lot of ‘blah blah here’ and ‘insert details of a fist fight where she kicks his ass’, and ‘find out proper name of gun’.
- Be excited and if you aren’t, then chuck it. If you’re stuck on a scene or particular passage, then perhaps it’s because it shouldn’t be included? I’ve found that when I’m dreading writing something because I’m bored, then that’s a good signal for me to check whether it should be cut out altogether. Because hey, if I’m bored, then the reader will be too?
- Be okay with not writing in order. Here’s where the outline plan is key. I will write scenes from all over the novel and not in chronological order. But still using the outline to track where each piece fits afterwards. I write different scenes and chapters as I am excited by them, then arrange them all later like a patchwork of pieces.
- Be accountable. Without accountability, then I struggle. For MATA OTI, I gave my wordcount tracker chart to the awesome Office Assistant at Young Steel and I had to send her my wordcount at the end of every day. She would nicely ask me for it if I was late. Then she would tell me my new updated total. Just knowing she was waiting for my daily count was a strong motivator to get it done and ‘turn it in’. Thank you Seteh! In the Fixing stage, I also send completed final chapters to a friend. She doesn’t have to read them ( in fact I prefer if she doesn’t!) but my knowing she’s waiting for the chapters is another deadline-reminder that keeps me going. Thanks Sisilia! My children are also good at helping me stay accountable. When I get Bella from school, she always asks me what scene did I write that day? Where am I up to? Then we talk about it and she gives me more ideas and feedback. She was heavily involved in MATA OTI this way and her excitement for the daily update was a huge help with writing.
Step Four – Fixing / Refining
Duration – Two to three weeks.
I like this stage. I’ve hit my target wordcount and most of the book is written. I know where it’s going and most of what happens. Now I start at the beginning and refine it, page by page. I add in the details that I wasn’t sure of before, write out the fight scenes that I only left directions for, add new scenes as I realize that the story needs them, get rid of others that are not useful, make my words ‘prettier’, and more. I’ll end up adding a lot more words to the book during this stage and write a lot faster because I know where the story is at. If you look at my wordcount tracker chart for MATA OTI, you’ll see that while 60k was my target, I then added another 30k during the Fixing stage. I had to stop myself actually from adding even more because I was getting carried away with extra back stories for side characters and the book would have ended up being a monster well over 150k words!
Step Five – Editor
Duration – Two to three weeks.
I give my Fixed draft to the editor who then checks it for all sorts of things and makes revisions, then gives it back to me. In this time, I will work on the packaging and promotion side of the book.
Step Six – Final Polish
Duration – One to two weeks.
Depending on how much the editor recommends for the book. If they find major problems with it then it could take longer to fix them. But I’ve gotten to the point where my books don’t need huge revisions so I’m able to do the final polishing fairly quickly.
Step Seven – Formatting
Duration – One to two weeks.
Give my book to the awesome team at E.M Tippetts Book Designs. They format the ebook file and the paperback print layout. I get it back and check it, marvel at how beautiful it is!
Step Eight – Publish
Duration – An hour?
I upload the files to Amazon and Smashwords, with their bookcovers. I check everything looks okay. Then hit the PUBLISH button. The books will go live within 24 hours and I then can share the BUY links with my newsletter subscribers and social media circle.
FINISHED! YAY EAT DONUTS!
That’s it. My process for writing and publishing a book.
I would like to be faster at it, and get more of my projects from the ‘Awesome Ideas’ box to the finished book stage. I’m working on getting more efficient at the writing stage of the process because when I’m being honest with myself, I could be more focused and set higher daily targets, (and not waste so much time playing Numberzilla maybe? lol)
I hope you’ve found this helpful. My final advice on how to write a book, is that there is no ONE way to write one. Everyone’s different and you have to experiment to find what strategies work best for you and your situation. I’m always interested to learn about how other authors write their books because I get helpful tips and ideas that I can adapt to suit me. Maybe there’s something in my process that I’ve outlined here, that you can use? Talk to other writers and see how they meet the challenges of this gig.
Just be careful you don’t fall into the comparison trap. That’s where you look at authors who write twenty million awesome books a year and you sink into a pit of despair because I CAN’T DO THAT! I SUCK! I’M A MASSIVE LOSER! I SHOULD JUST QUIT! Don’t do that. Don’t be discouraged. Be inspired and energized about how you can improve on your own writing process. We’re all still learning and (hopefully) always getting better at this!