Are you feeling overwhelmed by the thought of writing a novel? No lie, it’s hard work. But this episode lays out a three-phase process that is structured enough to support you while allowing for your creative inspiration. There is no “right” way to write a novel, but you and your story deserve clarity, efficiency, and intentionality. This is how you get it.
Okay, so I’ll admit…maybe the title of this episode is a little…hyperbolic. I’m not going to tell you in under 10 minutes all of the things you need to know in order to write a novel, right? But because this is episode 60, a nice round number, I thought it’d be nice to talk through some of the things that it’s important to think about before you start and while you’re writing. This is based on a number of things: my own experience, learning from people smarter than me, and my work with creative and tenacious clients. From all of this, I’ve created a signature system to support writers from idea to revision. I’ve shared bits and pieces of this system with you across previous episodes, but today I’m going to bring it all together. You may even want to jot down some notes while you listen!
But first, I want to tell you that if you like what you hear today, I’m looking for four people who want to write a novel, or have started and gotten stuck, to join me in a small group program for clarity and accountability. If you find that this process speaks to you and you’d like to learn more, I’ll tell you how to get in touch with me for more information at the end of this episode, so stay tuned.
I like to think of this process in three phases: knowing your novel, drafting your novel, and strengthening your novel. So let’s take a look at what each of these phases mean.
Phase 1: KNOW YOUR NOVEL
Phase one, knowing your novel, involves first exploring your answers to a handful of really important questions. These questions include why do you want to write this novel? Why are you the right person to tell this story? Why is now the right time for this story to be told? What are you trying to say with this story? Why is this message important to you?
We ask these questions for two reasons. First, it brings up all of the reasons for your motivation. It can’t be enough that you just think it’s a fun story idea, or that it keeps popping into your head. Writing a novel is hard work, and it takes a long time. Anyone who tells you differently just isn’t giving you the full picture. Planning and drafting the novel takes time, but the thing we don’t often talk about is that revision is usually the longest, most challenging part of the process. And often, by then, we have forgotten why we ever wanted to do this cumbersome thing in the first place. If you can answer all of these questions before you start, when your motivation is high, it gives you something to return to to help you remember during the painful times. And I’m not here to lie to you, my friends. There will be painful times.
The second reason is specific to the message of your book, or the point you are trying to make about the larger world. This is what you will shape all of your scenes and your character development around. It’s the pole to which your entire story is tethered.
Okay, so back to phase one, knowing your novel. Once you’ve answered those critical questions, it’s time to understand your protagonist. The whole reason for the events in your plot is to give your protagonist a challenge to face and an opportunity to be changed in the process. So the next step is to define your main character’s emotional journey. Who are they in the beginning? How will they change by the end?
After you’ve got that figured out, we begin to develop the plot by identifying the key scenes which create the shape of your story. The important piece here is to see that there is a cause and effect thread pulling through the scenes. My favorite phrase to use in this situation is “because of that”. One thing happens, and because of that the next thing happens. Finally, we marry the character’s emotional journey to the plot events by aligning where the character is emotionally with what is happening in the scene.
Whew, that’s a lot, I know. So let’s pause here. Understanding your story in this way before you start writing is so incredibly powerful. It allows you to start off on your first draft with a clear vision of what’s happening and why. But it also can bring up a lot of doubt, confusion, and imposter syndrome, which is why throughout this phase it’s important to check in with your mindset and remember that all of these feelings are completely normal. You are setting out to do something vulnerable and challenging, so of course your mind is going to try to talk you out of it!
Phase 2: DRAFT YOUR NOVEL
Phase two is drafting your novel. In all honestly, writing a first draft is my least favorite part of the process. We all have one, right? Now that I’ve gotten so much clarity from phase one, I wish that I could just open my brain and dump the story out onto the page so that I can just start revising. But maybe that’s just me. Anyway, this phase is all about getting the words on the page. I encourage my clients not to revise as they go, unless there’s a major issue, because it’s so tempting to spin in the first chapters and never get the first draft done. We make lots of notes about things to come back to, but they keep writing forward. The key here is to keep checking in with the emotional trajectory and cause and effect that you so meticulously thought through in phase one. Without that, it’s pretty easy to go off the rails and into the woods. There’s a lot of mindset work here, too, because usually the beautiful images that are in our heads don’t come out as beautifully on the page in the first draft, and it’s easy to get discouraged. Again, this is so normal! But it’s why many writers quit. So we do a lot of work with managing the mind during this phase.
Phase 3: STRENTHEN YOUR NOVEL
Phase three is strengthening your novel. As you likely know, it is never a matter of revising once and you’re done. You’ll take several passes at it, starting with a wide angle lens and gradually zooming in with a narrower and narrower view. Revision is daunting, but manageable if you know what to focus on with each pass through. The revision phase is a great time to study mentor texts to improve specific craft skills. It is also a place to strategically ask for specific feedback from intentionally chosen readers. And, surprise surprise, there’s mindset work to be done here, too. Because by this point, you may be really sick of looking at the thing and completely convinced that you’ve wasted all of this time writing for no good reason. And this is when you go back and revisit your answers to the “whys” in phase one. Because you know what you started this. You know why you’ve spent all this time writing. It’s because your story matters. You deserve to write it and someone out there needs to read it.
If this process sounds like something you’d like to work through with the support of your friendly neighborhood book coach and three other likeminded writers, I’d like to invite you to schedule a free, no commitment call with me at hellowriters.net/group. We can talk about your project, give you a practical next step, and see if the small group program is a good fit. If you’ve been thinking about working with me and the price of one on one coaching has been a barrier, this is a great opportunity for you to take advantage of coaching at a lower price, too. Again, that link is hellowriters.net/group.
Writers, as I said, writing a novel is hard and it takes a long time. But it matters. Your story matters. And if you follow this process, you’ll not only have a solid manuscript, you will’ve enjoyed the journey. I’ll talk to you next week.