stacks of books on a shelf

My Writing Process and Resources for New Authors

As I’ve resumed work on my new-adult fiction novel, I’ve considered the steps that have led to the current moment: I feel confident in my writing, but I know that I’ll continue to learn about the craft and improve. I’ve observed writing as a craft that can be improved, and not merely as the first words that spew onto the page when the author sits to write (at least not for me!).
I want to record the early steps while I still remember them. This leads me to remember the resources that have been most helpful to me, which I find myself suggesting to other new writers I meet. And, it leads me to the long list of resources recommended by others that are stacked on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.

So here is the writing process of my novel so far (resources in bold), and below I will outline the updated process that I’ll use in the future:

Stage 1: Write and Revise

Nanowrimo winner badgeI wrote the first draft somewhat randomly, finishing with Nanowrimo. (I’m currently pondering if this is the best way to start a novel, or if more planning is a good idea—more on this below.) I had a story and characters I liked, but the writing itself was bad and the whole thing was a mess: trying to keep track of who knew what, how many days had passed between scenes, and what weather it was from day to day.

To address the writing, I read some books on “self-editing” or revising for authors:

  • The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, a short guide that points out, one-by-one, specific problems new writers’ books often have.
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, a longer guide to problems and solutions, with lots of examples from literature.
  • The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, lists of specific actions that might occur when a character feels an emotion. (So if I had written, “Nick looked angry,” I would look up “Anger” and see a list of possible actions that Nick might do, such as his lips tightening into a hard line, or his face becoming red. I would rewrite the sentence to show that Nick was angry instead of telling.

three books that are mentioned in the textSome of the major changes I made included removing adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs, removing distracting “said” words in favor of “said,” and hunting down and removing repetition. I considered each section of each chapter: was it narrative, exposition, or scene? A lot of the exposition (text explaining to the reader) came to life when I replaced it with an actual scene with dialogue. I read my dialogue out loud to make sure it sounded natural. After applying the lessons from the books, I felt a lot more confident in the writing.

To address the confusion, I made a map of my setting, a timeline of the characters’ histories, a long scroll of the plot and what happened each day (including the weather), and a world-building spreadsheet (using a template from editor Tanya Gold) that I filled in with information about my world, like the political system, the current technology, the state of the environment, etc. By the end, I felt confident the plot was consistent.

Stage 2: Get Feedback and Revise

I took my work to a local writing workshop where we spent a few hours working on our first page. I never would have believed that much revision could occur on one little piece of writing! But being forced to keep at it resulted in all kinds of changes. I also submitted my manuscript for a colleague’s class to use as a sample, which generated feedback from the students and also the colleague.

a drawing of a woman in an old-fashioned dress reading a bookI rounded up a team of beta readers. (I asked for readers in my winter holiday letter, and then approached half of those interested.) I was lucky to receive a huge amount of feedback, from little points of confusion to suggestions that affected the whole book (like, “Devlyn is too whiny and immature” and “It’s the future but the technology is just like today’s”). Some of the feedback was overwhelming or I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow it; I actually put aside the whole project for about a year and finished self-publishing my bike trip memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere. It was good to get a break and fascinating to see how everything I’d learned about fiction affected the writing in the memoir.

(Aside: Sometimes friend beta readers don’t follow through. Authors can meet colleagues in person or online to swap beta reading, meet with a writing group for ongoing feedback, or hire a professional editor to give feedback, with varying levels of commenting (i.e., overall feedback or line-by-line). As a freelance editor, I worked with some authors on their manuscripts and realized that the feedback I provided seemed to be a professional beta read, so I now use that description of my services [read more here].)

A year later, I came back to the novel. I made a huge list of the changes I wanted to make based on the reader feedback and new ideas I had had, and then got to work making them. The revision made my novel stronger, but the feedback had left me wondering about a few major points (Was the plot too random? Was Devlyn’s age appropriate?) and I worried that my characters were not deep enough. I also just had a general feeling of insecurity and wanted approval from a professional.

Stage 3: Get More Feedback, Learn More, and Revise

I applied for a local arts council’s grant for new writers, to use the money to work with a developmental editor. The process included finding the editor to work with. I approached Tanya Gold, a colleague at the Editorial Freelancers Association whom I had taken a class from (the class was on working with authors, and I loved Tanya’s collaborative approach). In the end, I didn’t get the grant, but I wanted to work with Tanya so much that I decided to make it happen. I might have shied away from spending the money or approaching editors, because it’s a daunting step to take, so I credit the grant-I-didn’t-get with making me take the step.

a pencil and blank notebook on top of a map of a cityWhile I waited for Tanya, I learned about making book maps (read more here). I had been trying to keep track of various parts of my novel in various ways. A simple book map in a spreadsheet was just the tool I needed. I also learned about sensitivity editing, which looks for problems like gender and racial stereotypes or writing that assumes the reader is a certain race, and planned to read my manuscript with those issues in mind.

Tanya’s feedback was incredible. She had asked questions to understand my goals and concerns. She sent back a letter that assessed my manuscript (including things I hadn’t even thought of, like the underlying theme and how to make it stronger) and a chart of what actions I should take with each chapter. She made major changes in the manuscript (tracking them so I could follow along) and left comments throughout. Some of the comments addressed writing issues in general. For example, I often aligned my dialogue in a way that could lead to reader confusion, with one character speaking and then another character acting in one paragraph. Other feedback made the plot stronger; for example, when Devlyn is kidnapped, her growth as a character would be stronger if she managed to escape rather than being passively rescued.

One of the major changes Tanya suggested was cutting large sections of description and explanation. This was hard for me to accept; I loved the feeling of autumn when Devlyn is walking home from work, explaining to the reader the details of the future world I had created. Thankfully, I attended the NC Writers Network’s spring 2018 conference; each session I attended seemed to address the changes I needed to make both to make my story stronger and to attract an agent and publisher (read more here). I came to see that bringing the reader in to share the viewpoint of the main character, and to be in the moment with her, was the way to hook the reader into the story.

More Resources

three books that are mentioned in the textThe conference led me to several books about crafting stories. I started with Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which underscores the need to get the reader into the moment with the main character, invested in her situation. Lisa also suggests mapping out your story before you begin writing. I’m debating her idea. While I can see that I wrote a lot of material that went to waste (like the scene of Devlyn being rescued instead of escaping, plus the second and third kidnappings, which were cut entirely!), I loved the process of sitting down with no plan and seeing what came out. Lisa suggests that many writing teachers recommend this random approach because it works for them, but that it doesn’t work for most new writers.

I’m currently following Tanya’s plan and rewriting, while also making a book map. The next resources on my list are the following:

  • Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld
  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson
  • The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

The most recent #EFAchat on Twitter (a chat among freelance editors) discussed working with new authors and helping them improve, and offered these additional resources:

(View the chat transcript here.) 

A Plan for Next Time

stacks of books on a shelfI still like the idea of spewing out a rough draft during Nanowrimo with no planning, but I might do some initial outlining next time. Either way, I think the process will look something like this:

  • Write first draft (incorporating lessons like using “said” and powerful nouns and verbs, and keeping the reader in the story versus explaining)
  • Make a book map to ensure consistency and aid with tracking plot lines
  • Create a world-building spreadsheet
  • Revise to improve the writing, to replace telling with showing, and to root out exposition
  • Look for workshops to attend with my manuscript; keep reading and learning about the craft of writing
  • Get feedback from beta readers
  • Revise using new knowledge and feedback
  • Work with Tanya on a developmental edit (I hope I won’t need this some day, but for now I think it is an important step for me)
  • Revise
  • Get second round of beta reader feedback
  • Revise
  • Find an agent or publisher!