So, you just finished your first novel. Or maybe you’re still working on it. Maybe it’s a little longer than you planned, or you’re behind. It doesn’t matter. If you find you’re getting up there in the word count, still focus on finishing; you can cut it down later.
While length is something to consider, there is a lot of flexibility in it. The 80,000 to 100,000 mark is a safety zone, while books up to 150,000 words and novelettes of 50,000 words have been known to be produced. It’s rare, and it’s not something an author should be dependent on, but if you find yourself with more words than you have room to say, it is sometimes okay to go overboard. While remembering that size is a very powerful factor in the accepting process, there are times a book is as long as it is. Allegedly, you’ll be able to cut it. If you can’t, then maybe it does need to be that length. But, remember, proving that something “needs” to be a certain way is a lot harder than been creative about making it the “right” way. Challenge yourself first; it will be more beneficial.
But assuming you stopped at the appropriate 90,000 words:
Day 1. Edit last 5,000 words.
Finish up that second draft you’ve been working on. You’ve now had a second glance for a whole bunch of typos and Freudian slips that have snuck in there, allowing for the upcoming process to be on a larger scale.
Day 2. Write a third query letter.
Now that you have your first inclination and experimentation out of your system with the last two, write another draft of the query letter. You might find this is worse than the others, or that it is much better. In either case, you’ve probably come across a great way to express at least one idea.
Day 3. Edit from 60,000 to 80,000 words.
Take the day and really dig through this section of the story. Focus on pacing and build up. Notice if things seem to be coming together or if they just abruptly change direction without reason, talking about things that have nothing to do with past or future.
Day 4. Look at outline of second novel.
A couple of months ago you played around with an idea for your second book. Take a look at what you’ve written and see how it inspires you. Notice some details you left out that might be problematic. Now that you’re experienced with the sort of hang ups this first book caused, you’re better apt to prevent them. Flush out the outline as best you can, maybe adding or changing it to encompass other inspirations you’ve had. Craft it like a carelessly written mini-story.
Day 5. Edit from 80,000 words to end of book.
You might need to split this up if you went far past the 100,000 word mark. Finish up the third draft of the book now. This is extra beneficial because you’ve just read the end in its entirety right before reading the beginning. Considering those are the two most interesting and important parts of the story and that one should reflect the other, refreshing your memory will allow you to know what to change about the beginning.
Day 6. Edit the first 30 pages of your book.
We are now back at the beginning. If you are anything like me, the beginning has probably been edited to a ridiculous magnitude. You might have already begun to memorize it you’ve looked through it so many times while you were “writing.” Stop it. That’s bad. Memorization really screws with editing skills.
While I recommend sitting down and reading the whole thing in one sitting, I have never managed to do it myself, so we’ll just cut it up.
Things to focus on at the beginning:
Introduction of voice, character, and setting, foreshadowing of theme, and (at the inciting incident) plot.
Giving the reader his motivation.
It is typical for your subconscious to make decisions for you. This is especially common in the beginning. When considering how a story starts, our mind tells us: in the morning, with a boring/typical life, “comfortably.”
Question some of the decisions you made. If you aren’t satisfied with what you’ve created (and you do need to decide if you are satisfied or not—we’ll assume “I don’t know” means you aren’t), think about the way you started and ask yourself if there are positive benefits behind the choices you made. What does having him wake up in the morning do for the work? How does starting with an average day in an average world in an average life help the story? Why is the temperature of the room perfect, why isn’t he poor, why isn’t he tired, angry, horny, or hungry?
While none of the decisions you made were wrong, there are probably a good many that are sacrificial. An author could start a book by talking about a man waking up, eating breakfast, going to work, and coming home without any problems—it is possible for that to be fascinating—but probably nothing more needs to be said about those events then a singular sentence, and it is more likely the audience won’t care. Making a chose against what your subconscious told you to do allows creativity and lends to interest. He may be doing just everyday things, but instead of starting with brushing his teeth, consider having him dancing in his car.
The first 30 pages should indicate to the reader exactly what it is he’s going to read. While it’s important to have doubt, the audience needs to commit to the book before they can have any fun, so letting them know this will be funny, romantic, violent, scary, etc. will tell them if they should go on or not. Give them enough information about the five elements of writing (character, voice, plot, setting, and theme), and have it say something they already know and love, but is obviously withholding something more: “Robert remembered sleeping with Kathy, but that didn’t mean the kid was his.” We introduce a tired story, yet the audience still doesn’t know if it’s his child. Give them something they already understand and then add a secret.
Then the next step is to make them care about the answer—i.e. want the answer to be something specific.
Which brings us to the reader’s motivation. The audience needs to want something to happen. The sooner the story offers that, the better. Introduce options and make teams. Have Robert be a jackass and the mother be destitute. The more the reader wants Robert to eat it, the more invested (and thus interested) in the story they will be.
If you write in a double spaced format, double the amount of pages you edit.
Day 7. Edit pages 31-60.
This is where the work starts to get hard. This section is most likely were the work starts to ramble. Make sure your inciting incident is big and a viable sounding propulsion. This is meant to force the protagonist into action, so it has done its job if it makes sense as to why he is suddenly changing his path and if he is actually changing his path.
Essentially, what were his plans for the day before the inciting incident? What are they now? If they aren’t different, it’s not big enough.
This is where the first stakes are put in, so consider why it is important for him to succeed and make sure to indicate that here. If he starts off without much push, he’s not going to get very far.
Be creative. The inciting incident doesn’t need to have explosions or violence. It just has to be important to the character. Consider what he cares about and punish him for it. He wants to be an actor? Have his “friend” get a part on Broadway, and have him find out in the most embarrassing matter. He wants the girl of his dreams? Have him humiliated in front of her. Just keep emotions high and know how to manipulate your protagonist.
Day 8. Edit pages 61-90.
Now we’re in the middle. Being the hardest parts to write because they are the less guided areas, the advice I can give is to make sure that all scenes end in a different place then they started. It is common to copy television episodes and try to consistently reset, not dealing with the ramifications of the latest events. (Mostly because there are no obvious ramifications.) Just remember each moment should affect the next. If you can take out Scene B with Scene C unaffected, then maybe Scene B doesn’t need to exist.
Keep the momentum growing. The key words are cause and effect.
Day 9. Write a short story.
Take a break from editing and make a new short story.
Vary it; make it nonfiction this time.
Day 10. Edit pages 91-120.
While editing, if you know you want to do some major changes, do them now. Moving stuff around and cutting is perfectly helpful at this time. If, however, all you know is that you don’t like something but not how to fix it, make notes about it for next edit.
Day 11. Edit pages 121-150
Day 12. Edit pages 151-180.
If your book is 90,000 words long, then you’re finished with your fourth draft! Now that you’ve read through the whole thing, write down everything you know about it. Evaluate it to your own specific judgments: it is about whether you like it or not.
If you really like it, and I mean honestly truly, then put down any of the nitpicky doubts about it on a piece of paper, but don’t do anything about it yet.
If have any extreme decisions you want to fix, you might consider doing it now before you forget what and why it is.
Day 13. Write the fourth query.
Now that you have read through the whole thing, it is time to start taking your query seriously. This fourth one should combine everything you like about the last three queries.
Day 14. Edit a short story.
You have three short stories needing anywhere from one to three edits. Fix it up. If you have been working on the same one these past few months, then you might consider giving it to someone else to read.
Day 15. Start project two.
You need to put novel one to bed for a while now, let it rest so as to help you get a good fresh impression of it later.
It’s time to start on the next project.
You might think of it as being quick, as if we’ve just broken up with one boyfriend to jump into bed with another, but if you want a career in writing, material is important. I have heard stories about people submitting their work and being rejected to only be asked, “Do you have something else you would like me to read?”
This project could be a myriad of things. If you are nervous about investing in something else long, consider a series of short stories or a play script.
You already have an outline for a story planned out. By this time you might have lost your inspiration for it. If not, great. If yes, I know you’ve had other ideas to get you by. Just try to remember them. You may not have learned to notice them yet, but they do exist. Whether you’re completely inspired or not, it’s time to start working.
If you wish to work on the previously made outline, great. If you don’t, make a new one.
It is important to experiment and try new things while writing, so for this project, we’re going to do something different; we’ll need some sort of papered plotting.
You should already have your favorite scene written. If you haven’t made it yet, do it now. If you have, read through it and edit it.
Day 16. Write the inciting incident.
Writing out of order is my favorite way to work. I don’t do it very often because it’s hard to keep track of information. To help this, we have the outline to refer to. One of the primary things I get confused is if I’ve delivered information yet or not. Events and actions I can remember, but reveal of backstory is hard to consider when you’re jumping around. Consider that and make notes on when and where you did/want to give out past information. Allow it to change if you feel so inclined, but just keep good notations.
Skip over the introduction and go straight to the money shot. Start with the big event that propels the protagonist from inaction to action. This time, instead of writing a number of words, write for content. Write until something has changed in the story. While this may not be the whole inciting incident, it should be a dent in the storyline.
Day 17. Start writing the first disaster.
The “regular” plot structure goes introduction, inciting incident, first disaster, second disaster, third disaster (optional), climax, resolution. If you are not a formula person or a plot person, I suggest abiding by this fairly strictly as a form of experimentation. Of course, like anything on this list, it is flexible to being altered to whatever the writer actually wants to do.
The first disaster is the most free form. This should be a terrible event which forces the protagonist to change tactics. The inciting incident propels him into action while the first disaster makes that action no longer a viable option.
Consider the point of the story. While you may not know what it is about yet, it’s a good idea to consider it early on while trying to understand what the first disaster should be.
By this time, you have a good idea about how long it takes you to write something. Make a goal of where you want to get in the first disaster and get there. If you find out you bit off more than you could chew, finish it anyway and acknowledge the lesson. If it took less time than you thought you would need, you don’t have to, but give yourself the right to stop there without feeling guilty. Sticking to your guns helps you understand your writing better.
Day 18. Write the second disaster.
The second disaster is less random. As the first might be any by-chance problem, the second should be direct result of the choice that the protagonists makes. After the first disaster, he changes tactics. That shouldn’t work and then cause more problems for them.
Day 19. Write the third disaster.
Many times the third disaster is combined with the climax. Sometimes it is one last event before they realize what the climax is. If you didn’t put a third climax, work on another scene that you’re looking forward to.
Also an effect of a bad decision, this usually comes directly from trying to fix the second disaster and leads to the climax.
Day 20. Edit the first two scenes you wrote.
This style of writing benefits greatly from editing while you’re going. Again, if editing during the writing process becomes a personal obstacle (which it does for many) do what works best for you. This entire step-by-step program is not the way to write, it is a fun check list for those who like that sort of thing. It can be altered in any manner.
Edit the first few scenes with “circle” edits. Print it out and, using a red pen or highlighter, just mark the lines you don’t like. Go through and fix them on the computer.
Day 21. Write the resolution.
We’re skipping the climax for one important reason: it ties in everything about the book. The odds are you don’t know entirely what the book is about yet.
You may consider not writing the resolution because, in all honesty, it’s probably going to change. But there is something beneficial about having a good idea where the story wants to go. If you have absolutely no inkling, then it’s something to consider, but feel free to work towards another scene.
Day 22. Work on the inciting incident.
Odds are you didn’t finish the entire inciting incident. If you did, work on finishing another scene. If not, keep going.
Day 23. Work on the second disaster.
Day 24. Work on the third disaster.
Day 25. Edit a short story.
If you don’t like writing short stories, considering making at least 21. If you do like making them, you should still aim for this amount, but you don’t have to force yourself to do it. The reason is that 20 is an impressive number, so in your bio you get to say, “So and so has had her short stories published in over 20 literary journals.
Edit one or read it to a friend.
Day 26. Work on the resolution.
It’s likely that you might have finished the resolution in the first day. They’re usually not that long. If not, keep going until you get to the end of the book.
Day 27. Start connecting the inciting incident to the first disaster.
This may be continuing the inciting incident (in fact it probably is) or the inciting incident is already over and now you need to build up to the first disaster.
The most typical mistake is when authors leave the protagonist with no goal after his entire life went up in flames. Neither writer nor character knows what to do. Make sure that the character comes up with some sort of super objective. At this point it can be misled (he believes it was just an accident and now his goal is to go to the city and make some money to fix it), it just has to be propelling.
Day 28. Keep going with whatever scene inspires you the most.
Have an idea of a new event that’s fun? Work on that. Really like what you’re doing with the second disaster? Work on that. Allow inspiration to direct what you work on, just remember to work.
Day 29. Edit first 10 pages.
Some of this is going to be a repeat of what you edited before. But now that you have more information, you need to make sure it ties together. Watch for pacing. It is typical for this style of writing to lead to stories that feel too quick.
Day 30. Write where you want to write for four 15-minute intervals.
You should have at least 20,000 words by now. If you don’t, you haven’t been writing enough. If you have more, you are doing great. Now, instead of writing for content, try writing for time.
If I were to write constantly, I can do about a page (single spaced) per fifteen minutes. But I am a fast typer and have been doing this for the last ten years. But/and it is also not likely to happen that I actually write without stopping, so it isn’t a consistent guarantee.
Write for 15 minutes at a time in which you are not allowed to take your hands off the keyboard. I recommend doing them consecutively (so you don’t get distracted), but you can play around and do whatever you want.
Play games. Time yourself, race yourself. Try to get a page out faster than you did last time. Pick a part in the story and just start going.
Day 31. Write for four 15-minute intervals.
Seven months down, five to go. You now have a well-drafted novel, six short stories, and another project a fourth finished. You’ve been getting a lot of experience with either publishing or rejection so far. Either way, great! Your career has a good base of material and personal experience, all in less than a year. Keep going.