Writing a novel can seem like running a marathon. It takes training, discipline and practice to complete the race to The End. You will need some strategies that will sustain you in the long run from first draft to a finished and polished manuscript. Here are four steps that will take you over the finish line!
1. RACE THROUGH THE FIRST DRAFT
In your first draft, resist the impulse to revise and make it pretty as you go. Just forgive yourself for sloppy or bad prose, grammar, and overall messiness. If you let your creative freak flag fly free, you won’t be bogged down and lose the confidence you need to finish your story.
When a draft is written quickly, it is more likely to stay on a clear plot trajectory. All those distracting subplots and character arcs can be developed and refined later!
Sprint to the end of the book and you will have a good sense of what belongs where in the story. You won’t waste as much time writing scenes that you don’t need.
Fast to one writer is slow to another. Make daily page goals that work for you. If you can manage five or more pages in a day that is a good start. Up your goal to a chapter or two when your schedule allows, but whatever you can manage, the thing to remember is to let it flow! Edits are for later.
2. AVOID DETOURS As you start the rewriting and editing process, evaluate each scene and unit of action. Take out anything that distracts from the plot. Readers will start to skim if a passage fails to advance the story in some way. Make every dramatized incident count. If the scene is a fight, conversation or inner dialog where the character ponders and realizes things, be sure it takes the story to a new place. If not, it will cause your story to wander.
Sometimes a passage may not advance the plot directly, but can tell us something important about the characters or the setting that is important to the story. Just make sure it is not an unnecessary tangent. If your character wanders off the main path into the deep dark woods, there’d better be a significant reason.
3. PACE YOUR NOVEL
Keeping a good pace does not mean all scenes need to be fast or exciting. Sometimes you want the reader to slow down and take in information, delve into the story, or smell the flowers along the way. (But those flowers better have something important to do with the plot, mood, character or setting.) Scenes that are slower can carry valuable information that will fill out the plot and help the reader understand the characters and story better. Your goal is to help the reader connect to the story and keep them interested in turning pages. Rework your scenes until they are valuable to the overall book and have the right beats.
You will need to alternate between modes of scene and summary. Scenes, are moments of action, decision, emotion and interaction between characters. Summaries, help establish setting, passage of time, backstories and other important information.
One way to help your reader power through long passages of summary where the pacing lags is to add bits of live action. For example, sprinkle in memorable scenic elements, bits of dialogue, or little clips of action. This will help your reader stay motivated to keep going.
4. GOOD STARTS
As with every long run, there are times when you may need to stop, take a breath or get a drink of water. Remember that while you are writing. Get up and walk around, do some yoga, have a snack, call a friend, or whatever you need to do to refresh yourself before starting again. And each time you start again, come at it a new way.
Your reader needs breaks too. Chapter breaks and other pauses allow readers to think over what they have read, catch their breath and anticipate what comes next. During your revisions, check to see if you are giving a variety of chapter beginnings. Keep your readers comfortable and give them what they expect sometimes but also, tease, surprise and at times startle them if you want to keep them interested.
Chapters can start in a variety of ways: gently guide the reader into the next part of the story, a chronological leap forward, pitching a curve ball, cranking up the speed, an insightful observation about the unfolding of events, etc. Flip through your favorite book and observe how the chapters start. Each new start is an opportunity to re-orient your
Most of these steps happen in revisions and not the first draft—so don’t panic. Realize that writing and revising a novel takes effort and a big time investment. Enjoy the journey and keep your readers’ needs in mind as you work. After all, the finished product is for them and they will make it their own. If you keep this end goal in sight, and keep taking the steps, you’ll have a finished novel you can feel good about.