Writing a Novel in 15 Steps: From Initial Idea to Querying

Photo credit: Drew Coffman on Flickr
It occurred to me that while I’ve written several posts about the various steps that go into writing a novel from brainstorming to surviving the query trenches, I never really discussed the order, or the step-by-step process of writing a book from initial idea to searching for representation. 

While every writer works a little differently, I’ve decided to share my general process from start to finish to give you an idea as to what usually goes into polishing a novel to completion—at least, how I handle it. 

  1. The spark. This is the initial idea—the bubble of excitement combined with the whisper of a line, shadow of a scene, glimpse of a world, or wink of a character. This is the moment when you dare to think maybe this could be a novel and everything changes. 

  2. Brainstorming/Outlining. How you outline or brainstorm will depend on whether you’re a pantser or a plotter. I’ve done both sides of the spectrum, and I’ve found that I work really well by outlining with flashcards on Scrivener’s cork board, so after I’ve brainstormed some general plot ideas and I’m happy with what I have, I open up a new Scrivener project and start working. This is usually the step where I’ll decide whether or not the idea is novel-worthy.  

  3. First draft. Ahh, the first draft. The exciting, terrifying, wonderful, exhausting first draft. I’m a fast drafter, so this usually takes me anywhere from three and a half to six weeks, depending on the length of the WIP and whether or not I outlined. To me, this is in many ways the hardest part, because you are, in essence, making the clay that you will later refine into a polished story. Pre-first draft, all you have are a bunch of ideas, but post-first draft you have a novel

  4. Cooling off period. Sometimes, when I’m especially eager to get to editing, this step actually feels harder than the first drafting—even though it involves literally doing nothing. But the cooling off period is so important for reasons I’ve already talked about. I don’t recommend skipping this step, but everyone works differently. 

  5. First read-through. I’ve found that the first read-through can either be crazy exciting, or horrifically disappointing. Either way, if you intend to release this novel to the world, the first read-through is unavoidable, and very important. I take notes when working through my first read-through and usually read it in a medium that doesn’t allow me to edit, like printed off or exported as an e-book. 

  6. Second draft. Whatever notes I made in the first read-through—now it’s time to implement them. This is where I try to address major issues like plot problems, continuity errors or novel-wide enhancements that are needed to make the book semi-presentable. 

  7. Read-aloud. I read aloud to my oh so lucky (and extraordinarily generous) first reader. Technically, you don’t need to read to anyone to get the benefits from reading aloud, but my first reader gives me a little extra feedback to help gauge what still needs fixing. The main point of the read-aloud, however, is to feel the flow of the writing, catch errors and gauge what’s working and what isn’t. I try to pay attention to where the pacing is off, where the dialogue sounds strange and where it’s easy to put the book down. 

  8. CP swap/cooling off period. I’ve talked about how important beta readers and critique partners are, and this is where they first come into play. Once I’ve gone through the aforementioned steps and I’m relatively satisfied (meaning I’m aware it’s nowhere near perfection, but I’m not embarrassed to share it), I’ll let my CPs know what stage the book is in and start swapping chapters or whole manuscripts. This also acts as a cooling off period, because I’m spending some time focusing on something else (ergo: the CP’s MS). 

  9. Third draft. Now that I have feedback from a couple CPs, I’ll start incorporating the changes into draft three. Depending on how the swapping goes, I may do this simultaneously with the CP swap (in which case I sort of skip the second cooling off period), but this varies case by case. 

  10. CP swap/cooling off period (again). For some final feedback to see how well the revisions did (or didn’t) work. 

  11. Final edit/polish. Using the final feedback and my own discretion, it’s now time for the final polish. This is where I tend to get nit-picky about word choice, placement of analogies, awkward wording and paragraph length. Sometimes, this can be the most intensive editing step, because it involves analyzing every single sentence. 

  12. Synopsis/query/pitch drafting. The polish is done! Yay! Now for my favorite step—synopsis and query drafting. This tweet basically sums up my feelings for this step.
    Yeah. And for those who are interested, here’s what you’ll want to avoid when drafting up that query. 

  13. Synopsis/query/pitch critique. I’ve talked about the importance of query critiques before, and now is the ideal time to do them. If you don’t polish your query, publishing professionals may never read the words you worked so hard to make shine. 

  14. Research potential agents to query (assuming you want an agent). Pretty self-explanatory. I like lists, so I make a list in a spreadsheet with information like what agency they work for, how I’m going to personalize the query, and average response time. I also use the same spreadsheet to keep track of rejections/requests after I’ve sent out queries. 

  15. Release to the world/seek distractions. Once you’ve hit “send,” it’s time to sit back, relax, and try to focus on just about anything else. 

Then, of course, when you’ve finished with that novel, it’s time to start all over again with a new one. Welcome to the life of the writer. 

So those are my fifteen steps—now I want to hear from you. Do you do anything differently?

Twitter-sized bites: 
One novelist's process of writing a book in fifteen steps—from the first idea to the first query. (Click to tweet
How to write a novel from the initial idea to querying, condensed into 15 steps. (Click to tweet)


Michelle Mason said...

It's always interesting to see someone else's process. Most of my steps are similar, although I do a lot of research before I start drafting. I also use Scrivener and end up with a huge folder of research I can refer to as I write. I also do character profiles so I have a clear idea of who they all are before I start. I'm in that research phase now, so I may have to write a post like this myself. Thanks for sharing!

Ghadeer said...

I'm currently in my first-draft stage (and this is the first novel I work on). It's proving difficult but every time I feel down I come to this blog for inspiration :)

Ava Jae said...

You're welcome, Michelle! I enjoy hearing about others' process as well—sometimes I get some great ideas from others, and sometimes it's just interesting to see how much the processes can vary. My research tends to be blended in with revisions (although for huge research needs, I'll do it while first drafting). I'll also occasionally do character profiles, but those tend to come after I've started writing as well.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Ava Jae said...

Aw, thank you Ghadeer! I'm so glad to hear that this blog has been inspirational for you. Thank you so much for sharing that—it's comments like this that remind me why I started blogging in the first place. :)

I wish you all the best with that first draft! If you have a Twitter, let me know when you finish it, so I can throw some virtual confetti. My Twitter handle is @Ava_Jae.

Robin Red said...

I'm in-between steps 5 and 6.

Ava Jae said...

That's an exciting place to be. Good luck with your edits!

Sheri Larsen said...

Whoa... This is brilliant! Love the step-by-step list.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much! Glad to hear you enjoyed the post. :)

Rhi said...

I would love a step by step list for the first draft stage lol.

Ava Jae said...

lol well the abbreviated version would look like this:

1) Outline (if you're a plotter, or open to plotting).
2) Write
3) Write
4) Write
5) Write
6) Collapse/ prepare for edits

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