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

Sherry said...

I recently found your amazing blog and I LOVE it!! I apologize in advance for all of the comments you will probably find on older posts!

In reference to this one, I have two separate questions/issues to share:

1: I recently finished my latest novel in a little over a month's time. (It came out to 97,266 words!) Throughout my writing process I take notes on things I want to tweak or characters I want to develop more so I can spend time fixing those items after I've finished the first draft. Would you consider those notes as part of the revision process that should be set aside to tackle after the cooling off period? Or should those be included as part of the initial first draft process before the cooling off?

2: Without meaning to I shifted gears when I finished my latest WIP and decided to read through one of my older novels again before I send it out to some beta readers. It was originally 3 separate novels that I stripped down and combined into one and I haven't looked at it in months. When I picked it back up I got excited about it again--I really LOVE my characters and I really LOVE the story but I reallllly don't like something about the way it's written. (It's in third person limited subjective but it's past tense where my new novel is in present tense and I feel like it flows better that way.) I started working on switching it from past to present tense yesterday and now I'm at a point where I just want to open a blank Word document and totally rewrite it with the current version open beside it. Have I completely lost my mind?!?!? I feel like I have!

**For the record, I believe Twilight was written in first person past tense, Divergent in first person present tense and I breezed through each [entire] series in a matter of days. So present vs past tense didn't make a difference for me as a reader, I don't know what my deal is as a writer.

Sherry said...

I know I'm joining in way late here, but I do character profiles as well! I do an "interview" or questionnaire of sorts with each of my main characters at least, and I'll also do them with a minor character if I want to figure out a little more about what makes him/her tick. I even search the internet for images of people who resemble the way the characters look in my mind. I save it all to a specific folder on my laptop and when I'm trying to describe a character's physical features in my story I pull the photos up and use them to help me.

I also have a LOT of sketches to help me stay consistent. If my characters have a favorite hangout spot I sketch it so I can describe it in detail. If their world is something I created myself I draw a map so I can be consistent as my characters navigate their way through it. I have floor plans of their houses, images of necklaces they wear, you name it I have it. None of my sketches are perfect but I feel like they make it easier to stay consistent throughout the story. And eventually throughout the series if I'm fortunate enough to take it that far!

Ava Jae said...

Oh wow! Thanks so much, Sherry, and welcome to Writability! Also, you don't need to apologize for commenting on old posts (or any posts, for that matter). I'm happy to answer comments regardless of how old the post is. :)

So for 1) however you want to handle your notes depends entirely on what you think would work best for you. If I were in your place, I would save the notes for revision (and I have done that before—written notes while first drafting to change while revising). But if you work better getting it out of the way right after the first draft is done, that isn't wrong, either.

2) Ha you're not going crazy. Many writers look back at old work and rewrite the whole story from scratch because while they love the story/characters/whatever, the writing doesn't feel right or isn't strong enough or whatever the case may be. It's actually not that uncommon. :)

Good luck with your writing!

Ava Jae said...

Nice! Sounds like you've figured out a system that works well for you. :)

Sherry said...

Thank you! I find it amazing that someone like you takes the time to share your wisdom and experience with others, I'm very grateful for it! One more question for now: what are your thoughts on writing a whole series from start to finish before editing the first draft of the first book? Should there be a definite cooling off period between writing each book, or is it more beneficial to have the whole series complete in at least a first draft form so you can iron out issues from one book to the next as they arise?

Ava Jae said...

Aw, ha ha. I love helping however I can, so I'm happen to share. :)

As for series writing, I wrote a post a while back about why I've yet to write a sequel, which is totally just the way I see it and absolutely not a rule. But personally, I don't know that it's worth the time to write out a full series before you've sold your first book (unless, of course, you want to self-publish, in which case more power to you).

But again, that's just me. I know there are plenty of writers who would disagree.

Sherry said...

Thank you! I'm rewriting my first novel right now so the sequel to the book I finished earlier this month is currently on the back burner. I do think I will eventually write the sequel for myself because I love the story. If it sells it sells and I will be thankful for that, but if it doesn't at least it's keeping me busy writing until I come up with another spark :)

One thing I dislike about some series as a reader is that the final book sometimes feels rushed or like the writer didn't know where to go with it. I could be wrong, but I wonder if maybe it comes from feeling the pressure of a deadline to finish so they crank something out that isn't as good as the rest of the series. One very recent series comes to mind and as a reader that last book was a major disappointment :( So maybe at the very least it would be a good idea to have a solid outline for a sequel (and beyond) if a writer decides not to invest the time into writing the whole thing before the first one has a book deal.

Ava Jae said...

I do think that it's not a bad idea to have an outline ready for potential sequel (or the next sequel at least). 1) It'll be helpful for yourself later if you do end up writing it and 2) your agent and editor will want to see it well before you write a word of the sequel. So definitely not a bad idea. :)

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