Writing a book—or anything—is a funny thing, mostly because no two authors have the same technique. Sure, there are a number of processes we all cover in order for a novel to come together, but how we go about them is where it all can get interesting. But to narrow down an extremely lengthy topic, I’ll be discussing three different processes I believe all writers have to consider in order to get from the first page to the last. And those processes are planning, writing, and editing.
I’ll be honest here: I always tell people that I suck at plotting. And in my mind, this is true. I’m definitely a pantser (aka, someone who writes by the seat of their pants and has no idea what might come with each new sentence). But that said, even though I’m not the kind of writer who can sit down and plot out every single moment that will be happening in the book, I do have to have some idea of the direction I want the novel to go in. There is, at the very least, a vague plan.
Think of it like going for a car ride. I’m not talking about those trips where you know you’re heading to the beach or the shops or your grandmother’s house. I’m talking about the random, “I have no idea where I’m going but I’m just gonna go for a drive and see where I end up” drives. Has anyone ever done that? If so, and even if not, I’m hoping you’ll be able to see with this metaphor that, unless something unexpected and untoward happens, regardless of the fact that you have no idea where you’re going to go once you sit behind the wheel, you have a starting place and an ending place. You start at home (or wherever your car is parked), and you’ll end up back there once you’re done. Or, you’ll end up somewhere else, but along the way during your drive, you’ll figure out where that is because, ultimately, you can’t live in your car forever. You’ll need to eat and sleep and shower and, well, live outside of your vehicle.
So, my point is, you might decide to turn right out of your driveway or you might turn left, you might head to the mountains, to the river, to desert, to the snow, to your friend’s house, to the library, to nowhere at all… but whatever you do, you’ll experience it as you go, and when the time comes to find shelter, you’ll either head home or you’ll end your car ride somewhere else. But, again, you’ll always have a start point, and you’ll always finish with an end point.
This is how I write (most of the time). I’ll always have a starting point and I’ll always have an ending point. There will also generally be a few things I want to experience along the way—like how with Akarnae I knew I wanted there to be a kind of magic that wasn’t ‘normal’ magic (including a very special library!), I knew I wanted there to be kickass classes like Combat, I knew I wanted my antagonist to be charismatic and strangely likeable but also very clearly not good, and I knew—I absolutely knew—that the romantic elements of the story would be built up over time in the Harry Potter/Ginny Weasley kind of way, rather than any kind of insta-love that detracted (and distracted) from the overall adventure of the plot. These were all things I knew I wanted, but I had no idea how they were actually going to come about. To keep with the car metaphor, they were what I had to discover during my ‘drive’. I knew how Akarnae would open—a girl stepping through a doorway and becoming stranded in a fantasy world—and I knew vaguely what would take up most of her time—she would attend a school for teenagers with extraordinary gifts and face all kinds of challenges along the way—and I knew where it would all end (this I’m not sharing here, because, well, SPOILER ALERT!)… but the rest was a mystery to me until it unfolded at my fingertips.
BUT…. For me, planning isn’t just something that happens at the beginning of the novel writing stage. It continues throughout the entirety of writing the book. That’s likely because, as I just mentioned, I don’t really plot very much, and certainly not scene-by-scene. So if I suddenly find my protagonist in the middle of an Archery class, since I’m not exactly Katniss Everdeen or Robin Hood and I have no idea how to shoot an arrow let alone string a bow, that’s when I have to open up my internet browser and research, research, research.
For the record, this happens a lot. And again for the record, I’d definitely be one of those people who gets raised eyebrows and unending interrogations if the law enforcement were to suddenly demand to see my internet browsing history. Poisons, explosive devices, sword fighting? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Because Google is integral in helping to bring a novel to life and making something that is, essentially, a fantasy into something that comes across as reality.
World building and character development are also a huge part of the planning phase, but since, again, I’m a pantser, these two very much tend to come out for me in the second stage, the writing stage…
I love the writing stage of creating a novel. It’s where I get to submerge myself in fantasy worlds full of exciting characters for entire periods of time. Developing these characters and building these worlds is one of the most incredible aspects of being an author, I believe, and seeing them come together—and, especially, the end result—is nothing short of beautiful.
Over the last few months alone I’ve travelled all over Australia and presented multiple workshops and masterclasses specifically tasked with teaching about ‘World Building and Character Development’, so I’m deliberately not going to discuss either of those topics anymore in this ‘writing’ segment here. BUT I’m sure I’ll be giving more of these workshops/masterclasses in 2016, so if that’s something you’re interested in checking out, keep an eye on my events page to see where I’ll be headed and when.
I will say that a huge part of the writing process for me is very much discovering the voice of my protagonist—of my main character—because that voice will often set the theme of the novel. Alex, my protagonist in Akarnae, is kinda kickass, but she’s also extremely real. For anyone who has read book one, you’ll know that she’s thrown into a number of challenging situations and she doesn’t always come out so well on the other end. (…*cough* Like her first ever Combat class *cough*…) But the beauty of Alex is that no matter how many times she falls—literally and figuratively—she doesn’t give up.
I’m saying all this because, if I had gone with a shy, anxious, sweet, vulnerable girl, there is no way I could carry her through the events that my protagonist has and will continue to face over the course of five books.
I also have another book I’ve written where my main character is practically imprisoned by fear to the point that she can barely function—and that novel is very much about the development of that girl to the point that she can find an inner strength to… do what needs to be done. For this book, there is no way that an Alex-like (mentally and physically strong) character could play the lead. It just wouldn’t work for the story to make sense.
So characterisation is important, and the voice of the character in particular in order to drive the story to where it is going.
(I say all that with the caveat that it is also super important to show the development of characters over the course of time. Alex certainly doesn’t start out as kickass; indeed, I’ve written three of the books in her series so far and while she definitely has moments of kickassery, by the end of book three—with two books still to go—she’s still very much real, very much liable to make mistakes, very much an uncertain teenager at times, and very much needing help from those stronger, smarter and more experienced than her… And yet, she also isn’t the lost and confused girl who first stepped through that doorway into Medora. She’s learnt a lot—not the least of which is to fight for what is important to her.)
I’ve just realised this post is getting crazy-long, so I’m going to skip a whole heap of stuff in the ‘writing’ segment and jump to answer Jenna’s specific question (also part of this segment), since that was the main point of this post. She asked, “… how do you know how long to make each chapter, and how do you know when your chapter is finished?”
The short answer is, I don’t have any idea!
As for the long answer, it’s going to sound a little whimsical, but to be honest, I just kind of feel it. It’s like… Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, right? There’s a story arc, following from the introduction right through to discovering the conflict and then leading to the climax before (sometimes) smoothing out at the ending. Well, I kind of feel as if each chapter has its own arc, of sorts. Something has to happen, otherwise it’s just wasted and needless words, and what does happen has to be leading onwards. Driving onwards. Like the car metaphor from earlier, you push down on the accelerator because you want to go somewhere, but you also know that if you don’t push enough, you won’t get there fast enough, but if you push too hard, you could end up missing something important along the journey. (Not to mention, have an accident or end up with a speeding ticket.)
All of that holds true for me for chapter length—and I guess like when you’re learning how to drive, it takes time and practice to figure out just how much pressure is needed to get the right level of acceleration.
It also doesn’t help that there aren’t exactly any rules for this sort of thing. As my own personal rule, I tend to keep my chapters between 3000-6000 words each (closer to 3000, which is approximately 10 double-spaced pages), but again, that differs from book to book. I do like to be consistent, so I won’t have like a 500 word chapter followed by a 5000 word chapter… but there are plenty of incredible authors who do exactly that, and they do it well. So, as I mentioned, there are no specific rules. Which is why I think I have to stick with my whimsical answer of just ‘feeling’ it. (I hope that helps, Jenna!).
There’s so much more that I could say about the ‘writing’ stage, but I’m going to jump onto the final process instead.
Really, the subtitle here says it all. Editing. The ‘E’ word. A lot of writers dread—and sometimes even hate—editing. I kind of love it. (And by ‘kind of’, there’s no ‘kind of’ about it—I just love it, full stop.)
Don’t get me wrong here—editing hurts. Especially when you get your manuscript back from an editor or proofreader and all you see are the red lines and notes freaking everywhere. But you have to push on past the stinging pain and the screaming internal monologue of, “SOOOO MUCH RED!!!!! I SUCK AT WRITING!!!!!! NO ONE IS EVER GOING TO LIKE THIS PIECE OF CRAP!!!!!! I’M NEVER WRITING ANOTHER BOOK AGAIN!!!!!!” (And, for the record, every writer has this internal monologue at some stage!!). Because once you push past all that, take a good, deep breath, and actually start making the suggested changes, you begin to realise just how much better off your manuscript is for the editing.
But ignoring the wonders of professional editing for a moment, it’s super important that before you ever get to that stage, you edit your own work—over and over again. A piece of advice I would give any writer, and particularly aspiring authors who are seeking agents or publishers, is to edit, edit, and edit as much as you need to, until you get to the place where you literally can’t make it any better without help. And don’t do this halfheartedly. Send your ms out to reader friends or teachers or find an online critique group or beta readers or whatever—because the more eyes you let see your work before you send it to an agent/publisher, the more feedback you’ll receive that will help you make improvements in your editing stages. But make sure you give it to honest readers, because if they’re not willing to give you a proper critique, then it’s just a waste of both their time and yours.
Okie dokie! There are a gazillion more things I could say on all three of these processes, from planning to writing to editing, but I think I’ve given enough for a broad overview of how I personally create novels. Or, at least the basics. As always, I’m happy to answer questions, so feel free to comment below or shoot me through an email (or hit me up on any other social media) if there’s anything specifically that you’d like to know regarding any of this. I am elbows deep in writing at the moment so please allow me a little grace time-wise with my responses, but I’ll always endeavour to reply as quickly as I can!
To end, I hope you all had a fabulous Christmas—I personally had a fantastic day with my family that included waaaaaay too much food, after which I passed out on the couch and, unable to move from the waking-food-coma I was in, watched a five hour unplanned marathon of Cake Wars (Christmas special). I should be totally ashamed to say I didn’t move an inch in those five hours, but has anyone ever seen that show before? I hadn’t even heard of it, yet I was completely mesmerised by how creative they all were!!! It was like I couldn’t stop watching—some kind of compulsion kept me glued to the couch and to the screen just so I could see what icing magic they came up with next! And in my defence, my mother watched all five hours with me, so at least I wasn’t being a weirdo on my own. (Love you, Mum!)