Stage I: Manuscript - First Draft
(3 of 3)

Writing the Novel

There are dozens of well written books detailing the individual elements of writing a novel, including, but not limited to:
story arc, story structure, plotting, three acts, opening lines, beginnings, middles, ends, showing versus telling, world building, emotion in words, outlining techniques & options, characters: building characters & character development, protagonists & antagonists, exposition, narrative, dialogue, points of view (POV), scenes & settings, pacing & balance, word usage: idioms & cliches, grammar, punctuation, spelling, discipline of writing, plus individual books and essays on each genre: science fiction, horror, thriller & suspense, literary, mystery, fantasy, romance, erotica, historical, comedy, and others.

I have a dozen such books on my shelf and several more in my Kindle. I've read them all, some several times. I make notes in them, highlight areas, and go back to them when I get stuck on something. And I'll buy more.

I'm not a religious person, but I imagine it's akin to a person of faith going to church at a time of crisis to seek solace and the resolve to persevere. Instead...

...I turn to Writer's Digest handbook that features dozens of essays covering every dimension of writing offered by world-class authors. I have this 2010 version; a 2017 edition is available. I've read it more than once, as I'm sure you will.

Here are additional titles from my shelves.

What follows is the briefest glimpse, the proverbial tip of the iceberg, of what's required in a well-written piece of work:
  • Character development: your main character(s) must change over the arc of the story. They must be round characters, as opposed to those who are flat and remain essentially unchanged throughout the story [E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927]. Characters must have depth and can be either sympathetic or unsympathetic, but must evoke emotion in the reader. They must act and react credibly with each other. However, they can't be too real because real people are boring.
  • Most plots occur in three acts, just as most plays do. Beginnings, middles, and ends. The story takes an arc: the protagonist is presented with a problem; they rejects it; circumstances force them to accept the challenge; they fails at the first attempt at the challenge; they withdraw; they're irresistably drawn back into the challenge, face the antagonistic situation/person, and prevail. Or not.
  • All stories begin at a time and a place, real or fictitious, traveling forward or backward in time, ranging without limits in place and space. Consistancy and integrity in describing both are essential.
  • Your writing must attain to the highest standards including, but not limited to: spelling, punctuation, grammer—verb tenses, sentence structure, etc.—pacing, rhythm, and word usage.
Simply... read five books about writing as suggested earlier. You'll find some repitition, but having those points drilled into your mind is a worthwhile exercise.

Writers write books about writing. You will find that many are developed with the rhythm and flow of a good story and are enjoyable to read in-and-of themselves.

Much attention must be given to writing the first lines of your work: the Hook. There are so many books published that your opening words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages must grab the attention of the reader who's searching for their next read. Someone turning to the first page, literally or digitally, must be drawn in.

If you want to attract the services of an agent, this is the most critical part of your writing. To be sure, you can be rejected for lots of other reasons, but the prime directive is the first lines must be the best of your life.

Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages is an excellent resource. You'll find that the tools he suggests for the first pages will elevate your writing throughout your manuscript.

To get an idea of what others have written:
American Book Review's 100 Best First Lines from Novels
(opens in new tab). WARNING! You can get lost for hours reading this list.

Keep Track of Revisions

Writing is not a linear process. Your word count will not progress as you'd expect. The chapter 1 you compose the first few days of earnest work will not be the same chapter 1 when you finish; it may not even be chapter 1.

You will create scenes and characters that don't fit and will delete them. The plot will dart down a blind alley and run into a brick wall needing to be cut after several days of bleeding. You'll amend weak dialogue being forced by a new vision to delete some very clever turns-of-phrase.
"I should remember that," you'll think. "No, you won't," I assure you.

If you're working on paper, save those pages on which changes are made. Single-line through deleted copy rather than obscuring it with a fury of scratches.

More likely, you're saving your word processor files. Most word processors will auto-save (a good idea) every few minutes, but only the last version of your file is retained in case of computer or power failure.

Anyone who operates a computer knows that creative work must be saved often. Ctrl-S saves on a PC, Command-S on a MAC, or click on the Save Icon to save under the last file name assigned, WorkingTitle.DOC, for example. However, through your working session, the file should be saved under a new name so as not to obliterate your previous work.

Your initial file name should append a sequence number, i.e., WorkingTitle-001, (ignoring the file extension for now). The next save, WorkingTitle-002, and so forth.

In this way, if you wish to recover a scene, some dialogue, or that very clever turn-of-phrase, you can go back a few revisions, and pull it.
  • Always Save file then Save As new number then continue or quit
  • Always use at least three digits. This keeps the files in alphabetical order in the directory folder.
  • Always up the sequence number and save after any major delete or rewrite of a scene or dialogue.
  • If you're working for hours, save the file under a new number periodically during that time. It doesn't hurt.
  • As your last save of the day, always save the file, then save it under the next sequence number.
  • Get a thumb drive. At the end of each day or week, even if you save to the cloud, copy your latest file to the thumb drive and keep it in a place other than with the computer... in case of fire, theft, or getting locked out of the cloud.
(Not so) hypothetical: Your character Sam Samuelson didn't pan out and you're about to delete a significant portion of a chapter that depicts his arrival on the scene in WorkingTitle-056. Before you delete him, "Save As" the file: WorkingTitle-056_Last with Sam Samuelson. Then "Save As" Workingtitle-057. This way you can find the last save that included Sam in case you want to bring him back.

Any note of a few words can be embedded in that saved file name when major changes have been made.

About Editing Your Manuscript

You may be under the impression that after you get agent representation and they sell your first book to a publisher, the publisher's in-house editor will correct all your spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, delete unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs, and re-order passages to polish your manuscript to perfection. No. Not unless you've got major clout: 1) You're married to the publisher; 2) You're a well-known journalist or celebrity writing a novel or non-fiction; 3) Your work is so superlative that the publisher's editorial board opts to throw its entire weight behind you and your manuscript.

If you're 1) or 2), you wouldn't be here. Let's all strive for 3), while being realistic about the prospects.

Unless your manuscript is polished, an agent won't read further than the first lines or paragraphs, and your sample pages will be discarded. There are a series of hurdles your work must traverse before an agent offers representation. The state of publishing is such that an agent's mind is focused on finding reasons to reject you.

They'd love to be in love with your work, but errors tend to jump out where perfect lines of prosaic poetry need to be flushed out. Simply, they have too many submissions and so many of them are so bad that they're mining for diamonds in a cesspool of poorly developed writings. Yours must shine.

That's the message (paraphrased, to be sure) of The First Five Pages, written by a successful New York agent. You have to be your own Max Perkins (editor to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe. See the movie Genius or read the book).

Stage II discusses self-editing in which you scrutinize your first draft (also called a rough draft, also called unpublishable) and rework it until your manuscript can entice an agent as you'd beguile a reluctant lover.

Editing is the process of sifting through your 100,000 words with an electron microscope to find every misused word, misplaced comma, and clumsy turn-of-phrase.

Knowing what errors you'll be looking to correct is a great way of not making them as you're writing. The discussions of Stage II are excellent resources for the technical aspects of completing your first draft. If you have not completed the first draft, review Stage II before proceeding.

How Do You Know When You're Finished?

Simply, when you've run out of things to say. If you've resolved the challenge, the protagonist has succeeded or failed, and you're half expecting the credits to scroll up on your screen, you're done. You may be second guessing some plot points, or whether a character was necessary, but that all gets resolved in the editing. Now's not the time.

A second indication that you've finished is when you have a good cry. That's not unusual.

You'll want to jump into editing, revising, and cleaning it up immediately. Don't.

Wait a Month... or more

As you've been writing over these last months (years?) you have undoubtedly reviewed your writing. You've reread chapters time and again. You've scanned, taken characters out, put others in, corrected plot points as you retreated from dead ends... in short, you've been immersed in your writing so completely that you can practically recite it by heart. That means you can't edit it. Not now.

You know what you wanted to write so intimitly that you will read what you intended to write. It's all still in your head.

"The Duke or Windsor rode his white hose to the gates of Westmuenster Palace." This example may be hyperbolic; hopefully, you wouldn't make three typos in a single sentence, but if you did you'd probably miss one... or two. You will not see the errors, because your brain remembers that you wrote, "The Duke of Windsor rode his white horse..." You get the idea.

You will be amazed at the number of errors you will find with your first read after that month.

Further, there may be words that you confuse as a matter of course—I have to look up affect/effect and lie/lay almost every time I use one or the other. Spell checkers won't pick up unusual spellings of proper nouns. And then there's just clumsy sentences where clauses are in the wrong order.

You must allow yourself to forget exact wordings and word orders before you edit, and only time can affect that. Effect that? No, affect that.

If your juices are flowing and your muse is screaming at you, there's no prohibition against starting your next project during the intervening time. Or go outside. Seasons may have changed.

Stage I: part 2
Intermezzo I
How to Produce a Novel
Stage I: First Draft
  Stage I, page 2
  Stage I, page 3
Writing Intermezzo I
  Preparation for Self-Editing
Stage II: Self-Editing
  Stage II, page 2
  Stage II, page 3
Stage III: Feedback/Review
Stage IV: Publishing
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