So, before you get a publisher, and before you get an agent, you have to write a book. And you have to write the best book you can. I’m sorry to say that there is no way around that. There are no life hacks and quick fixes that will circumvent this. You have to write a book, and it will likely take you bloody AGES, and it will be hard, and it will eat your time. But, once you accept these facts, you’re well on your way. And hardly anybody manages to finish a book, so consider that a success. And so while this article takes the form of a list, consider it more a year-long list.
It starts with an idea. That’s the very first step. What if, what if, what if? This can be as vague as a secret somebody’s keeping, or an image, or a twist in a crime novel. For me, and my debut novel, it was a really dark secret.
I am forever saying to people - mostly myself - that there’s no point in having a good concept and plunging straight in. And so I plan. Not all writers do - many of my authorly friends find plotting unnatural and their concepts are more like a scene or a theme - but this is how it works for me.
What is the novel about? This is a question that can take me weeks of thinking to really answer. The general plot should be the action arc of your story; that is, what happens? For some reason, my brain shies away from this the most. I think it is because it’s like backing a horse. Suddenly, your very high concept idea has become a very specific set of action points, and this can take the sheen off an idea rather - but it’s absolutely essential. These are not plot. Repeat to self. From the general plot, you find your hook. What one-line scenario or question explains your novel?
I tend to move away from plot once I have the elevator pitch down. This is because I have in the past fallen into the habit of sketching out an entire plot and then shoehorning the characters in. Trust me when I say it’s better to do it this way around. I might know what sort of characters I need - a secretive man, for example - but it’s better to put the brakes on and have a think about who they really are. At this stage, I try and know two things about the characters: what sort of person they are in broad strokes (serious or whimsical, spontaneous or conservative, etc) and their manner. The rest, I get to know as I draft, and I do find characterisation really pops in later drafts. A scene in a first draft of a man keeping a secret will later become a scene where a messy man who never usually stacks the dishwasher starts doing so just as his girlfriend enquires about that secret.
Ah, the synopsis. It is true they (I) say that if you want to make your novel sound horrendous then you should write a synopsis of it, but one of the many reasons for this is that in sequentially writing about the action, you uncover the flaws. Specifically: is there enough action, is there too much, and would any of the people sketched out in part 3 above actually behave in this way? This can take several goes (if i’m honest, I do one before and after the first draft, and they are often utterly different).
The way I do my synopses is in Microsoft Excel; that well-known creative piece of software. I separate the plot out in to the three act structure - not because I follow it, especially, but because it gives me manageable chunks - and then I start to fill it in. By this point I have my main concept, which I write across the top, which is usually the question the reader would like to know the answer to. Then I fill in my first chapter which is the call to action. I don’t bother with any backstory. I jump straight to it. So in Harry Potter, this is Harry getting his letter. It’s the thing which begins everything: the very first domino.
Usually, I also know the ending, so I fill that in. And I often know a couple of beats to hit along the way - like the low point and the mid-point twist (don’t be scared; it doesn’t have to be a twist. Usually for me it’s a kind of worsening. And indeed ‘how can I make things worse for this character?’ is a very good question to keep asking yourself at this stage).
I tend to do 13 blocks per act. Each one - there or thereabouts - will be a 2,000 word scene. Obviously, some will be longer and some shorter, but this is a good working target. Filling this in might take several weeks, and you will hate everyone and everything. But it is an excellent way of knowing if your book works. If it slows in places. If the action makes sense. If the tension is sustained and the pacing good. I highly recommend it.
I do a first draft where I essentially write up the above synopsis. I feel the need to stress again that I am an almighty planner. This is because I am quite an organised person but also because I will go off the rails without a plan. This works for me, but it may not work for you. I do 1,000 words a day when drafting, and 2,500 each weekend day, because I have a full-time job. This allows me to produce a first draft in eight weeks, which is plenty because by the end of it I hate the thing and can usually see lots of errors with it, but 1,000 words day used to work just fine also, and would produce a draft in twelve weeks.
When you’ve finished, and celebrated, I don’t suggest reading the book closely. It will be too painful and it will make you a horrible person. However, skimming it and writing down the main plot points is a very useful exercise. For some reason, at this stage I like to use index cards and make an insane Homeland-type wall that concerns my friends and family. Whatever works.
The point of this stage is that you will have strayed from the above synopsis, and you’ll already have a feel for where it’s just not working. I feel it in my gut, now. Like a writers’ instinct. Sometimes it’s when characters aren’t behaving credibly. Sometimes it’s when the plot has sagged, usually in the middle, and it’s meandering. Whatever it is, here’s where you fix it. Quite often (and perhaps I say this because I am there right now with my second book), this stage is the worst. You’re confronting the problems in your manuscript and very often I have to go back to the point at which I lost my way. Occasionally, this point is chapter one. C’est la vie.
This is the most confusing stage for me, possibly because it’s not very easy to do a structural edit with any sort of precision. I usually write an enormous To Do list which contains scary things (delete this character/change this action) and non-scary things (there’s a typo on page nine) and I just… tackle it. This stage takes about three or four months, and it will - for the entire time - feel as though you’re getting nowhere, and then suddenly, it’ll be done. Trust me.
Ah the prose edit. The best, best stage. The book’s good. The skeleton hangs together. Now it's time to prettify. The literary equivalent of mascara application. I also tackle other things in this draft: layering through a character quirk, paying attention to a theme, beefing up the main characters’ relationships and sub plots. I usually like to do this in a month, but I could in reality do it forever.
No, wait, this is the worst part. The readers. The readers who come back with criticism, and the readers who asked to read and whom you never hear from again. I take a break at this stage. I tell myself well done, I let my beta readers read, and I watch a lot of box sets.
My beta readers don’t often come up with huge structural issues, so usually this is like another prose edit: fixing a plot hole, fleshing out a character, clarifying things. I then always do another read-through, usually on my Kindle because I spot more errors (literally hundreds: please never skip this step), and then I spend usually around 100 hours swearing at Microsoft Word’s hanging indents and then…
…. and only then, I submit.
Gilly McAllister is an author with her debut novel to be published by Michael Joseph Penguin next year, lawyer and professional worrier. She is owned by a large ginger tom cat. She tweets from @Billygean