March 4, 2018
What’s on your “Bucket List?” You know, the things you want to do before you ‘kick the bucket?’ (Such a good movie, by the way.) I don’t actually have anything official written out, but if I had to think about it, I have been able to cross a few things off my own invisible list. In June of 2014, I got to experience The Monkees (minus Davy Jones, who I saw on stage years earlier) live in concert. In the spring of 2015, I visited another country. And then last year, after decades of hoping for a miracle, I crossed off the item that’s been on there the longest – I wrote and published a full-length novel.
Okay, so it seems like everyone and their brother would love to be able to write a novel. That is wonderful! If you have a story to tell, you should tell it! But it is so much easier said than done. I have been asked how I was able to pull off the novel after first hoping to accomplish that feat more than three decades ago. Therefore, I am going to share with you some basics that worked for me. Are you ready to take notes? Well too bad, because here goes:
While everyone has their own methods, and I implore aspiring writers to do whatever works for you, here is how I powered through my first novel and drew the inspiration for my “10 Book Plan,” which I will discuss in a future post.
Coming up with a good story is the easy part, at least for me. Once I get an idea, I’m off to the races. For years, my style was playwriting. I completed 10 full-length stage plays and was even able to witness two of those performed on stage (MACABRE -1998 and The Living End – 1999). But my dream was always to write a novel and see it through to publication. For years, I toiled with half-ass attempts that went nowhere, because I was clueless as to how to break through the barrier of writer’s block. I’d get to a certain point and have no idea where to go next. I mean, I wanted to write, but I couldn’t crack the formula.
I can’t pinpoint exactly how I figured it out, but when I came up with the idea for Pummeled (my first novel), I didn’t dive right into writing the prose. I was patient. I looked at my main characters (yes, character sketching is imperative), I looked at my plot, and I looked at how realistic it would be to put it all together. Initially, the idea stemmed around a main character as this vigilante superhero who beat the shit out of domestic abusers. This idea popped into my head after reading a story online about some little asshole redneck who violated an order of protection and put his wife in the hospital. After tossing some ideas around, I sensed that the story leading to that particular point might be just as compelling. So I outlined my ideas. I asked myself why this person would feel the need to do this. And eventually, the outline began writing itself. Soon I had a general list of events. Most importantly, I knew how I wanted it to end.
So there it was – I had something to work towards – an ultimate goal.
SETTING YOUR GOALS – AND STICKING WITH THEM
Once I had the outline and enough character sketches completed, I felt it was time to dive into the actual writing of the novel. Early on I struggled to spit out what I wanted to say, probably because I wanted to edit as I wrote. DON’T EDIT WHILE YOU’RE ALSO WRITING! There is plenty of time to edit after you completed the first draft. The cardinal rule of writing a novel is to spit out that first draft. Get it written. It doesn’t matter if there are parts that are pure garbage with horrible sentence structure and poor grammar. You want to get the story told.
So how much should you write? I initially set a goal of 500 words per day and tracked it closely. If I missed a day, I was sure to make it up quickly. I would monitor my word count and always try to make it past the 500 word goal at minimum. Some days when I was on a roll, I would write anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 words in a sitting. And I did take a day off here and there to recharge my brain. I also set a goal of getting to 100,000 words by the end. Now, depending on who you ask, if you want your work to be considered a “novel,” then you must be at no less than 40,000 words. But most experts say that no true novel is under 50,000. So striving for 100,000 was a pretty lofty goal (especially having never surpassed 3,000 words in anything other than the plays).
In any event, I stuck to my goals and finished the first draft of my novel in right around eight months. The word total was 120,000! Apparently I had more of a story to tell than I first realized.
EDIT EDIT EDIT!
Okay, here comes the hard, tedious, want-to-pull-my-hair-out part – editing. Now the initial self-edit really isn’t bad. Since you just finished the first draft of a full-length novel, you’re flying high! You are excited and can’t wait to bask in your accomplishment. So you dive right in. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Yes, eventually you will need to have someone with editing experience look your manuscript over. But don’t haphazardly fly through one edit and send it off. You need to perform three very precise self-edits AT MINIMUM. The first edit is just to clean up the text and ensure your story makes sense. Make sure your sentence structure is clean, do a general spell check, and look for those repeated words (which is a major issue for me). If you use the same word a dozen times in one paragraph, perhaps you should look for an alternative way to spit out what you are trying to say.
The second edit for me was what I call a “weak verbs edit.” When you are powering through the first draft, you are trying to tell your story in the easiest way. That usually means you are using the easiest words. And while you can use words such as knew, saw, was, and noticed once in a while, don’t let them become your crutch words. Also, be careful not to overuse the –ing words. Whenever possible, those words can be changed to something stronger.
See how the second example has a more powerful presence? That is because you are using an active verb (raced) which makes the sentence sound more direct.
You can Google the list of most overused weak and distancing verbs with a simple word search through your document (I know, it’s a long and tedious undertaking), and see if you can remove some of the overuse. Again, not all of the words should be eliminated, just the ones that make your prose weaker.
Your third edit should be you taking on the manuscript as the reader. Dive into the book as if you were looking at someone else’s work. Does the plot make sense? Do the characters intrigue you? Does each chapter make you want to keep going? Are there still sentences/phrases you don’t like? This is where you decide whether or not you have told the story you want to tell. This is the edit where you add/delete. Does a scene need more elaboration? Are you getting too wordy in spots and telling the story rather than showing? Once you get to the end of this particular edit, you should be feeling good about the future of your manuscript.
Now you may, after finishing with this third edit, be ready to either send it off for professional editing or even let beta readers have a crack at it. I actually did both. Not only did I have an editor start looking it over, but I recruited half a dozen people to act as my beta readers to give me feedback. I wanted to know if the plot and subplots were strong, if the characters were believable and exciting, and if the overall story kept their attention. I’m not going to lie – this was the most frightening part for me. I thought I had a strong story, but now it was time to see what the unbiased reader thought.
Most of my beta readers were wonderful. A couple never responded, but several did give me wonderful feedback on how to strengthen the story. So don’t be afraid to have some fresh eyes take a look at your masterpiece. It’s better to discover its flaws before you publish than after.
So how long does this entire process take? Well, I didn’t publish Pummeled for two years after my first draft was complete. If you are doing the math, it took me just under three full years from start to finish to get my story out there. And that was using the self-publishing method. Then again, this was my first true at a novel. I learned from my mistakes, and going forward I will avoid certain missteps my first experience.
Although publishing a novel in general was a bucket list item, publishing a novel in the horror genre was an even bigger goal. This fall, that dream becomes a reality when Dragon’s Blood hits Amazon! So if you are into horror stories, please check it out!