The Most Productive Approach for the Aspiring Novelist

by James Scott Bell

Got an email the other day from TKZ reader Gary Neal Hansen. With his permission, here’s a bit of it:

We’ve not met but I wanted to thank you for your help, so generously offered in the blogosphere. I stumbled across a post you made in 2015 on The Kill Zone about being a prolific writer. You drew the distinction you made between project ideas being on an “optioned” list, with a few moving forward to an “in development” category, and a single project being “greenlighted” as the WIP.

I wanted you to know that this has helped me see how to move toward clarity and self-organization in my newly independent writing life.

For 17 years I was a professor, where the demands of teaching and pursuit of tenure gave structure to my work. I recently left that position when my wife got her first faculty appointment to a really fine university.

Now I’m continuing to write non-fiction, but am (with the help of NaNoWriMo) adding fiction to the mix. Whether I become skilled enough as a storyteller to publish fiction is an open question, but I’m having fun. And your little book on short stories has also been very helpful — so thanks, very much, and I look forward to reading more of your craft books.

Grand! I love hearing about someone turning to fiction for the first time and having fun doing it. It’s also a nice nod toward NaNoWriMo, which has helped countless newbies over the years get into the habit of writing full-length fiction.

Gary then asked a question which he thought might make good fodder for a TKZ post:

Which of the following do you think would be a better strategy to jump start my skills in the craft?

  1. Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one. Or,
  1. Edit my first NaNoWriMo for a month or two, then do another pretend NaNoWriMo, and keep repeating the cycle. Or,
  1. Draft new material in the mornings, and edit the previous manuscript in the afternoons (while, I suspect, quietly losing my mind). Or,
  1. Something else?

Here is my answer.

I like a combination of #2 and #3. I still recall finishing my first full-length novel. It was around 1990 or so. What I remember most is how much I learned by making myself complete a draft.

My education continued as I did my first self-edit, studying craft issues that came up. The novel was not ready for prime time, but I knew I’d made strides as a writer.

Which is why I’ve counseled new writers to finish that first novel, because it will reveal to you strengths and weaknesses in your craft. I’ve also advised they write first drafts “as fast as you comfortably can,” because it builds the discipline of completing a project.

Now, once finished, let the manuscript sit for three weeks or more. During that time, be at work on you next novel. This project should already have been “in development” as you worked on the previous book. That means you’ve done some thinking about the idea, some planning, some casting, even some writing.

When it comes time to self-edit the first MS, print out a hard copy and read it through, taking minimal notes. You want to experience it as a reader, or better yet as a harried editor or agent reading it on a commuter train, looking for a reason to set it aside!

After that, do a second draft, fixing what you can. Take note of problem areas in your craft so you can study those in more detail.

Show this new draft to beta readers, your critique group, perhaps a freelance editor. (All the while, you are keeping up a word quota on your next novel.) Take all that feedback and re-write once more.

Does that sound like a lot of work? Good. Because it is. And should be.

Now, one does not have to strive to write every novel in NaNo fashion. NaNo is a special speed-writing month, and once a year is quite enough. My guideline for “normal” times: figure out how many words per week you can comfortably write, then up that by 10%. Make that your quota and stick to it for the year. After a year assess and tweak the quota, then hop to it again.

That means that #3 is a good practice. Use your peak creativity time (morning, afternoon or evening, depending on your bio-preference) for the new stuff, and other times for editing. You won’t, as Gary wonders, lose your mind. Going from drafting to editing uses different parts of the brain, and many writers have done it just this way.

My caution: don’t do heavy editing of your WIP at the same time you’re writing it. Do a light edit on the previous day’s work, just to clean things up, then move on.

I’ll mention my “20k Step Back,” however. I found that if I pause to assess my characters and plot at the 20k point, I can save myself a lot of grief by making sure the stakes are truly high, the characters are rightly motivated, and the Lead is pushed through the Doorway of No Return.

Then I push on until I’m finished.

So that’s my advice to Gary an all others starting their the novel-writing journey. Let me offer a few notes on the other two suggestions:

  1. Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one.

While I love the idea of this pulp-style prolificacy, those writers knew the craft of story first. If you write in this fashion I fear you’ll develop some bad habits that may be hard to break. It’s sort of like telling a new golfer just to go out and play eighteen holes every time without once taking a lesson.

There are better ways to choose what idea to develop (I’ll cover that in a future post). The steady quota, alongside directed craft study, is best.

  1. Something else?

Kerouac liked Benzedrine and a roll of butcher paper flowing through his typewriter. I don’t recommend this method.

Dean Koontz works on a single page, over and over, before moving on to the next page. That’s why he hasn’t found success yet. But if all you do is write 70 hours a week, I suppose you can do it this way. I’d go mad.

Balzac stimulated his imagination by drinking up to fifty cups of thick, black coffee every day. He was definitely prolific, but since he died at 51 of caffeine poisoning, I cannot give my imprimatur to this practice.

Countless unpublished writers wait for “inspiration” before they write. There’s a term for this: unprofessional.

Some writers steal. Don’t.

So I open it up to you, TKZ community. What’s your preferred practice? What other advice would you give the new novelist?

(I’m in travel mode today, so I’ll try to respond as best I can!) 

17 thoughts on “The Most Productive Approach for the Aspiring Novelist

  1. I have a terrible time switching gears. Right now, I’m dealing with audiobook production, and my WIP has been shoved aside. Of course, the fact that I’m not on an editor-imposed deadline for the WIP has something to do with it, too.

    I love your 20K suggestion. I’m at 46K with the WIP and now that the audiobook is almost wrapped up, I’m going to go back and see whether I met that test.

  2. I like your advice on the combo 2&3 idea. And the Dean Koontz edit thing surprised me. Good post, Jim.

    I have what I call my “rolling edit” process where I write during the day & edit at night. I keep going over my previous pages, not sacrificing my forward daily word count goal, until I am satisfied enough. This edit process can include reading aloud so words flow. (I revise wording I stumble through or dialogue that doesn’t sound real.)

    By the time I get to the end, it’s a pretty clean MS. I then read through from pg 1 to end, making any final chgs. I also make a deliberate pass through purely to infuse whatever emotion I intended for each scene. I ratchet it up a notch.

    My last pass is for enjoyment, to read it as a reader might and I like loading it onto my kindle for more authenticity. I let some time go by before I do this, to clear my mind & see with fresh eyes.

    I have beta readers after that who do track chg revisions.

    I like the rolling edits because it suits my personal quirks. I tweak until I’m satisfied & search for typos or story and character inconsistencies. Editing in drafts would drive me crazy because I don’t like knowing typos are in my work & I want to catch other issues while the story line & character motivations are fresh in my mind. By going over my previous pgs, I often discover new things about my characters & can explore revelations at that point going forward, without having to correct this in a major draft rewrite.

    That’s my .02. Works for me.

    • That’s my system, too. I print out each scene when it’s finished, then read it in bed which helps shift from “being a writer” to “being a reader.” The thought of holding an entire book in my head if I waited until I was finished to edit fills me with the fear that I’ll miss details in later chapters. A note saying “house needs a mud room” will haunt me, so I have to go back and remodel the house as soon as I realize what’s needed.

      • Absolutely. I’m old school about needing printed pages in from of me to edit too. And like you, I read every night. First my pages, then a good book. It’s my reward.

  3. I’m in the process of reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, which I think someone here at TKZ originally mentioned, if I’m not mistaken. He covers a whole lot of excellent territory but the question posed today reminds me of another point directly related to JSB’s comments on why option #1 might not be the best idea.

    In Newport’s book, the overall point is going deep with our work (& eliminating or scheduling the shallows that dog our existence in day to day life) and doing it regularly. But the other thing he mentions is giving yourself a measuring stick for the time you spend in deep work. If a writer sits & churns out first draft after first draft, they have no idea what the quality or success of the draft was because they’ve skipped over the measurable part. As JSB–it invites an opportunity to develop bad habits, but more than that, you lose the edge of truly challenging yourself and get more into an “autopilot” mode of writing.

    The whole philosophy he espouses is not just working in depth, but deliberate depth work–pushing your brain just outside it’s comfort zone when you’re working deep. That would be hard to do without breaks between projects.

  4. I’ve tailored my process to address my weaknesses. I write one chapter at a time (2000 to 2500 words). My weakness is getting that chapter to convey the points I think needs to be made. So, I write in what I call “passes”. My first pass is about 1000 words and lays out the scenes. A second adds six to eight hundred words to flesh out the storyline, and the third is for polishing. Then I reread the chapter at least three times. That’s in one 24 hour period. Then on to the next chapter.

    I don’t consider any of that as editing (although it probably is) After the manuscript is complete, I reread and edit it at least three times (one to two weeks), then to my beta reader/line editor/grammar expert/wife/love of my life. We back and forth it at least three times. I do four to five chapters per week, if life doesn’t interfere. It’s a pretty clean manuscript at that point.

    This lets me concentrate on character development, continuity, subtext, theme, and purpose. At least, it lets me think I’m doing that. Whether it actually works to create a meaningful story is for the readers to decide.

  5. I am in the middle of revising/editing my first nanowrimo book. I have a question, a little off subject. I have read a few books on craft and specifically ones by James Scott Bell, focusing on dialogue. What if I have a character working by herself in a scene and no one is there for her to talk to? My understanding is to get her out of the scene as quick as possible, yet setting up the scene and the event in the scene are crucial to the plot. How long is too long without dialogue? Thanks!

    • I’m no James Scott Bell, but I would give the answer to a similar question asked in my RWA chapter many years ago. “As long as it needs to be.” My characters spend a considerable amount of time alone when the story demands it.

    • In the right situation, you can show her thoughts. I find this useful if the character isn’t certain of where to go or what to believe.
      I have a story where the main character killed her best friend. I brought the friend back as a ghost trying to help her past her guilt over the murder. Worked for that story (I think).

    • When I don’t have another character in a scene, I try to give the protag action to to keep the scene moving and show a journey and the reason for the scene.

      I use DEEP POV, usually shown in italics, which are the internal personal thoughts of the protag. Usually these lines show attitude from the character or key questions in their mind where they uncover a revelation. They’re also generally in first person, as if they are talking to themselves, but in their head. I set these lines apart as if they were dialogue so there is more white space on the page and the reader’s eye gets a break.

      Be wary of too much introspection, which slows the pace. When a character is flying solo, it’s tempting to go overboard with all the cleverness they are thinking, but I try to limit the internal monologue and show a flow of thought through the scene, so it reflects as if it’s a journey.

      I may also find ways for that solo character to make a call or speak to a stranger or text someone, to break the scene up.

      • I changed my novel to first POV to make use of internal dialogue, and, I kid you not, I gave her a dog. She doesn’t have long drawn out conversations with her pooch, but he is there as a foil. Sort of like Wilson in Castaway.

        And the dog turned out to be the character I hear from readers the most about. Simon is loved.


        • I have a dogs in my latest series and in Mr January. He’s very popular. Great way to not only have a dialogue, but also the way the protag cares for the dog reflects on him or her. Good instincts, Terri.

  6. Brian – thank you for sharing- I like this process very much – may I ask if you always write sequentially or do you start out with some scenes that are firmly in your plan, even if they may be in the middle/end?

  7. Great comments, everyone. Thanks for taking up the slack while I’ve been on the road. This is a veritable grab bag of useful technique and practice. Nicely done!

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