12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you — but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here’s a list of writers conferences in 2015), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

Captivate_full_w_decal4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader.

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up.

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers — savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story – not someone else’s.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.


Dangling Participles, Misplaced Modifiers, and Other Awkward Constructions

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speakerJodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centred

In your writing, have you inadvertently created some awkward sentences involving misuse of participles?

In my editing of fiction manuscripts, I find even my smartest, most talented authors sometimes commit gaffes with participles, which can affect the meaning of the sentence. Some readers may notice these style blunders, and others may just feel subliminally confused or inexplicably mildly irritated.

Problems with participles, dangling or otherwise:

Participles are verbs that end in –ing (present participle) or –ed (past participle). According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “The present participle (-ing verb) denotes the verb’s action as in progress or incomplete at the time expressed by the sentence’s principal verb.” In other words, an –ing verb expresses an action that is still taking place when another action occurs.

For example, “As he was driving on the freeway, a police car whizzed past, lights flashing and sirens blaring.” Or “She escaped while the house was still burning.”

So –ing verbs are mainly used for ongoing actions or to indicate an action that is still taking place when another action occurs. Here are some examples of incorrect use of participles:

Captivate_full_w_decal~ Logistical impossibilities

What’s wrong with these sentences?

Hurrying up the sidewalk, she ran into her office building.

Striding across the lobby, he jabbed the button for the elevator.

Tapping her toes impatiently, she dashed into a free elevator that stopped.

What’s the problem ? Logistics. The -ing verb indicates that the first action is still happening when the second one occurs, but it’s physically impossible. She can’t run into her office building while hurrying up the sidewalk – it’s physically impossible. And if he’s still striding across the lobby, he can’t be jabbing the elevator button. Nor can she tap her toes while dashing into an elevator!

~ Check those sentences starting with -ing verbs.

Newbie writers often start sentence after sentence with -ing verbs (participles). That’s another sign of amateurish writing, and causes logistic problems. Besides being repetitive and boring, this sentence construction usually ends up describing a physically impossible series of actions – sequential actions described as if they’re simultaneous, as in the examples above.

Here’s another one: “Pulling the car over to the curb, she ran up the sidewalk.” She can’t run up the walk while she’s pulling over to the curb. It should be something like, “She pulled the car over to the curb, parked, then ran up the sidewalk.” Or “After pulling the car over to the curb, she jumped out and ran up the sidewalk.”

So vary your sentence structure, and if you start a sentence or clause with an –ing verb, make sure it works.

~ Don’t get caught with your participles dangling!

According to Merriam-Webster, a participle is a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective. As mentioned above, participles are verb forms that end in –ing or –ed, like “buzzing” or “roaring”, or “satisfied” or “soaked.” A participial phrase modifies a noun, like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers soon grew tired.” The phrase is talking about the activity of the person or thing closest to it, in this case, the hikers, so it’s correct.

Here’s an example of a dangling participle: “Exploring the trails, the birds chirped merrily.” It’s not the birds that are exploring the trails, so it needs to be changed to something like “Exploring the trails, the hikers heard birds chirping around them.” Or “As they explored the trails, the hikers…”

A few more examples of dangling participles:

Dodging the traffic, his cell phone got dropped on the street.

It’s not the cell phone that’s dodging the traffic, so it needs to be:

Dodging the traffic, he dropped his cell phone on the street.
Or: As he dodged traffic, he dropped his cell phone.

Gazing out the window, the willow tree swayed in the breeze.

This sentence implies it’s the willow tree that’s gazing out the window. It would need to be changed to something like:

Gazing out the window, she saw the willow tree swaying in the breeze.
Or: As she gazed out the window, she saw…

~ Misplaced modifiers are a mistake.

Also, watch where you put your descriptive phrases in sentences, as they modify the words closest to them. For example,

Tall and rugged, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.

As it is phrased here, the “tall and rugged” refers to the teenage girl, when it’s supposed to be describing the basketball star. It should be rephrased to something like:

The teenage girl gazed at the tall, rugged basketball star in admiration.

Similarly with:

Tired and dirty, the lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past at the end of the long day.

It’s not the lady of the house who’s tired and dirty, so this sentence needs fixing.

The lady of the house watched the tired, dirty farm workers trudge past…

Slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles, the customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts.

It’s not the customers who are slathered in icing with sprinkles! This should be changed to something like,
The customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts slathered in chocolate icing with sprinkles.

And you wouldn’t want to write, “Soaked to the skin, she dried off the kids when they came in from the rain.” Unless the mom is soaked to the skin, too!

Readers and writers – have you seen or accidentally created some awkward sentences involving misuse of participles? Care to share any humorous ones?

I provide lots of tips, with examples, of these and all kinds of other style gaffes to avoid in my award-winning editor’s guide to writing compelling stories, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION.

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller,Captivate Your Readersand her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.