In Reality How People Write A Novel: 67 steps

There are tons of books on how to write a novel. I have about 7 of them on my shelf. In those books on writing, they only share best practices and maybe an outline to follow.

But that’s never how it happens in real life… I have never read an honest breakdown for how actual human beings write a novel.

So here it is.


Journal


 

  1. Declare to your friends and family that you’re writing a book.
  2. Immediately regret telling them because now you feel pressure.
  3. Stare at a blank page.
  4. To freshen up, Google: “How to write a book.”
  5. Remember that it’s a massive undertaking.
  6. Friends ask you, “So, how’s your book coming? Remember me when you’re famous!” And you want to die.
  7. Start to plot the novel just to get your mind off the pressure.
  8. Writer’s block.
  9. Netflix binge.
  10. Write 15 pages.
  11. Rewrite the 15 pages.
  12. Delete 14 pages.
  13. Drink a little too much.
  14. Netflix binge.
  15. Structure your story.
  16. Share your emotions on writing forums.
  17. Energized by the sympathy you receive, write 50 pages.

    Man Jumping


  18. Re-read your pages a million times.
  19. Realize you’re the worst writer in the history of the written word.
  20. Netflix binge.
  21. Take long walks, talking with your protagonist.
  22. Feel a little mentally unstable that you’re talking to fiction.
  23. Feel close to your characters.
  24. Edit the 50 pages.
  25. Ask friends for advice.
  26. Doubt your premise.
  27. Write 10 pages.
  28. Re-read and find yourself refreshing and clever.
  29. An hour later, remember that you aren’t halfway done with the novel and not sure where it’s going.

    Girl in the woods


  30. Netflix binge.
  31. Read about how this one person wrote a novel in a weekend.
  32. Write 25 pages.
  33. Take a month break to recharge your “creative energy.”
  34. Your friends ask you if you’re still writing that book.
  35. Drink a little too much.
  36. Netflix binge.
  37. You imagine your protagonist at your social events and you’re more enthralled by them in fiction than you are by your friends in the flesh.
  38. You feel weird about that occurrence and wonder if you’re going crazy.
  39. Write 30 pages.
  40. Although you seriously doubt your skill, you decide to stop talking about the book altogether. You will finish it. People need to just stop asking you about it.
  41. Netflix binge.
  42. Realize how much time has gone by since you started it.
  43. Go on a research binge, looking up random, insignificant facts about your book’s setting that might be interesting to your readers.
  44. After a week of research you realize you could have written it pretty well without it.

    Spider Web


  45. Get into a rhythm and start jotting down notes of every interesting line you hear.
  46. Ask your friend to punch you if you don’t have a first draft completed in a month.
  47. Procrastinate, but end up finishing the first draft relieved your friend won’t punch you.
  48. You re-read and realize it’s so disjointed, why are you even a writer?
  49. Netflix binge.
  50. You convince yourself it has potential if you touch it up.
  51. During editing, you focus on the tiny details in every chapter.
  52. It takes too long, so you alter the structure, put in foreshadowing, and add to the theme.
  53. Read it again and you actually enjoy it, minus the million tiny errors.
  54. Go back to the forum to tell people you’ve finished your first draft.
  55. You tell your friends that you’re done, and no they can’t read it.
  56. Edit for a couple months too long because everything has to be PERFECT.
  57. If someone sees it with an error, you will literally keel over and die.

    Train


  58. Finally decide someone needs to read it because you’re too close to it.
  59. You send it to a few close friends you trust, reminding them about how “rough” it is, even though by the time you send it to them, you secretly think it’s basically perfect. But if you tell them it’s super rough, it’s a free pass if they find a mistake.
  60. They give their honest feedback.
  61. You don’t remember ANY positive feedback, ONLY the negative comments.
  62. Doubt your skills as a writer.
  63. Drink a little too much.
  64. Netflix binge.
  65. Take your friends’ suggestions and make the proper changes.
  66. Read it again and are slightly impressed with yourself.
  67. Now you have a novel. Still not perfect in your eyes, but decent.

And that is how actual human beings write novels. No one is polished in their first draft, or as polished as they’d like in their final draft. No one likes their own writing at first. Everyone doubts their own abilities, even their mental stability.

You’re not crazy.

You’re just a writer.


Question(s) of the day: Have you noticed a difference between “how to write” and how you actually do it? What’s the biggest difference for you?

44 Comments

  1. You don’t remember ANY positive feedback, ONLY the negative comments.
    Should be #1
    Why must humanity continue to forget to focus on strengths and NOT weaknesses.

    • bdschmitt

      July 6, 2015 at 11:28 am

      Hi Chuck, great point. I think it’s human nature to focus on what we don’t like about ourselves. Something we can focus on getting better at, but something that will remain because we’re still human.

      I think of it as: Focus on strengths, recognize weaknesses. Pick one at a time to improve.

  2. Hahahaha. < That's 'I totally, wholeheartedly sympathize with this post' laughter. Especially number 22. Having had multiple dreams with my own created fictional characters, that one hit the mark. Also- 18, 19, 26, 28, 29, 40, 48, 50, 51, 53, and everything from 56-67. All true. Loved this post. Time to keep plugging away at Fallen Stars (novel 2) and the untitled YA series I've started work on. Never ends. 🙂

    • bdschmitt

      July 6, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks, Laura! Glad it hit a vein. It’s pretty funny how us writers can be so sensitive about our work. I think it was Faulkner who said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” I find more ugly cousins than I do darlings, but maybe that’s just me.

      • Very, very sensitive. I think that’s because to us, these stories feel as real as our own history. At least, they do to me. I definitely struggle with the pendulum swinging back and forth between “hey, I’m good at this” and “you suck, why are you still typing.” And yet, I’m still writing.

        • bdschmitt

          July 6, 2015 at 1:24 pm

          It’s the same for me. It depends on the day and the hour for how I feel about my writing abilities. From what I hear from people who have “made it,” that never goes away. So I’m getting comfortable with the feeling.

  3. Witty & brilliant, as usual. I expected nothing less.

  4. I’ve never read a truer account of the writing process. Thank you, this really made me smile.

  5. You nailed it – have you been spying on me? I laugh, but it still hurts. I’ve been going through these same steps over and over for 7 YEARS with the same novel and still haven’t made it to 67. In between I have written several non-fiction books, but dang it, I want to be a novelist.

    • bdschmitt

      July 7, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      You can do it, Carolyn! It’s funny the pressure we put on ourselves, isn’t it? It’s good to know I’m not the only one who thinks this way!

  6. Dang on! I’m somewhere between stage 44 and 45 for over 6 months now. I’m one step shy of asking my friend to punch me if I don’t get it done by this month end. Talk about procrastination!

  7. Awesome summary. You had me laughing, which was a gift. Thanks.

  8. Fun post, Ben. Particularly liked numbers 43 and 44:

    ‘Go on a research binge, looking up random, insignificant facts about your book’s setting that might be interesting to your readers.
    After a week of research you realize you could have written it pretty well without it.’

    As an incorrigible over-researcher whose had to work hard at cutting off research when sensible I know that feeling.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • bdschmitt

      July 10, 2015 at 8:50 am

      Thank you, Jordan! Of all of the points, those are probably the truest for me as well. I geek out over random information. Turns out not everyone loves that, haha!

  9. I clearly pee a sattern here… Binge drinking & a little Netflix… Sounds like a good Saturday night… I have always been an overachiever so I started the Saturday party on Friday… but pobody is nerfect… After producing a novel and committing to 3 more righ toff the batty… I realized, a good binge drinking session is what everyone needs. That and a head examination.

    • bdschmitt

      July 10, 2015 at 5:16 pm

      I feel you, Las! And to three more novels, you will know this 67-point list more and more intimately. 😉

  10. While I am one of the rare writers that somehow managed to write a first draft in 25 days during last years NaNo, I still had to rework the structure after two previous revisions.

    This list is the most factual on the writing process for me at least.

    I will also note that whatever time I “saved,” in writing my first draft was eaten up by the inevitable restructuring. When writing there are no certainties besides Netflix and booze.

    • bdschmitt

      August 26, 2015 at 4:58 pm

      How many pages did you complete in 25 days? That’s a huge accomplishment — but yes, the restructuring on the back end is killer. Glad the list resonated with you!!

      • I was able to reach 75k. Before you decide I am a writing God, note that most of that was flowery prose and detracted from the story. About half was useable. I also swear by Scrivener. Lol watching your word count go from red to green was the biggest motivation. But it’s almost Nano time again and I’m still on the third revision. After the structure shift, I consider it back at second draft status. In fact, this comment thread is giving me a break from the self loathing portion of re writing, so I think I’m going to get a nice glass of wine while I’m here……..

        • bdschmitt

          August 26, 2015 at 5:14 pm

          Hahaha — a writing god… 75K in 25 days is ridiculous. Were you working over that period? I’m just trying to imagine how many hours each day you’d have to dedicate to uninterrupted writing.

          A bit of advice: take a month and a half to structure your novel before NaNoWrimo. Create character arcs, flesh out subplots, work your ass off before you write a single line of dialogue or action. So, going into something like NaNo, you won’t have to work as hard on the backend fixing all the structural shifts because you’ve already laid a foundation for free writing.

          • Exactly –every single thing that I learned from doing that. lol I mean, yes I had a KIND OF outline, but nothing like I plan out now for my short stories. If I could talk to myself before this undertaking of absolute love…… and yes, some days I wrote over 5000 words. I also used Nano as an outlet for my mourning at the time. ( beloved pet)

            I doubt I will ever be able to write that much that quickly ever again.

  11. Truer words were never spoken! You hit the nail on so many different levels. *So* much of this applies to me, it’s incredible. The question is, what do you do when you just *can’t* overcome the perfectionist hurdles? I’m a perfectionist to a fault. I edit my work so much it ends up being dull and sparse, not to mention flat. I end up reverting to the rough draft and then I let it sit there for years….

    • bdschmitt

      August 27, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      Hi Amy, thanks for stopping by! I have 4 suggestions for you:

      1. http://llllll.li/typewriter/ This applications makes it impossible to edit anything while you’re creating your first draft. After a session of writing, export it and edit from there.

      2. Write with someone else. Race for a word count. When focusing on pure volume over quality (to combat the inner perfectionist) it’s easier to let awkward sentence structure go and leave it for the 2nd draft. Recently a friend of mine challenged me to a word war – an hour of writing, and whoever had the least amount of words had to make up the word difference in push-ups. Whatever the consequence is, make it something you REALLY don’t want to do – it just makes it easier for you to focus and cast aside your perfectionist tendencies. I’m a slow writer and in a little over an hour, I got over 1,700 written thanks to pure fear of losing.

      3. You need accountability. Go to http://www.stickk.com/ and put money on the line (even if it’s just $5) if you don’t hit your word count. When you have something to lose, you’ll find that you can wait to edit.

      4. I publish writing advice every Monday, so subscribe and get new tips! =)

      As for coming out with a flat product, as you said, that is often because of over-editing. Plan and structure first. Then write the rough draft to get words on the page. Hold yourself to a timetable like 4 months for the rough draft (and put something on the line if you miss it). And then go through 3 rounds of editing. Then show people you trust for their opinions.

      Hope that was helpful, Amy.

      • Or do the reverse, buy tickets to a concert a month from now, promise yourself the purchase of a delicious book two weeks from now, plan a picnic by the beach one week from now. Put these events on your hard copy calendar near your favorite writing area or on a post-it note on your laptop so it’s real and visible. Sometimes looking forward to an event is more encouraging than the fear of punishment.

        • bdschmitt

          September 10, 2015 at 6:18 am

          Hi Jules, that is a good point. Do what works for you! It depends on the person. For me, I know I could slack off a bit if I just would not get something I want. However, if it was made more public that I “lost my honor” by not following through on my word, that’s more powerful for me. It depends on the person. I always do a negative repercussion if I fail. It’s more apt to get me moving.

  12. Interesting post. For me each book is different. Above all, when I’m stuck somewhere I don’t binge on Netflix, I binge on book of all those authors who have managed to finish their books.

    • bdschmitt

      October 1, 2015 at 12:18 pm

      Hey Peter – that sounds like a better approach, haha! 😉 I book binge too, but I think I do that normally, not only when I’m stuck, so I don’t think that counts for me.

  13. Ben, you have a point here. Reading should be second nature for any writer. Fact is, my reading list is so impressive (long) I feel guilty no matter how many books I read…

    • bdschmitt

      October 1, 2015 at 1:30 pm

      Hey Peter, I’m going to challenge your thinking. This week, try to reframe your mindset away from “should” and into “I can do this if I want to because it’s fun for me” and if you happen to not read for a week (or more) then think to yourself “I won’t feel bad about this, I’ll just try to read more because that’s what I want to do.” It will be a lot more enjoyable. Don’t live with guilt!

  14. It all comes non-linear and then I have to struggle like hell to make it linear and readable.

    • bdschmitt

      October 1, 2015 at 2:25 pm

      Isn’t it just dandy when that happens, Kdrose1? Ha, that happens sometimes to me too. How do you approach that, and does it work for you?

      • I have approached it terribly for several of my books, most notably my first one, Heavy Bags of Soul. I literally end up with hundreds of pages, none of them in sequence and parse through them, editing and organizing in my mind until I end up with rough linear drafts and then it looks more like a regular writing process. I am attempting to refine this horrible way of dealing with non-linear thinking, perhaps leaving it semi-non linear and simply editing as is. As I look at some of the literary fiction lately, seeming stream of consciousness has been allowed. my next book is a memoir. I am going to basically try to get some strong writers and/or editors to read as I go and help me walk the line between poetic and unreadable rather than trying myself to clean up a mess at the end.

        • bdschmitt

          October 2, 2015 at 2:15 pm

          Thanks for sharing your process. For me, I start with a big “what if” question. “What if a Russian captain wanted to defect to America?” (that’s the premise for Hunt for Red October”) The “What if” question drives the story in a natural progression. Once you know your characters well enough, everything becomes fluid when you have that big question and goal in mind.

  15. Main difference between how people say to write a novel and how I write a novel, is that they say to write every day and I put off writing forever………… Practically this entire list is true of me, LOL.

    • bdschmitt

      October 1, 2015 at 5:58 pm

      Hey Benita — it’s hilariously, saddeningly true. Thankfully it doesn’t have to continue to be that way!

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