How many drafts does it take before your novel is finished?
When should you start line editing? When do you put in your subplots? How much planning should you do before you start your first draft?
The answers to each of these questions will be different for every writer, but if you’re new to writing, just thinking about them can be paralysing, and many writers state that their biggest problem is not knowing where to start.
So in case you feel overwhelmed by the scale of the project of writing a novel, we’ve put this article together to try to help break the process down into more manageable chunks, and demystify the novel writing process.
This is intended to be a framework that you can use to help guide you when you’re learning your own process, and is fully intended to be malleable – so as you become more experienced, and get more novels under your belt, you’ll develop your own way of working.
But for now, let us take you by the hand…
Stage One – Preparation
Before you actually start writing your first draft, it is advisable to do some preparation.
Some writers (commonly known as Pantsers) prefer to do the minimum of planning, because they like to discover the story through the act of writing.
Other writers prefer to explore the story in their heads, and make lots of notes about plot, characters, subplots, themes and more, before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
And of course, most people mingle somewhere between these two extremes.
You may already know roughly where on the planning / pantsing spectrum you fall – personally, when I first started writing, the idea of doing a first draft without any planning was so horrifying to me, I literally didn’t believe anyone wrote that way.
Now I have been fully dispossessed of that misconception, as I know many extremely successful and bestselling authors are pantsers.
On the other side of the same coin, there are some people (side-eyes Stephen King) who think it’s ‘cheating’ to plan a novel in any way, and not let it just flow from your sub-conscious, as if the Universe is simply using you as its conduit.
But many successful writers have reams of notes, folders and spreadsheets which help them formalise their creativity and create novels in a very cerebral way.
So, let’s all agree that there’s no ‘right’ way to write a novel.
However, it’s worth noting that neither way is easier or quicker than the other. As a rule of thumb, if you do more planning, then your first draft will be stronger, and you will spend less time editing.
On the other hand, if you dive straight in, you will save a lot of time up front, but you are very likely to spend a lot more time on the editing process.
Whichever you are, it’s good to try to lean into the one that makes you feel uncomfortable now and then, as it can teach you new things about writing, and you may be surprised to find some elements of it really work for you.
As an instinctive Planner, often I try to limit the amount of prework I do, and have found the discovery process extremely enjoyable and enlightening.
Likewise, I have had Pantsers say that they have had a go at using my Novel Writing Roadmap, and have realised that planning out certain areas of their books really helps them avoid the sticky parts they usually get mired in later down the line.
If you would like to do a lot of detailed planning in this initial stage, then you could follow this step-by-step guide.
If you don’t want to do a lot of planning, that’s fine – but it’s usually a good idea to at least have a rough idea of how the story is going to end.
Stage Two – First Draft
The best advice I can give for writing your first draft is to try to do it as fast as you can, and don’t edit.
Reading over what you’ve done and editing it is the fastest way to get stuck and never reach the end.
However, if you plough through without looking back or worrying about anything, then when you’ve completed your first draft, it will teach you so much more about those opening chapters than if you’d spent months tweaking and editing them before writing the final scenes.
You may want to go back a few pages each time you sit down to write, to remember where you are and get back into the zone, but – and I can’t state this strongly enough – DO NOT be tempted to start back at the beginning each time.
Once you’ve got a few novels under your belt, you may find it useful to do what I call the ‘blanket stitch’ approach, where you go back a few chapters and write on, editing those ones and writing a few news ones, and then repeat from your new stopping point. But if you are new to writing, then even that can slow you down too much.
So, don’t worry about getting it right – the first draft is just you telling the story to yourself.
Once you’ve got the words of the first draft down on paper, then you can go about improving it – that’s what redrafting is for – but you can’t redraft a partial draft.
You just need to get the rough skeleton of the story down, however it takes. You don’t need to worry about elegant prose, or getting in every detail. Focus on ideas, conflict and characters – not fancy words.
One of my favourite writing quotes explains it beautifully:
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
― Shannon Hale
Stage Three – Major Redraft
You’ve done it! You’ve got the first draft done. I feel like this is a major accomplishment even if you’ve got thirty novels under your belt, but if it’s your first one, then it truly is a huge achievement, and you should feel extremely proud.
Only a small fraction of people who set out to write a book actually manage to complete the first draft – and the first one is by far the hardest. My first first draft took me about a year. Now I can bash out a first draft in a month fairly consistently, and have been known to do it within a few weeks.
If the first draft was the scaffolding of the novel, revealing its general shape, then the next draft is where you put in the bricks.
Where before it was all about getting down the core story, now you can start working on more layers.
If you didn’t do so in your planning, now’s a good time to go through and make sure all the major story structure beats are there, and also run through each of the subplots to make sure they’re consistent and complete.
You can also look at each of these elements in isolation:
Are your main characters three-dimensional, with inner conflicts and backstories? Do they have an arc where they change from the beginning of the story to the end? Are they likeable? Can you develop them further?
Are the supporting characters varied enough? Are they all pulling their weight? Do they have their own subplots and mini-arcs? Do they each relate to the main heart of the story in some way?
What themes are in the story – either deliberate or emerging? Can these be enhanced? Or are there too many themes, which are getting muddled? In this case can they be streamlined?
Conflict and Peril
Are there any parts of the story where the pressure and tension sags? Can this be made more exciting? Can you add in extra conflict and peril to keep the readers gripped?
Does the dialogue sound natural? Do each of the characters have unique voices?
Is there any research you need to do to make sure what you’re saying is factually accurate, perhaps relating to professional procedures, science or specialist knowledge?
Stage Four – Tightening and Polishing
Okay, now you’re really on the home run.
You’ve got your basic story down, and you’ve worked hard on characters, subplots, conflict, themes and accuracy.
It’s a good idea to get some space from the story at this point. You’re probably raring to get on with the next stage (or perhaps you’re ready for a break!) but try to take at least a week away from the manuscript – longer if possible. During this time, try not to think about it.
Once that time has passed, print it out (if you can) and read it all the way through from beginning to end. While you’re doing this, make notes on anything you notice that you feel needs fixing, clarifying, or could be improved – but don’t actually make any of those changes as you’re going through.
Once you’ve got your notes from the whole novel, you can make a plan for your final pre-feedback redraft.
Here’s a suggested method for three categories to organise your notes into:
- Quick Wins – typos and errors
- Medium level changes – adjustments to subplots, enhancing character details, seeding in details
- Major Structural Changes – major plot changes, entire new scenes or scene deletions, new characters or removal or characters
As long as there’s not thousands of them, you could start by doing the quick wins, to work up some momentum. Then move onto the structural changes, rather than putting them off, and because they are likely to have an impact on the medium level changes you want to make. Finally – complete the medium level changes.
Your novel should be in pretty good shape by now.
Stage Five – Feedback and Final Touches
Many new writers find the idea of sharing their work for feedback utterly terrifying.
But the fact is – if you want people to read it, then, at some point they have to read it.
Before you launch your book out into the world, it is invaluable to get feedback from third parties. It’s impossible to state how important this is – I would say it’s a critical stage that simply cannot be avoided, and if you try to avoid it, you’re doing your book and yourself a disservice.
So, with the importance of outside input established: there are two main ways you can get feedback.
The first is beta readers. These are usually other writers, but at the very least they should be people who frequently read in your genre. These people read your whole novel and then give you feedback about what worked for them and what didn’t. It’s common to provide beta readers with a list of questions so that you can get feedback on specific areas that you might have concerns about.
It’s a good idea to get a handful of beta readers, rather than just one or two. This is because everything about reading is so subjective, that if one person tells you they absolutely hated something and you have to change it, you may believe that is true, when actually the same thing doesn’t bother anybody else. Having a range of opinions makes it much easier to highlight actual issues in the book as opposed to things that don’t suit a particular person.
The other best way to get feedback on your work is from a professional editor. This is someone who deeply understands story structure and sentence craft and can not only intuitively feel when there is something off with the story, but might even be able to pinpoint why it’s not working and how you might be able to fix it. Hiring an editor to look at a whole novel does involve a significant cost, so it’s not for everyone – but if it is within your budget then the experience can be invaluable.
Furthermore – this kind of feedback goes not only for improving the book in question, but for also getting to know your personal foibles as a writer, which can help with the next book, and the one after that.
A professional editor will usually read your whole novel and give you a report at the end of it, relating to areas such as structure, characters, pacing and potential. They may also give you line edits within the manuscript, depending on what you’ve paid for.
Once you’ve had your feedback from the beta readers and / or professional editor, it’s time for the final draft. Digest all the feedback you’ve had, consider what changes you want to make and what you’re going to ignore, then dive back in and make the final changes.
Once those are done, have one more read through to catch any threads which have been left hanging loose by the latest changes – then repeat, until you’re just deleting and re-adding the same comma each time.
Once that happens, call it done.