My Strategic Author Shoebox
There’s a lot of advice out there for writers at every step of the game, from concept to drafting to publishing. Different things work for different people—I know authors who edit heavily as they draft, not moving on until a scene is close to perfect, while others take whole chapters that are giving them problems and—get this—delete them. Not move them to another document—DELETE like a freaking CYBERMAN.
Everybody goes about this nutty process of book-writing in a different way, which is why I tend to stay away from offering hard and fast rules for writers. But! Having several different manuscripts in all stages of the game right now (one in concept, two in drafting, and one in revision), I’m using July’s blog post to break down the main strategies I use at each step of the process. It’s not really a toolbox so much as a shoebox—just a few useful knickknacks for navigating each stage of a novel’s journey.
Take a look below the jump!
Stage 1, Concept: Write it Down!
Look, coming up with a novel is super easy. In its infancy, it’s perfect and shiny and clean, with plot gaps filled in and dramatic impact in all the right places.
Until you start to write it down.
Once you start putting your thoughts on a page, that pretty, purposeful novel starts to go ragged at the seams. Characters who are supposed to fall in love have no chemistry (oh hey, first six iterations of Rou who fell flat on his face every time he was introduced to Mona). Plot points that seemed so simple suddenly make no sense (such as… all of the first draft of Creatures of Light). Getting those nebulous ideas down in a concrete way throws all the flaws of your creation into sharp focus.
Which sounds depressing! Actually, brace yourself—writing a novel can be super depressing! But you can’t start to fix those glaring issues without understanding what they are first. That’s why, even at the concept stage, the biggest go-to tool I have is to write stuff down. Creating a character? Do some freewriting from their perspective (see April’s Jump-Starting Your Protagonists post). Building a world? Write out the history, the culture, the food, the festivals. Untangling a plot? Make an outline. It’s amazing what will start to flow from solid written words that you never thought about when it was just wrackspurts in your head.
Stage 2, Drafting: What's the Worst that Could Happen?
Making the initial jump from concept to drafting can range anywhere from “easy” to “requires an act of Congress” to begin. But for me, the hardest point often comes about a quarter of the way in, when I’ve gotten my characters out the proverbial door and into the meat of the novel. This “Fun and Games” section (as defined by Jessica Brody in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel) sounds like it should be, well, fun and games, but this is where I find the story starts to get soggy and meandering. Where are my characters going? Why? What do they want? What thrilling things need to happen to drive the plot? Can’t someone else write this manuscript for me?
That’s why, once I get to know my characters and plot a little better, I like to define one specific moment in their story: the All is Lost.
This is the darkest moment of the book. Mae is mortally wounded at a critical moment. Aragorn’s final front is overwhelmed at the Black Gate. Snape kills Dumbledore (spoiler).
In short, I ask myself, what’s the worst possible thing I could do to my protagonist?
It’s not always death, surprisingly. Often, it’s a stripping of identity, power, or allies (or all three, poor Gemma). It’s the character’s lowest point, something that, at the start of the novel, they’d have thought they could never survive.
Surprise! They can! That’s what makes the ending so strong and triumphant. But this dark point also serves to define the journey they need to take to get there—solidifying that Fun and Games section and giving it direction. That’s why one of the earliest moments I usually define is the All is Lost. Once I know how to break a character, I know how to build them before and after for maximum impact.
See? Super depressing!
Stage 3, Editing: Themes and Symbolism
So you’ve got a draft and it’s terrible—now it’s time to edit. After I’ve gotten feedback from critique partners, my agent, and my editor, I start to patch in the holes I overlooked and smooth out the rough edges. That’s the biggest job at this stage. But another significant thing that I hone in on is symbols and themes that have popped up while writing.
Symbols are powerful—they create a tangible connection between the emotional and physical journey your character is on, and they serve as tokens for the reader to know something significant is taking place. A lightning scar, a crow’s-head cane, a pair of fringed boots—they’re touchstones for your novel. From a designer’s standpoint, they can also serve as strong visual elements for your cover.
Themes, too, provide cohesion for your story. They ensure that your character changes in a meaningful way—that they’re impacted by what they’ve been through. They also provide you with a great starting place for blurbs, pitches, and query letters—if you know your character’s theme and stakes, you can describe your book in as short and powerful language as possible.
Stage 4, Copyediting: The Big Picture
The last step in a book’s journey toward publication (usually) is copyedits. This is where wonderful wizardly members of your pub team go through your novel bit by bit and pick out the last little tidbits that need fixing—grammar errors, word choice, language discrepancies, etc. It may sound tedious, but because this is the last step before publishing, I find it a great time to zoom out and be sure all the tangled threads I’ve tried to weave actually create something coherent.
Inevitably, during the editing phase, I’ve introduced new scenes and concepts, and now’s my last chance to be sure those things fit seamlessly with the greater story. So while this final stage is defined by pulling out small details, I also use it to step back and give the narrative one final stare.
Obviously there's a lot more that goes into each stage than the few things I've listed here, but these are solid concepts I tend to gravitate toward. And this is a timely reminder for me--I just got copyedits back for book 1 of The Outlaw Road... time to zoom out!
June + July Art Roundup
Several more plein air watercolors from around Yellowstone, and some pages from a brand-new sketchbook, including the three protagonists of The Outlaw Road.
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Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator