The Novel Writing Process from Outline to Print

Writing can be a daunting task for anyone from a student doing a research essay to a professional historian writing a detailed biography. It undoubtedly takes a lot of patience, diligence, and hard work to come up with a piece that’s even passable, much less masterful. But while being an author is a task that one could rarely label as easy, there are certainly ways to go about it that can significantly reduce the stress.

In this post, I am going to specifically discuss the process of writing a novel from scratch, though the basics can be applied to all forms of writing. Every author undoubtedly has differing goals and methods for achieving them, but this is the method that works best for me, and may work well for you too.

Step 1-Outlining

This is a step that some choose to skip, while others practically write out their rough draft by the end of it. It is entirely up to you whether or not to outline your story first. I myself have done it both ways. My first project was a six-volume series, and I never made a solid outline save the one in my head. I started in 2009: I’ve only recently finished.

Now, admittedly I’ve worked on numerous other projects in the meantime that have distracted me from finishing sooner, but it didn’t help that I had to practically rewrite half of the series. This is a problem that could have been at least partly avoided by having a firmer idea of what I was writing rather than coming up with most of it as I went. That said, I am very pleased with the outcome.

For most projects ever since, I have made at least a simple list of events in the order of occurrence. This skeletal outline is not much to go on, and it is always subject to change, but it provides some kind of path for me to try and follow.

So, are outlines helpful? They can be, certainly. I never go without one anymore unless the piece is short enough to be written in a single sitting, and even then you should have a clear idea of what you’re doing. That’s not to say it needs to be done to the last detail. One that gives a general idea of how you want a story to go yet remains fairly flexible is ideal. But again, the decision of how detailed to be is entirely yours to make.

Step 2-Rough Drafting

Whether you outline or not, the process of actually creating is unavoidable.
If you are like most modern authors, you probably jump right into typing on anything from your computer’s built-in Word Pad to the more advanced word processors out there. If you are like me, then you prefer the very gratifying feeling of physically drafting with pencil on paper (for those who do, I laud your efforts). Whatever the case, the main goal at this stage is to get your story written, however patchy or pock-marked it may be.

How much effort should you put into a rough draft? As with all things in the process, your fullest! Otherwise, why are you doing it at all? Personally, I like to see the rough as at least half the fight. I realize that what I write initially is not that great, and that I’ll doubtless need to subtract a bit, change a lot, and add a lot more before it’s all finished. But I also believe that the more work you do up front, the easier things will be down the road. Therefore, while it’s true that you want to write down everything that comes to mind (lest you forget it later), you also want to put some thought into how it should be presented.

One thing you must be acutely aware of when drafting is the nagging desire to go back and change something. The longer your work is, the more likely you are to experience this (especially if you do your drafting on a computer where it’s easier). This is the temptation to go back to previous parts of your book and revise or edit before finishing. This can be seriously distracting to ever getting the work finished. There will be time for that later: finish your draft before even considering an edit.

Step 3-Finalization

Once you’ve got your rough draft completely worked out, then it is time to make it presentable to the world. The first step in this is to type it up, if you haven’t already: I refer to this as semi-finalization. Then comes what to some could be even harder than rough drafting: editing and revision.

Some people at this stage prefer to hire a professional editor. I, however, prefer to do editing on my own. It takes a lot longer to do it right (and it lacks the helpful suggestions offered by another set of eyes), but it can be done. The key is to read through the entire text (once you think it’s good enough), and follow this with a latency period. This period should be at least a month (during which you’re ideally occupied with other projects), though the longer the better: The more time you spend away from a project, the more things will stand out to you as needing correction when you come back to it.

I recommend doing this three times at a minimum before presenting your work to a publisher or agent. For shorter works, at least twice. There’s no set formula for this part, but by the end you want to have a product that editors and agents won’t simply toss into file 13 after reading the first sentence.

Step 4-Publication

If you ever get your book to a point where you deem it close enough to perfect (like all artists, it seems, writers have a hard time ever calling something “done”), then publication, the dream of star struck writers everywhere, is next for you. This is a process complex enough to warrant its own step-by-step explanation. However, it is worth mentioning a few basic elements here.

Primary among these is the query/cover letter. Just about every literary agency or publisher out there will want this much if nothing else from you when you submit. There are all kinds of articles on how to write a good one, but basically you should briefly explain your story, your target audience, and your writing credentials (if any). This is all standard stuff, but very important.

Some will also ask for a synopsis, which is just a quick summary of your story from start to finish (no withholding the ending unless otherwise noted). Your manuscript itself should be in standard format for its genre (novel, short story, etc.). There are minor variations on what constitutes standard, but mostly this means twelve-point font, double-spaced, and starting new chapters on a new page.

While it can all seem daunting, most writers will tell you it is well worth the effort. Personally, I find there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your own words in print and knowing that complete strangers could read them, perhaps finding some deep meaning or inspiration in the process.

Be realistic, be honest, and stick with it, and your efforts are sure to be recognized sooner or later. And once you’ve made it to that glorious finish line, why not try a repeat performance?

Additionally, I’d like to add that my debut novel, Sauragia, is slowly showing up on some websites for pre-order, including Amazon and Kobo. Go and take a look if you’re interested in a slightly edgier Redwall-esque series with prehistoric reptiles, and be sure to check back here now and then for updates on this and more posts about the writing process.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is an author based out of Kansas City, Missouri. He has previously published several short pieces in various local and online venues. Among these are the short stories "The Buck" and "The Otter Kit Streamer", which won 1st and 2nd place respectively in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the academic journal, 'Shorelines'. His latest novel, 'Sauragia', is now available for pre-order.

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