A woman e-mailed asking how I prepared to write a novel.  Apparently this reader has experience with short stories and commercial non-fiction and has a book in her.

 The short answer, dear reader, is that I haven’t a clue.  That’s the truth.  My suggestion is to sit down and “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”*

My own experience is this:

I seem to start three novels and finish only one of them.  If the going gets tough I chicken out!  On the other hand I may start the same novel several times, convinced it is a winner, only to toss three hundred or so pages into the deep.  I have at least ten unfinished novels in one state or another, and probably twenty short stories.

Outline or not to outline?

I do not use an outline.  To me they are useless.  I’ve tried it.  I’ve made detailed outlines only to have the characters run away with the story; lock, stock and plot!  I make notes.  Lots of them.  Stacks of them.  I have Post-it Notes and scraps of paper everywhere in a kind of chaos of order.  I have yellow legal pads, perhaps a half-dozen with different characters doing different things.  And, I have notes and bits of conversations on the computer.  Somehow the story begins at the beginning, etc!

The first draft!

Is really nothing more than a rehearsal.  Get through it quickly.  Don’t worry too much about spelling and punctuation.  The story is the thing.  Get your story down as best you can and then set the whole mess aside for a week or so—or as long as you can stand it.  Take long walks, wash the windows and weed the garden.  Try not to peek at your story.  You may at this point think your story is so great you have to read parts of it to family and friends.  Don’t.

The second draft!

Put on your editor’s cap.  This is the grunt work for your final book.  This is where you look for logic flaws, correct spelling and sentence structure.  This is where you find out that Aunt Ella had gray hair in chapter three and was bald in chapter fifteen with no explanation.  This is where you discover that the golden retriever in the park scene turned into a bulldog at the house fire. 

Go slowly.  Think about what you are writing, what your characters are doing, saying; fact check, and take coffee breaks to let your head clear.  I cannot emphasize how important the second draft is, how necessary and how frequently boring and frustrating.  If you get stuck take a walk and let the characters back in.

Finished at last?  Put the manuscript away for as long as you dare.  A month?  Six months?  Separate from it so that you can read it eventually with a gimlet eye, make notes and make changes.  Meanwhile start a new project or take up crochet.  

The book! 

Read it through and make notes, but do not stop to make real changes.  Go with the flow.  Finished, you go back and polish and polish.  Cut like crazy.  Throw a lot of that deathless prose into the trash.  I often end up tossing away the first chapter, plus perhaps two and three.  Often these chapters are not as important as one might think at first draft.  Perhaps one good solid sentence or paragraph will replace thirty pages. 

I don’t much believe in *hooking* the reader with some kind of jolting opening (unless it just happens in the process).  I know that a lot of successful writers use the hook to engage readers.  I know that a lot of these same writers offer a hook that ultimately leads nowhere.  If a reader needs a trick to get interested in a book, perhaps that’s not the reader I’m writing for.

The first test!

After you’ve polished and polished, read and reread, corrected and corrected to the point where you can’t stand to look at one more page, it’s time to send your book into the world.  You should give it to two or three people to read and give you notes.  Tell them to mark all of these things: logic flaws, typos, spelling and anything else that might catch their attention.  Ask them if they can read within the next week or two.

After that, grow a thick skin.  Do not protest the comments you get.  Do not bask in complements.  Listen to everything they might say.  Thank them profusely.  Study the places where they have used a highlighter and left a note.  Finally, everything is your decision to take or leave.

Another edit!   

Yes.  You have to go back and do it all again.  Every page.  Every paragraph.  You make the manuscript as good as you possibly can before you do whatever you want to do with it.


Of course, none of this may work for you!


A Note to the wise:  If you are planning to put your book on Kindle for consideration I urge you to learn something about the process before you start writing.  It may save you a lot of time later.  I recommend:  An excellent resource.

My Kindle Books

Tomorrow Will Take Care of Itself
4 Spooky Short Stories
A Thorn of the Crown
Paper Cuts
Timothy Holbrook and the Zombie Curse

Currently working on Timothy Holbrook and the Reflected Worlds


*Lewis Carroll, Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland. The King to the White Rabbit.

Copyright 2011 by Spencer Schankel.  All Rights Reserved.


About spencer911c

I live on an island in Washington State, not far from the Canadian Border. While the setting must have influenced the first Timothy Holbrook book, our town is not fading like Faith Hollow, nor do we have any known zombies or wizards. I spent many years in the theater and many years writing, and now write fulltime. The theater years are still a great help with pacing, scene construction and plotlines. In the back of my mind when I’m writing and I hear the audience start coughing and shifting in their seats a red light flares and I know it’s time to go back and work harder. On the drawing board is the second Aaron Hanover mystery and the next Timothy Holbrook adventure: “Timothy Holbrook and the Druid’s Circle.” One reader has suggested a sequel to “Tomorrow Will Take Care of Itself” with Mr. Max as the main character. Anything is possible. I love reading comments and questions and do my best to answer all of the ones that aren’t X rated.
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