How long does it take to write a novel?
My first book Cuckoo took me my entire life up to that point. The next three: Every Vow You Break, Tarnished and The Long Fall took me a year each. The fifth, her Husband’s Lover, thanks to a false start, took two years. Then the sixth took four years to write. Indeed, it needs another draft, which I will attend to soon, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Or ever, possibly…
However, I have since picked up gear. I have written my seventh and eighth books – The New Mother and The Daughters in the past year. That’s six months to write each book. Two books in one year. If you’d told me before January 2021 that this is what I was going to do, I would have laughed at you.
But then I signed a contract with Bookouture promising to do exactly that.
Well, I like a challenge. And I certainly learned a lot meeting it.
So I thought I’d put down exactly how I did it, just in case anyone else ever feels the urge to produce work at this rate.
Getting the idea
I have a list of ideas that I keep in the notes app on my computer/phone. I often return to them to noodle around, pushing the thoughts, imagining worst-case scenarios for my characters and plots (something of a personal speciality).
With The New Mother and The Daughters, I picked the two strongest contenders and worked each up into a very brief half-page – much like a back page blurb – both of which my agent Cath and my editor at Bookouture, the brilliant Ruth Tross, thought had legs.
Side-note: I have written before about how much of a geek I am, and I make no apologies for doing everything on my laptop. Do have a look at the software I mention, because all of it is brilliant. I am not on commission. Although I probably should be.
I go to Scapple and mind-map the ideas, fleshing them out through a lot of ‘what-ifs’ into a series of events. While I’m doing this, I hold in the back of my mind some basic story structure ideas:
- My protagonist wants something
- the plot is how they work towards that goal
- the events of the novel make every step harder, curve balls thrown at the poor characters
- by the end, the protagonist may have got what they wanted
- or they may get something very different
- they will have learned and changed on the way.
I also like to think and work in a basic three-act structure, where the first act introduces the world, the character, the problem, the second is the action that rises and deepens the protagonists’s journey, and the third is the big show down and the resolution.
This may sound formulaic, but this structural framework really helps with the decision making part of dreaming up a story.
Almost all my work concerns back-story: something that happened in the past that surfaces in some way into the present of the novel to cause trouble. So I also have to make decisions about how I am going to deal with that: two time frames? memories from the present? some sort of diary?
At the same time I am Scappling, I am also creating a timeline in Aeon Timeline. By giving dates and times to the events, I can flesh out how my characters interact with them. All this helps me create a world that is increasingly real to me – I start instinctively knowing how my characters will react in any circumstance. I know what they would and wouldn’t do and say, and how long they have lived in a certain house/been in love with a certain person and so on.
Writing it up
And then I write a detailed plan describing what happens in the novel. With The Daughters, this plan stretched to 21 pages and nearly 10,000 words.
This is a new departure for me. If you scroll back through my blog posts, I have in the past extolled the virtues of being a ‘pantser’, writing into the blue, writing by the seat of my pants. But that is a luxury you can’t indulge in when you have just six months to write a book. You have to be sure that your story works.
This plan document goes back and forth between me and Ruth, with her adding suggestions and pointing out bits that don’t work or asking questions, and me doing my best to Make it Better.
On plotting: my revelation
The big discovery for me was that this stage is one of the most creative parts of the work. It’s bloody hard, but I am doing exactly the same world-building, the same what-ifs, developing and turning around of the situation, getting to know the characters and turning them into people that I would I were pantsing it.
This whole process takes me about a month full time, interspersed with researching basic facts about the world of my story – the jobs the characters do, the homes they inhabit, the landscape around them. By the end, I have a Scrivener corkboard full of colour-coded virtual index cards (more geekery) with a title for every chapter that gives the main action, a short paragraph of synopsis and usually some visual references for key images or settings. I also have it all synced with Aeon timeline. And, crucially, I know that my story works.
With this solid structure in place, I have found that I really, really enjoy the next part, which is the drafting (I call it that, because the whole process, from the germ of the idea I start with is ‘writing’). Writing into the blue can be scary – what if it doesn’t work? what if I write up a blind alley? With this method, I have certain parameters set, and my job is to bring everything to life.
Breathing life into my situations and characters brings discoveries. Sometimes this will mean that I have to reassess my plan. But this is good – it means I am open and listening to my developing story.
As I write, I keep lists of areas I need to research more, of story developments that need to be seeded in earlier sections or things that have to change in the next draft. This is to stop me being too perfectionist with the shitty first draft – it’s the charcoal drawing, not the full painting.
After two months of this, at my drafting daily target of 2000 words, I have my draft zero. Over the next two weeks I read, annotate and work through it again, taking into account the notes on those lists. Then I show Ruth what I’ve done – the proper first draft.
Structural edit and beyond
Ruth gets back powerhouse-quickly with further structural notes. But the key is that both she and I know, from the document we worked on earlier, that the basic structure and story are sound. So the structural edit hopefully isn’t that extensive. It’s more at this point about weeding – cutting out some of the stuff I thought was necessary that actually isn’t. For example, in The Daughters, I had a whole, quite painstakingly-researched Australian traffic cop chapter. It’s no longer there. You have to be brutal with that darling-slaying.
Then we’re on to line and copy edits, proof reading, final files and we’re off.
And then I start all over again…