Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How to Write a Novel in 90 Days*

by Holly West

*More or less

This week, I'm finishing up copyedits on my second book, Mistress of Lies. It's the last round of edits, which means that once it's turned in, it's pretty much done.

To be honest, it's a little hard for me to fathom. For years and years and years I dreamed of writing just one novel. That was my holy grail, the pinnacle of personal success that I thought I'd never reach. That being the case, writing two books was out of the question.

And yet, here I am.

Book one, Mistress of Fortune, took me about two and a half years to write and polish (much longer to actually publish, but that's another story altogether). Book two, my first under contract, took me about six months to write a draft suitable to turn in to my editor, meaning it was polished, but not all that shiny. Writing to a fixed deadline obviously required a lot more discipline than I'd displayed during the writing of the first book. Even so, I dawdled and complained, and generally waited until the very last minute to get that thing done.

It's how I roll.

Initially, I'd intended to write book two "by the seat of my pants." I'd written Mistress of Fortune with a loose outline but I didn't write the scenes in order. I jumped around depending on what I felt like writing on a given day. This method worked, but revising it was a nightmare; going into book two I thought that writing it in order, as it came to me, would be a better strategy.

Not so much. Three months before my deadline, I had about 20,000 words written but felt directionless, unmotivated, and miserable. I had no idea how that damned book was going to get finished, let alone be even remotely readable.

I had 90 days to finish the novel. Here's what I did:

Days 1-30: I'd sold the second book based on a synopsis and sample chapters, but the synopsis had been short and was an insufficient road map for going forward. Plus, I'd changed some major elements in the story with my editor's blessing. Hence, I gave myself nearly a full month to write a detailed outline and synopsis.

Coming from a screenwriting background, the three-act format has always appealed to me and I stuck to it faithfully in writing the outline. I used the outline to write the synopsis (about twenty pages), then had my husband read it to make sure it made sense. He provided some useful feedback and I revised the story accordingly. In this way, the developmental part of editing the manuscript was, to a large extent, taken care of in the synopsis phase.

Days 30-60: I wrote the first draft. It was weak in some places, but I had a finished novel, gosh darn it, and that was all that mattered.

Days 60 - 90: My husband and I both read through the manuscript. I revised it based on both of our notes, taking care to polish it as much as I could along the way. I reserved the last four days to do a complete read-through myself, knowing there was no time to make any big developmental changes. It was mostly just copyediting at that point.

Day 90 (Deadline Day): I sent it to my editor and crossed my fingers.

Though I knew it still needed work, I was happy with the finished novel. The story is much more personal for my protagonist and in my opinion, has more heart as a result. And surprisingly, the first edit letter I received for this manuscript was pretty painless--there were some character motivations that needed strengthening and an important, but not too difficult, story element that needed changing, but that was pretty much it. Further edits have gone just as smoothly.

I kinda-sorta feel like I've hit upon my method when it comes to writing a book, though it might only work for genre novels. Do I think I can write my next novel in 90 days? Perhaps not. But having a process that works for me gives me confidence that I can do this again and again.

For those of you who've written more than one novel, how did your process change with subsequent books?


Kristi said...

I had a very similar experience. It took me a few months to write my first draft of my first novel and then one entire year to revise it.
When my agent was shopping Blessed are the Dead, she shopped it as a series, so she asked me to write up synopses for books 2 & 3.
That was key. When I sat down to write the second book, it was much easier and the revision process shortened considerably.
Now, I'm a believer.
I have a question for you -- when you write your synopsis do you have any go to craft books and/or do you follow any guru books on structure, such as Save the Cat or Larry Brooks Story Structure?

Holly West said...

I started out using Save the Cat, then moved on to Alex Sokoloff's Screenwriting Tips for Authors: Both are great resources. I also watched a few movies and analyzed their structure, paying close attention to where the story "beats" came. What a great job we have--we get to watch movies in the name of "research." ;-)

Bryon Quertermous said...

I would like to chime in with hearty support and approval for Alex's book and tips. She's saved y wandering direction-less ass on a number of occasions.

I'm glad to hear from you and Kristi that you shared the same experience. I'm about two months in to what should be a six month deadline for Book Two and have even less than 20k words. I may crib your process Holly. Can't wait to read the book.

Holly West said...

I have to say that one of the most important parts of this process was having someone available to read the full manuscript in a very short period of time, on very short notice. Many thanks to my husband, who NEVER complains about having to do this.

Kristi said...

True that. I have a few trusted friends who will speed read something for me and I make sure to always do the same for them. IT does make a world of difference! PS thanks for the tip on Alex's site. Will most definitely check it out.