Monday, June 30, 2014

12 Essential Steps from Story Idea to Publish-Ready Novel

 Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

If you want your novel, novella, or short story to intrigue readers and garner great reviews, use these 12 steps to guide you along at each phase of the process:

1. Brainstorm possibilities – or just start writing. Make a story map/diagram to decide who (protagonist, antagonist, supporting characters), what (main problem), where (physical setting), and when (past, present future, season). Or just start writing and see where it takes you -- but be warned that this “pantser” method (writing by the seat of your pants) will require more editing, cutting, rearranging, revising, (and probably swearing, hair-pulling, and rewriting) later.

2. Write with wild abandon while your muse is flowing. Don’t stop to edit or rethink or revise anything. Just write, write, write! Don’t show it to anyone and don’t ask for advice. Just try to write uncensored until you get all or most of the first draft of your story down. If you get blocked or discouraged, put your writing aside for a bit and go to step 3.

3. Run out of steam? Take a break and hone your skills. Read some highly regarded, reader-friendly craft-of-writing books. Here’s a list of recommended resources for fiction writers. And maybe attend a few writing workshops or conferences (here's a list of writers conferences in 2014), or join a critique group. Also, read blog posts on effective writing techniques. Check out our resource library here at The Kill Zone (down the right sidebar), as well as blogs like Writer Unboxed, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story),  K. M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors, Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers (formerly The Bookshelf Muse),  Elizabeth Craig’s Mystery Writing is Murder,  Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn, John Yeoman’s The Wicked Writing Blog, and more. (Add your own suggestions in the comments below this post.)

4. First revision. Go back to your story and look for possible ways to strengthen your characterization, plot, pacing, point of view, and narration, based on your reading of the various techniques that make up a bestselling novel today. Also, check for continuity, logistics, and time sequencing. Does your basic premise make sense? If the problem/dilemma your whole novel is based on is easily solved, you’ve got work to do! Go through the whole story and revise as you go. Always save the original copies, in case you want to go back and incorporate paragraphs or scenes from them.

5. Distance yourself. Put your story aside for a few weeks and concentrate on other things. Then you’ll have the distance to approach it with fresh eyes, as a reader. 

6. Now go through it as a reader. Change the font and print it up. Or send it to your e-reader or tablet. Then be sure to read it in a different location from where you wrote it. With pen in hand, mark it all up. 

7. Second revision. Now go back and make the changes you noted while reading.

8. Send it to beta readers, 3-6 volunteers -- savvy, avid readers who enjoy your genre. Give them specific questions, like: Were you able to warm up with and start bonding with the main character early on? If not, why not? Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not? Are there areas where you were confused? What specifically confused you? Are there areas or details that didn’t make sense to you? Why not? Are there any points where your attention lagged, where you felt like putting the book down or skipping ahead?  Check out my list of 15 questions for your beta readers - and to focus your own revisions.

9. Third revision. Read through the feedback from your beta readers and strongly consider revising any parts that confused or bored them. Any areas of confusion or other issues mentioned by two or more of your readers should be red flags for you. Revise based on their suggestions.

10. Professional Edit. Now seek out a reputable freelance fiction editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check over their website very carefully and contact some of the people listed as clients or under reviews or testimonials. And get a sample edit of at least 5 pages of your story - not someone else's.

11. Final revisions based on the edit. Read your story out loud or use text-to-speech software to have it read aloud to you. This will help you pick up on any awkward phrasing or anywhere that the flow is less than smooth. If you bumble over a sentence or have to read it again, revise it for easier flow. (Do this at any stage of your story.)

Also, either before the professional edit or after, try changing the double-spacing to single-spacing and the size to 6” x 9” (e-reader size) and sending your story to your Kindle or other e-reader. Then read it on there, as a reader rather than a writer, but with a notebook beside you. See what jumps out at you that should be changed.

12. Get a final proofread of it, if you can afford this step, or perhaps you’ve made arrangements for your copyeditor to do another, final pass to go over your revisions, looking for any new errors that may have cropped up as a result of the revisions. (I edit in sections, and each section goes back and forth with the author at least 2 or 3 times.)

Now your story should be ready to send to agents and acquiring editors or to publish yourself. Good luck with it! Hope it enthralls readers and takes off running!

Do you have any essential steps to add or emphasize? What about more great blogs to help writers hone their skills? We always value your input!


Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

35 comments:

  1. Great overview of the critical steps, Jodie. Here's one I'm learning about--print out the manuscript, then highlight the sections in different colors, in colors to indicate whether they're description, action, or dialogue. Then review the colors to make sure your work has the right balance of elements for your genre. For example, a thriller should have a greater percentage of sections with the "action" color than, say, a romance novel.

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    1. This is a wonderful idea, Kathryn! Description is exposition, action is narrative, and dialogue can be both, but often authors don't understand these definitions or distinctions, so I like yours better. I may just steal this! :-)

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  2. What an excellent idea! Thanks for the great tip, Kathryn!

    I've got the flu today and am sleeping a lot, but will check back periodically.

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    1. Hope you get better soon, Jodie. Chicken soup, maybe when you're on the mend. Thanks for the excellent post.

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    2. Thanks, Jordan. Don't feel like eating anything, but will try some chicken soup later today.

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    3. Oh my...flu...no good. Get rest and be better. I'm listening to the audiobook of Stephen King's "The Stand" and am developing serious 'fluphobia'.

      Keep hydrated and get rest.

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  3. I guess you could call this Jodie's Twelve Step Program to Publishing Sobriety.

    Seriously....good practical stuff.

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    1. Hello, my name is Basil and I am a writer.

      Hi Basil

      ...and I don't want to recover!

      collective gasp...followed by...YAY!!!

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  4. I wrote a long, detailed comment, and it didn't get posted. What happened to my comment?

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    1. Arlene, I just went in the back door and checked all comments and yours isn't there...? I have no idea what happened to it!

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  5. This is good, Jodie, but there is an error in #12 that I am continually trying to educate both editors and authors about.

    The final stage, proofreading, is NOT a sort of final copy edit. It is a completely different process. A proofread, by definition, is "reading the page proofs" that have been created by the book designer on a PDF after formatting, layout, typesetting, and design are compete. Proofreading markup is done on a PDF using Adobe Acrobat, and it looks for 1) residual errors from the copy editing stage, 2) errors newly introduced in the copy editing stage, and 3) errors introduced in typesetting. Of course, what I've described is the process for a print book. For an e-book, proofreading is done by uploading the converted .mobi or .epub file to various e-readers and proofreading it there.

    A final word: I've often known self-publishing authors to dispense with the proofreading stage as too expensive and unnecessary. I can say from experience with both indie authors and working at Penguin Canada that this is a mistake -- I've never seen a proofread that isn't filled with dozens and dozens (hundreds) of errors that were missed or introduced earlier, so I caution authors not to overlook this critical step.

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    1. Amen, Arlene. Can't tell you how many of my galleys (from a Big Six pub) came back riddled with errors, many of which were injected in the typesetting process. Ditto with Kindle if you self-publish. You have to be extremely vigilant to catch all formatting errors.

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    2. Glad you're in agreement, PJ. And yes, proofs used to be called galleys, didn't they. I don't hear that term much these days. Does your publisher still use it?

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  6. Thanks for your comments, Arlene. I know that is the official definition of the word "proofreading," but I'm just using the commonly accepted and generally used (among authors, not the industry) meaning for that word, which is a final check for spelling, punctuation, typos, and other small errors before sending the book to agents or to be formatted for publication.

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  7. And of course you're right about the number of new errors introduced during formatting and typesetting - something we all need to be diligent about!

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  8. Oh! I completely forgot we had this discussion last year, Jodie! And we agreed to disagree, if I recall. It's my opinion that indie authors need to be educated on the correct terms and process regarding proofreading, not held to the status quo of what's commonly accepted. :-)

    Since I've begun working for Penguin, I've found my self-publishing authors are eager - almost desperate -- to know what the precise process is there, and they want to emulate it as closely as possible -- within their budget, of course. So I'm finding that this education on exactly what proofreading consists of is more important than ever for my indie authors.

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    1. Thanks for clarifying this term here, Arlene - although I think my author friends, both self-published and with publishing houses, with continue to use the term "proofreading" in its popular sense, as that final light copyedit to check for minor errors before publishing it or sending it off.

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    2. I mean "WILL continue to use"! I'm sick today - need to go back to bed!

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  9. Also, proofreading (reading the proofs) consists of much more than a final check for spelling, punctuation, typos, and other small errors. There can be large problems with layout, typesetting, fonts, line spacing, widows/orphans, etc. For example, I just did a proofread where two full pages where set in the completely wrong font -- a glaring error if any reader had noticed it.

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    1. Dang - no "edit" button here. I meant "were set in the wrong font." Also, headers, chapter openings, tables of contents, page numbering, front and back matter layout -- there are a host of problems that can occur at the proofreading level, after typesetting and formatting is done. Louise Harnby lists dozens of these on her extremely comprehensive proofreading checklists, and they go far beyond just spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors, all of which are copy editing issues.

      Sorry to sound a bit school-marmy here, Jodie, but you know this distinction between editing and proofreading is one of my pet peeves. :-)

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  10. Feel better soon Jodie! I look forward to your posts and I'll be printing this bad boy out as a check list. I have check lists for outlines and brainstorming, and for marketing, but these are all separate. Love the idea of having something from idea to finished book.

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    1. Glad you found this checklist helpful, Elizabeth! Good luck with your WIP!

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  11. You've laid out a navigable path through what can be a trackless jungle. This is a great trail map.
    Another excellent post.

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    1. Thanks so much, Tom! I'm glad you find my 12 steps to publishing helpful! :-)

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  12. Digital technology has changed publishing significantly, and one of the best things about digital printing is that the layout phase is much cleaner with fewer errors introduced. And the term proofreading is now used for any corrective reading after the book has been edited. I do several stages of proofreading myself, but I also pay for a proofreader to do the kind of check that Jodie's talking about. As the industry evolves, its terms will too.

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    1. Thanks for your opinion on the term "proofreading," LJ. It has the older meaning, of course, which still applies today in traditional publishing, but as I mentioned, many many authors today, whether published traditionally or not, use "proofreading" in the sense I use it above, and I'm sure will continue to do so - the language is in a constant state of flux, and I like to go with common usage in many cases - that way, more people know instantly what I'm talking about.

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  13. But how does this "new" definition of the term "proofreading" help those tens of thousands of authors and editors who still use the term in the "old" sense, like Louise Harnby, for example, who is a highly respected proofreader in the UK? And what about the rest of us who work with authors who don't use the “new” term and who thus may be even further confused by this new, looser definition of proofreading? What if all those people don't instantly know what you're talking about?

    Perhaps what's needed is a compromise. Perhaps it would be a good idea to invoke the old editing dictum, "Once you know the rules, you can break them -- with care and with judiciousness." If over half the publishing world still uses the "old" definition of the term (I'm just guessing; I'm sure it's much higher than half), and if you're going to give authors a new definition, then it behooves them to also learn about the old definition. The bottom line for me is that I'm all about educating authors. Once they know both definitions, they can make their own choice accordingly of which one suits them -- from a base of knowledge of the industry rather than ignorance of it. The problem I have is that most authors who use this new definition do it out of ignorance – they have no idea that it also has long meant something else in the publishing world.

    What do you think?

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  14. Re: Proofreading

    I have always been of the understanding that proofreading has at its root a culinary image. IE "Proof that dough" and "Put the bread dough into the proofing oven".

    A proofing oven being of course that warm moist place where raw yeast dough is placed to make it rise to double or triple its original size, and acquiring all the little air bubbles inside that will make it fluffy and chewy and yummy delicious. Those bubbles are formed when the temperature inside the dough develops the perfect atmosphere in which the yeast grow and eat and get so relaxed that they release gasses that make the dough stretch and grow. In other words those gasses are a sign that the yeast is so mellow, it’s begun letting loose little yeast farts that make the bread what it is. In that sense proofreading would be akin gaining an understanding of the air bubbles in the dough before the loaf is cooked and ensuring they match up with the style and type of bread desired.

    The other part of my understanding lies in the fact that proof of the very existence of life itself comes directly from food.

    Therefore when asked:
    "Basil, prove that you actually exist."

    I can confidently reply:
    "The proof is in the pudding".
    and mean it.

    Applying these deep phisolophical statements to the literary world one can string that conjecture along further by deducing the following.

    1. Write the book, do the above steps, then eat it to verify it is good. (this can also be taken figuratively if you've got a weak constitution and simply 'read' the book as a symbolic representation of eating. Also certain publishers paper used in their pages is very good with a bit of brie and a dash of tabasco.)

    2. Just as properly risen dough takes many hours and sometimes several risings to reach the just right stage of goodly-tasterificiousness, so too sometimes the text just has to sit and get all bubbly inside then be slapped back down and proofed again until the bubbles are just the right size and all the yeast creatures are farting themselves to perfection.

    3. Your story should be like your favourite pudding, tasty, smooth and good going down with a nice aftertaste that makes your burps seems like a second dessert.

    I like to think my stories are like chocolate/vanilla swirl with a bit of butterscotch around the edges…and maybe some pistachios, cuz…well you’ve got to have some nuts in there.

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    1. LOL. Basil, you're always hilarious! :-)

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  15. I've edited right on my Kindle using Notes and Underline (for delete). Usually I just type a snippet of actual text in my note. Then I sit with my Kindle next to my computer and search out the snippets in my document. The thing about doing the edits on the Kindle is that you can sit anywhere and do this. And you are reading the end product just like everybody else. I'm finding all sorts of stuff editing this way.

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    1. Thanks for the excellent tips, Jim! I must try that! :-)

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  16. It's hard to write a whole bunch of stuff using that klugie text thing they have, but you can add a word or two to trigger you on you editing pass.

    This was a great post, Jodie. Thanks.

    Apparently you have a quasi-stalker out there. Good grief. Want me to send out some of the boys from the woodshop to take care of things?

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    1. Thanks again for your tip and info, Jim. And I'm glad you found my steps helpful.

      And...LOL :-)

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  17. That's about it. Works for me... focus and persistence are always needed thought - but not always present on any given day.! Great explanation. Now I'd better go find that muse and get to the page.

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