How to write a novel on a shoestring: 10 steps to get from blank screen to publishable manuscript

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Van Gogh knew a thing or two about creating great art on a shoestring…

This is the part where I’m supposed to wow you with my qualifications as a fount of writerly wisdom. Unfortunately, I’m just a journeyman, not a genius. I spent 13 years as a reporter and sub-editor in local newspapers and the last 10 getting up the courage to write and publish fiction. What you are reading here is the sum of my knowledge after having just completed and published my second novel, Year of the Talking Dog. I’ve written this article as much for my own benefit as yours; to create a blueprint to consult before I start work on my next novel. It’s a far from perfect process. But if you let me show you what worked for me — and what didn’t — I’m sure there will be something here you can take to improve your own writing, wherever you are on the publishing journey. I’ve included numerous links to useful resources and examples of what I did in my own writing. Feel free to take what’s useful, adapt or ignore what isn’t…

1. Collect your thoughts (aka “research”)

I’d been jotting down the odd note on my phone or scribbled on the backs of envelopes over breakfast of what I wanted to do with the sequel to Half Life, my first mystery that featured half-Japanese/half-English teenage heroine Hana Walker. I knew most of the characters who would feature, but I had only a vague idea of a villain. A North Korean baddie, possibly? I knew the setting would be contemporary Tokyo. I wanted a conspiracy festering in the background and I had a few amusing lines and scenes in mind, but nothing much more concrete than that. I’d read a little about Unit 731, the Japanese military that experimented with chemical weapons on Chinese civilians in the 1930s and 40s and felt there was enough material there for a mystery/thriller if I could get all the elements into a narrative that made sense. And then I just dove in and started writing an ingenious virtual reality sci-fi world loosely based on North Korea. After getting 12,000 words into it, I realised I was woefully out of my depth and if left to my own devices, would write the worst-plotted, most unreadable novel in history. So it was cut and paste to the trash and back to the blank screen.

2. Write a bloody outline

I’ve never been averse to planning, it’s just that in fiction I didn’t really have a clue about how to get started. So I read Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and learnt a lot. Primarily about the macro stages of a novel: the three-act plot and doorways of no return between each act. That is, Act I where the hero tootles along but is faced with a problem that she can’t ignore. The moment she is pushed or jumps into the mystery, she can’t go back and that’s Act II. OK, and then it’s one obstacle after another she must overcome until there’s a moment of no return, a do or die moment. This is the doorway into Act III, the no-turning-back from the final confrontation. Easy right? Hmmm.

3. Write the bloody outline properly

So, I got the basics of a three-act story, what next? I started writing my first draft, but if I had been doing this properly, I should have written out beats along the lines of Libby Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants: Outline your books for faster, better writing but I didn’t read her excellent book until I’d already finished the first draft. My bad. But you can do it right: Basically, accept that good plots spring from character flaws. Huh? Think what’s up with my protagonist? What key internal contradiction does she have that propels her to do what she does? Get this right and the story almost takes care of itself. With this in mind, I looked at my protagonist afresh and saw immediately that her internal contradiction was her inability to accept her Japanese half and that her home was in Japan. Being bi-racial was her flaw (and her strength) but that was the rich seam of conflict to mine.

4. Write the last scene first

I wanted the climax to be, well, climactic. Why not write the ultimate kick-ass conclusion first? Then I’d have a goal to write toward when I start writing the first scene. And it’s a first draft: You can always change the last scene (and probably should). I had a sword fight with the governor of Tokyo on the observation deck of Tokyo Skytree. And yes, I completely changed the ending. Twice. Because it made no sense when I finally got there, but it served its purpose in the writing process by giving me a target to aim for, a climax worth reaching.

5. Write the beats before you write another word

If the three act structure is your route planner, the beats — the outlines of each scene — are the take-the-second-turning-on-the-right directions. But even on this micro level there is structure. Be like me and steal the structure from Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. He argued that compelling narratives follow a double-punch structure (what he called a “scene” followed by a “sequel”. In every scene there is a goal, conflict and disaster. In every sequel there is a reaction, dilemma and decision. Huh? Well, by way of example, the beats for my first scene in Year of the Talking Dog in a Tokyo police interrogation room are as follows: Goal  — Hana wants to get out of the police station to meet her fiancé; conflict — the cop wants to detain her; disaster—Hana learns her fiancé is dead. That’s scene 1 done. Which naturally leads into the sequel: reaction — Hana doesn’t believe the cop; dilemma  —  how can she go on with her life if this is true?; decision — she will investigate the death. You can see how I fleshed this skeleton out to make the first two chapters of Year of the Talking Dog here. Repeat the double-punch structure all the way until you meet the sword wielding governor of Tokyo waiting for you at the end of the novel. You could add more flesh to the bones of your structure before getting on with the writing proper, like settings and character appearances, what everyone is wearing and any choice bits of dialogue that you want your characters to spout, but I think it’s not essential. You can fill those details in as needed as you go and just keep a note of what you decided somewhere, but it is most important that you do go. Don’t allow tinkering with your plan to get in the way of the job at hand: writing.

6. Do a little arithmetic first

OK, just before you do your writing, do a little figuring. Thanks to having written a plan, I knew I had 20 scenes and 20 sequels I needed to write to tell the story. Since the average mystery novel is about 80,000 words, that means 2,000 words a scene or sequel. Thanks to my plan, I knew the bare minimum of what needed to happen in each scene and about how many words I had to play with. OK, now I it was time to write.

7. Write the first draft as quickly as you can

There is this belief that if something is difficult you should labour over it, spend time dissecting it and all that. Writing is difficult, so therefore it’s only reasonable to assume that good writing takes time. Well, yes and no. It doesn’t work like that for first drafts, for me at least. If I spend time agonising over each sentence, going back over a previous day’s work or re-checking my research, I just end up spinning my wheels. Instead, (like Hemingway?) I have given myself permission to write crap. I don’t go back over anything I’ve written until I get to the end of the first draft. I’ve taught myself to keep moving forward. I write in sprints, where I tell myself to do nothing but write. No research, no second-guessing my wording, just write. Hit an impasse? Type a note in the document in all caps to come back to it later. Then keep going and write the next scene. Spend 25 minutes writing feverishly, 5 minutes supping instant coffee and looking at kittens on Facebook. I repeat as many sprints as I can squeeze into whatever writing time I’ve carved out of my day, typically an hour and a half a day. I even go as far as to set a timer to make myself stick to the sprints. I keep track of my word count. If you are anything like me, you’ll see that because you have already outlined what you intend to write, you won’t waste time re-inventing the wheel when you are up against the stopwatch. Check the outline for a minute between kittens then get writing. I found with practice I could improve my word production from the low hundreds to close to 1,000 words a 25-minute sprint. Doing two or three sprints in a day, I was hitting 2,000 words a day. That’s a chapter done in an hour and a half. Give me 60 hours and I could give you a first draft. You might even begin to think writing is really little more than arithmetic after all. But…

8. Clean up your mess

… but, what I had written was mostly rubbish. Yay, I had a shade over 78,000 words and a completed first draft, but let’s face it, what I had was ugly. Some scenes just didn’t work out the way I’d hoped and my manuscript was riddled with typos, echoes (same words used just a few sentences apart, usually unintentionally) and sketched out scenes in note form that I’d got stuck on and zipped past in a caffeinated blur. It’s a truth not universally acknowledged, but the second draft is the biggest pain in the ass. But I learnt from Plot and Structure that I should approach the mess systematically. Fix the biggest cock-ups first. So, for me, the second draft meant going through everything quickly making sure the writing made some kind of sense and the story was flowing. I started at the beginning of the manuscript and read to the end, pretty much except when I couldn’t face a scene or it radically didn’t work, then I would write some beats for what needed to be changed and moved ahead. And made copious notes as I read of things to double check for, or change in earlier or later scenes. Then I went back and wrote out any scenes that were only in note form. By the end of the second draft I had a complete, fairly coherent if sloppy manuscript. Still riddled with typos, sure, but I could see what I had to work with.

I ended up with 72 notes of major problems that needed fixing. Going through those 72 notes and correcting any missing information or checking that my research was right constituted the bulk of third draft, my continuity draft. But again, I started with the biggest issues first. I cut six scenes and added another two. Then I combined two baddies into one character. That was some major reconstructive surgery. But the focus was on the story making sense and all the props being in the right places at the right time, the actions in the plot happening in the right order. Like realising that a character needed a knowledge of kendo, OK, so I needed to seed that with a hint in an earlier chapter. Nitty gritty, tedious stuff like that. But now I had a story that made sense, was reasonably paced and I hoped was believable. That was the third draft.

The fourth draft was my favourite. I knew there was a story, I knew it worked, it just needed polishing. If the other three drafts were mainly about cutting away excess fat (by the end of the third draft, my 78,000 words had been whittled down to 65,000), this fourth draft was about adding sugar and spice. I started at the beginning and cleaned up typos and poor wording as I went. Here I thought about the themes of the novel. Was my imagery right? I introduced more jokes about natto, the fermented soya bean Japanese “delicacy” that smells like teenage socks in summer. Hana’s relationship with the food (she starts out hating it) to the final scenes where she admits a liking for it, mirrored the central arc of her story — from denying her Japanese side to accepting her place in Japan. Then when I got to the end, I went back to the first scene and really polished that once more, concentrating on getting the mood right by focussing on the words I was using. I made sure the novel was consistently in first person, present tense, as is the fashion for young adult novels. After reading every sentence I thought: is this the vocabulary that Hana would use to explain her world?

9. Get some eyeballs on your work

There is only so much you can do yourself. At some point, somebody else needs to look at your writing. There are two reasons for this: 1. You simply cannot know that you have adequately conveyed what was in your head into the readers’ unless you ask some. 2. You can’t see, literally, half the typos and grammar slips you have made unless you ask someone to point them out to you. If you have lots of money to spend then here is where you’d send your manuscript off to a developmental editor who would rip it apart and tell you how to fix it, and a copy editor who would fix your words after you’d fixed the story. But if, like me, you don’t have the means for such ends, may I introduce you to beta readers.

I rounded up 10 friends and twitter pals (fellow Japan hands, ex-newspaper pals and folk who had read and enjoyed my first novel) who said they were happy to read through my manuscript and give me comments. I told them to ignore typos and just focus on whether the story made sense, if they skipped any bits, or didn’t like characters, and what they thought of the ending. I told them I wanted to know the bits that didn’t work, I wasn’t interested in getting any praise. And seven of them were as good as their word, giving me pretty detailed thoughts on what they didn’t like. By the way, I didn’t pay for a copy editor to fix my typos because I knew many scenes would need re-writing after feedback from the beta readers, but on reflection I think it would have been a nice courtesy to give my poor unpaid readers a clean manuscript to read. Next time.

After two weeks, I’d received all the comments I was going to get from the beta readers by email. I spent an hour or so cutting and pasting all the comments onto one file and arranging them into three piles: cuts to make to the manuscript, additions to make, and a third pile of minor errors and niggles that needed sorting. As a rule of thumb, if a reader didn’t like something or was confused (when I didn’t want them to be) I would make changes if at all possible. If two or more readers made the same complaint or were uncomfortable about the same issue, it absolutely was a problem that had to be fixed, no matter what a hassle it was to sort out.

Thanks to my readers, I was able to identify six major cuts to make and seven major additions. I went through the cuts first, deleting a few scenes that dragged, weeding out a confusing sub-plot about prime numbers and tattoos that was really unnecessary to tell Hana’s story, then added scenes or details to flesh out and make more real what readers had identified as unbelievable or out of character. Two readers had thought that Hana had recovered from her fiancé’s death rather abruptly, so I wrote a funeral scene where she could grieve more thoroughly. And I rewrote the ending again. The previous ending had been ambiguous, nuanced but a little sad. The new ending still retained a little ambiguity but was more clearly positive.

You could call that the fifth draft. The sixth was a last read-through of the whole novel from beginning to end, aloud. Stopping only to correct clunky sentences that tripped the tongue. And to drink coffee.

10. Now pay to get it proofed

At this point, I might have thought I had the finished product, ready to upload to Amazon. But it wasn’t ready. It needed a thorough copy editing. This is the only part of the process that I actually spent some money on. Get a good, hopefully pedantic copy editor to notice any mistakes that have slipped past or been added in all the rounds of edits. I got my editor to use track changes so I could see what she had changed and figure out why, so the next time I write a novel my manuscript will be a little cleaner. That’s the plan anyway.

Congratulations! But that’s not quite it…

I now had a completed, clean manuscript. If I’d wanted to go the traditional route, I would have sent the manuscript off to an agent or publisher, but I chose to self-publish it as an ebook and paperback. This meant a little more work formatting the manuscript once for ebooks and again for a print-on-demand paperback (both were a matter of trial and error pressing buttons in Scrivener)… and a lot more work making the cover. I followed the advice in Derek Murphy’s excellent I also spent some time working on the blurb for Amazon (there’s a useful chapter on writing a blurb in Plot and Structure). But the end result? My second Hana Walker mystery, Year of The Talking Dog was complete and available to readers.

Looking back at these 10 points, I think now I might be able to streamline the editing process to cut out a couple of drafts, and now I’m growing in confidence, I expect the next manuscript to be cleaner and require less invasive editing. We’ll see, but the important thing is there will be a next manuscript because I’m getting a clearer idea of a blueprint that works for me. And it just might work for you too. Good luck.

* * *

Patrick Sherriff, an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, with his wife, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.

This article was originally published on Medium in the Writers’ Cooperative group on July 4th, 2016


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