There are 10 stages I recommend writers go through in producing a quality work of fiction. The stages have evolved over the years as my experience with writing grows and I’ve seen more of what works and what doesn’t. The only published work of fiction I have to my name is The Secret of the Lantern. These are the stages I went through to get it to a finished product, one that I am proud to be able to present to others.
The first few books I wrote involved no more planning than to decide what I was going to write. I didn’t sketch out characters, I didn’t choose a message, I just let it flow until it didn’t anymore. As a result, I have a lot of abandoned manuscripts littering my hard drive. Usually right around chapter 5 when inspiration left me and I didn’t know where else to take the story.
Participating in NaNoWriMo taught me a few strategies to use so that I was able to overcome the abandoned manuscript phenomenon, things like introducing a new character or a new conflict in order to get past my writer’s block. However, what that strategy left me with at the end of the book was a tangled mess of a book that was going to take a lot more work to straighten out than I’d put in to create it in the first place. So I didn’t. I shoved the books I wrote in the corner and let them collect dust because just the thought of trying to put the disjointed mess in order wore me out.
This is the benefit of taking a few day’s time to plan before you begin writing. Since you know what message you want to send, it makes it easier to spot the passages where you are not delivering on that message. I was able to make a first revision of my last book in a few day’s time rather than taking months to work it out. I need to go back and revise again, but I’m much more confident about the quality of that book than I am about the quality of any other fiction book I’ve written before it.
You may hate planning. You may think planning slows you down. In reality, taking time to plan before you start executing will allow you to think through the process you need to take to deliver a powerful piece that helps a reader follow you from beginning to end, consistently reinforcing the message at every turn so it ends up burned into the reader’s brain without you having to directly tell them what you want them to take away with them.
Before you invest hours and hours of writing work, it’s good to stop and test your concept out on the people you know. If you’ve done your planning, this stage is simple. You describe to them what the book is about and maybe give them a small taste of it.
When I began writing The Secret of the Lantern, it was three sheets of paper long. It was a basic idea, and I presented it to my 5th grade class to see how they reacted to it. They loved it so much and wanted to know how things turned out. I knew the concept was solid.
Testing ahead of time using the base plan meant that I was able to carry their enthusiasm with me into the next phase of the project. I was confident the idea was good and that it was going to benefit the audience I’d chosen to serve.
After the planning comes the actual writing. You labor a little at a time, weaving characters, settings, and conflicts into the heart of your story until at last you have a tapestry. It’s rough. It needs work. But it’s a visible, tangible thing.
After all the work you’ve done to get to this point, you’re going to feel one of two ways: ready to share it with the whole world or hating it so much you’d like to light it on fire and never admit to having created it at all. Don’t give in to either temptation.
The most important thing to keep in mind about a rough draft is that it is never the end to a conversation. It is the beginning of a conversation with you and the reader. It is your first attempt to express an idea that will capture their attention. If you share this rough draft with anyone, make sure it is with a group of fellow writers who are interested in helping you make your work the best it can be.
With the rough draft finished, you pick a handful of people you know would not ordinarily read material like you’ve created and you give it to them. You ask for them to pick it apart. Dismantle it. Tell you where the flaws are in your writing. Tell you where they lose interest in the story and find it hard to keep reading.
You want to know everything that doesn’t work in your writing so that when you go to the next stage of revision, you’re prepared.
You want to be able to enchant all audiences, so you start with the one you’re going to have a hardest time appealing to and you get their input. For The Secret of the Lantern, I chose a crew that was primarily non-Catholic. I wanted to know from them where they found it hard to follow along and what they did or didn’t understand.
I knew if they didn’t understand it, or if they found it hard to follow along, chances were good the kids I didn’t know would, too. That targeted testing round was tough, but it made my book ultimately a better product.
During your first round revision stage, your goal is simple: Find the message you want to send and then analyze every character, every event, every conflict, and every resolution to be sure that it sends the right message. I said simple. I said nothing about easy.
Every bit of planning that you did not do during your rough draft stage needs to be done here. Write out your message, plan your main story arc, sketch out the characters, and create that story outline to work from based on those. Build a timeline of events. Create your question list and keep it handy. If this world does not take place on Earth with all of its usual rules of physics, take the time to define the rules of the world in which this story exists. Keep those rules in front of you.
You will want to look for areas where you do too much telling and not enough showing. Keep an eye out for timeline errors and other mistakes that will make the reader question the narrative. Look for places where the behavior or voice of any character is inconsistent. At all times ask yourself: Is this consistent with the rules I created for the world?
You will be rewriting large chunks of the story. You will expand some areas and you will eliminate others. Expect to give this stage of the revision at least as much time as you put into the initial rough draft. You don’t want to short change this process. You’ll only end up with a weaker product at the end if you do.
Now that you’ve revised your work, it’s time to send it out into the world for a more thorough testing. Put it into the hands of as many volunteers as possible. Get feedback from them on what they think the message of the story is, what characters they were drawn to and why, what characters they didn’t like and why, what they liked best, and what parts they didn’t like as much. Are there areas where things didn’t make sense?
Take that feedback and compile it. Then, look objectively at your story. If they didn’t get the message you wanted, what can you do to improve it so that they will? If they hated a character you thought they would love, what can you do to make that character more lovable? Pick everything apart. Nothing is sacred.
As much as all this criticism may hurt, be grateful for it. Your readers will very rarely be this forthcoming. You are receiving opportunities to get insight into the minds of people who read it and trust me when I tell you that whatever stumbling block your beta readers had, your audience will, too.
This next revision stage may take as long as the first one, even though it is laser-guided and highly focused. The reason for that is when you are writing fiction, changing one small detail changes the entire picture.
Imagine you’re a time traveler. You change one person’s choice at one moment in time. You hope back into your own time only to discover that everything is different. That’s how monumentally changing one single element can change nearly everything that takes place after it.
This second round of revision, as frustrating as it can be, is an opportunity to further refine the message and sift through the delivery mechanism to be sure that what you are delivering is robust. It should speak clearly, coherently, and eloquently without needing to beat your reader over the head to deliver the message you want them to receive.
Take your book out to the authorities. Let them look it over and give you their feedback. Get professional opinions on the viability of your narrative and what you could or should do to provide a greater impact on your audience. These are the people with a working knowledge of the subject matter and can give you direct insight about the presentation to be sure it meets the demands of your audience.
Since I was writing The Secret of the Lantern for a Catholic audience, I took The Secret of the Lantern first to a priest who worked for the Diocese and to other people who understood the theology of the Rosary to be sure that my book was an authentic representation of Catholic teaching. I got their insights on what needed to be expanded or changed in order to give a more favorable experience for the reader.
Take their advice to heart. Consider how you can incorporate it into your work. If they advise a change, do your best to make it. Remember that their advice is there to help make your work better.
You are nearly at the end and by now it can start to feel that you will never get this work done, but don’t give in to the discouragement. Take time to think about why you wrote this book, about what you think this book is going to do for the people who need its message, and to visualize a thank-you letter or a note from a fan for the way your book helped to change their life.
Turn the book over to someone else. Let them edit it for you. Trade services if you can’t afford to pay them, but do not allow yourself to be the only editor of your work. You’ll miss mistakes because your eyes will see what they expect to see rather than what is there. Fix the errors that the editor finds. Then relax, knowing that you have done everything in your power to make the book the absolute best that it can be.