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  • Writer's pictureDale M. Nelson

Bullfights & Daiquiris: Or, What it Takes to Write a Novel

Recently, a reader posted a review saying that they’d enjoyed a book of mine but was disappointed that they had to wait a year for the next installment. So, I thought it would be interesting to talk about what actually goes into writing a novel. There is a lot to unpack in that reader’s statement (such the impact of binge entertainment on art and the tradeoffs creatives make), but for today, I’ll just focus on the logistics of writing a book.

Hemingway said of writing, “it’s easy, you just sit at the typewriter and bleed.” That’s fine for him, after all he had time in his schedule for daiquiris and bullfighting. I’ll outline my process to give you a sense of what goes into it, as well as the interactions that I have with my publisher and how that differs from the works I publish independently.

Again, this is what I’ve found works for me and every successful author develops their own way of working. This may seem heavy, at first, but bear with me because there’s a logic to it and its born out of some lessons learned. I start with a synopsis. This is 1-3 pages, and the intent is to capture the core story, antagonist(s) the main character’s arc and the finale. My goal here is to see if I’ve got an end-to-end story. I figure, if I can’t write a page, I can’t write 400. I’ve also discovered that this helps me discover and get rid of bad ideas or things that just don’t work. The synopsis serves another purpose as well. Once the story is set, I’ll revise the synopsis and slim it down to about three paragraphs. The publisher, marketing team, cover designers and blurb writers all use it to get ready for publication. I found that since I had to write one anyway, might as well knock it out early on where it also serves my creative process.

Next, I expand the synopsis into a chapter-by-chapter outline. I don’t want to get into the plotter vs. pantser (or “discovery writer” for my UK friends) argument, because I think it’s stupid. Do what works for you. I learned the hard way that I save a lot of time with an outline. It helps me stay on track and helps me remember what I was thinking about a given scene. And, since there may be months between writing the outline and the actual book, it’s an essential tool to remember my ideas. I’d always done this, but once I started working with a publisher, they wanted to see the outline before I started writing. Additionally, if we’re working with a developmental editor, they’ll review and provide feedback (which saves considerable time and rewrites). We also align on the title and book cover at this stage, so that we can get the pre-orders setup online.

I write a three act structure, and that is the top level of my outline, which I then break into chapters. I’ll state where the chapter takes place and what are the major events, actions, or conflicts. If I’m writing a chapter with multiple POVs, I’ll state what character’s POV it is. If there’s a particularly impactful or important bit of dialogue, I may write that as well. The outline is a loose roadmap. It covers the main action, each of the subplots and the character arcs. This helps me keep everything organized. I will do most of my research at this stage, so that I don’t have to spend that time when I’m writing. This might mean reading books, articles or, increasingly, leveraging Chat GPT. There are 3-5 bullets per chapter, again, just covering the essential details and to serve as a memory jogger for when I’m writing.

I hear a lot of discovery writers, in their outline bashing, claim its “too restrictive”. Guess what, it’s your doc, use it or don’t. Abandon it halfway through and go off the rails. I do that all the time. Every book I’ve written has gone afield from the outline because there is no substitute in the world for spur of the moment creativity. Characters will change as you write them. They will react in ways you didn’t plan (if you’re not a writer, you’re probably calling “bullshit”, if you are a writer, you know exactly what I mean). The point is that the story is a living, dynamic thing and it evolves as you write it. Just because you have an outline doesn’t mean you’re a slave to it. An outline typically takes me 1-2 weeks to do. Though, the one for the fifth book in the Firewall Spies series, All Secrets Die, was really hard to nail down and I think that took about a month.

Now that the outline is done, it’s time to write. Most of my books land between 95k- 100k words. The math isn’t totally accurate, but that’s roughly 400 pages on a kindle. I average 3k words per day. I write in the morning, as soon as I’ve dropped the kids at school and work through to lunch. Usually, I take a break mid-morning to walk a bit, just so I’m not at my desk the entire day. This has done wonders for my productivity. I’m back at the desk and most days, I’ve hit my wordcount target by 2:00. Some days, I am just in an amazing creative flow and hit my wordcount by midmorning. On those halcyon days, I will keep going until the gas is empty, whenever that may be. There are times when I need to do research in the moment, on something that didn’t get fleshed out in the outlining process. For example, today I had to get under the hood of a quantum computer (virtually) to describe how they’re built. That takes me out of the flow, certainly, but the accuracy is essential, and readers expect (and deserve) it. It’s a worthy investment in time. Once I’m done writing for the day, I use whatever time I have left for the business management side of things. This might be responding to correspondence, reviewing contracts, blogging, newsletter content or in-depth research for future work.

When possible, I try to end my workday on something interesting. For me, that’s often a cool place to describe or engaging dialogue. This helps me get in gear the next day. I try not to leave off on action scenes, because those are choreographed and take longer to write than you might think. I don’t remember the specific writer I heard this from, but it was great advice. My first draft is usually done in six weeks. Assuming nothing goes wrong, which it does. I’ve only stuck the landing on a book once. Proper Villains turned out exactly the way I wanted. Probably, 90% of that book is original draft. It rarely works out that way. I threw out and rewrote most of the second act and all of the third act of The School of Turin. Its crushing to get to the end of a book and realize half of it had to go, but it was worth it. Turin is my best work. So, when I say it takes me six weeks to write a first draft, take that with a grain of salt.

When I finish a book, if the schedule allows, I’ll take a week or two to clear my head before editing. I want to come at it fresh. I don’t always get that time. The two immutable forces of nature are gravity and deadlines (an angry five year old is a close third). My editing process has evolved over the years, and I’ve gotten more efficient at it. I write and revise in an app called Scrivener and have an individual text file for each chapter. This helps in the editing process because when I do my first pass, I can mark the chapters that need work or need to be completely rewritten. When I’m editing, I’m first making sure the story works. Does every scene ultimately serve the ending? Are the characters believable? Are the stakes real and significant? Is the dialogue unique and authentic? On subsequent passes, I’ll focus on the subplots and technical details, things I can focus on once I know the overall story is solid. I try to have this done in three to four weeks. But, again, as deadlines are like actual physics, I don’t always have that luxury. I’ve recently started using Pro Writing Aid, which is an AI tool that checks spelling, grammar, sentence structure, word usage, repetition, and readability (among many other useful features). It’s a great resource, but time consuming. This easily adds two weeks to the timeline, but I think a good investment. It saves my copy editor time, which helps them focus on the most important things.

Now that I’m done (for now), I’ll fire it off to my publisher (or straight to the freelance editor if I’m publishing myself) and open a really good bottle of wine. I’ll take a few days off before starting on the next project, maximizing the slack time while I wait for edits to come back. This is usually another three to four weeks. Invariably, there is something that needs to get fixed or cut, but, since I’ve done the laid the foundations with solid prep work, I don’t normally have massive amounts of work in this stage. I’ll work through those and then it goes to a copy editor, who cleans the manuscript up end ensures it conforms to the current grammatical standards. I’ll review their changes and then we do a proofreading pass for to catch any last spelling errors.

Then, the book is done.

Except, it isn’t.

If we’re doing audio, we ship it to the narrator for recording. This is the longest pole in the tent because we’re working on the narrator’s schedule. To have an audio book on launch day, we typically backwards plan a year out. I don’t know the vagaries of audio formatting, but I’ve been told its basically black magic and takes some time. That, in and of itself, should answer the question on why it takes a year. Writing is my full time job. When I was still working in industry and writing on the side, my launch cadence was about every 9-12 months.

Hopefully, this sheds some light on what goes into putting a book into your hands. When I fired The Bad Shepherd off into the world, it was possible to write and publish a book in a few weeks to a month. The original indie business model was optimized for rapid release and meshed perfectly with our burgeoning binge entertainment culture. As well discuss in the next installment, I don’t think that’s a sustainable model anymore. I can write four or five books a year (possibly six, but that might require some tradeoffs I’m not willing to make). Try that Ernest.

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