Do you remember those old commercials about “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s?” I was going to say that the same can be applied to writing: There’s no wrong way to write a novel. Except that there probably are wrong ways of going about the process, if the novel never actually gets written. I suppose it’s more accurate to say there’s no right way to write a novel– or rather, there’s no single right way.
I can’t tell you how to write a novel. I doubt anyone can. That’s not to trivialize the potential of books or blog posts about the writing process (obviously, since I’m writing one of them!) to help you. Books and articles can offer you incredible insights and advice on how to craft your story and make it the best that it can be. But at the end of the day, really all any writer can tell you is how they write a novel, not necessarily what might work for you. I’d even take it further and say that all I really know about writing is how I’m writing this novel, whichever one I happen to be working on right now. Because although my writing process does have some general more-or-less constants, 20 books into my writing career, it’s also true to say that each one of my books has been a different journey, requiring a different playbook and set of rules.
I remember back when I was first starting out writing, I was given the advice (by a successfully published author, too) to just write the first draft from beginning to end, without pausing, without turning back to edit. I tried. I couldn’t do it. That strategy just did not work for me at all. Not turning back to correct mistakes that I knew I had made in the early parts of the book just made me unable to move forward and write what came next. So I edited as I went along. All three books of my first published trilogy were written that way. I’m a plotter (generally), so my process effectively went: plan, write a few chapters, edit, tweak the plan if necessary, then back to writing for a few more chapters and so on. It worked for me. The books got written and I loved writing them.
Fast forward, though, to the book I’m writing now. I was just e-mailing my writing partner marveling that I’m about to write the final chapter without having turned back to edit at all, a first for me. Now, that is not because I have learned so much over the course of writing all my previous novels that I was able to miraculously get everything about this one right on the first try. Um, no. I have an entire list of changes that will need to be made when I do go back to edit: character arcs that need to be strengthened, plot holes to be filled, scenes to be tweaked . . . This novel will take just as much editing as any of my others to get it into publishable form, it’s just that for this particular story, pressing on with the writing felt more right to me than turning back. For this particular story, what felt the most right was to keep a running list of necessary edits as they occurred to me (I work in Scrivener, so I can attach my notes about the needed edits directly to each relevant chapter/scene) but not to disrupt the momentum of writing by actually making those changes happen. It’s worked. The book is written (99 percent of it, anyway) and I’ve loved writing it.
My point is really twofold: first, by all means seek out good writing advice from others– but at the same time, recognize that what works for another writer may be all wrong for you. Don’t be afraid to jettison a particular strategy– even if a best-selling author swears by it–if it’s just not working for you or for the story you’re trying to tell. Which brings me to point number two: every story is different. You may have honed a writing process over the course of a book or many books that you feel best suits your creative needs. But don’t be afraid to keep an open mind and try an alternate strategy if you feel like it might help with your current story. If plotting is suddenly sucking the joy and spontaneity right out of your writing sessions, try pantsing it for a chapter or two and see how it feels. If pantsing is making you feel like you’re wandering in the woods without a compass, try making a detailed outline of your next scene. Above all, keep writing. As long as the novels are being written, there’s no wrong way.
What about you? Do you edit as you go or wait until your first draft is finished? Have you ever tried something new to better tell a particular story?