Novel Building: The Journey from Seedling to Bookshelf

The most frequent questions I’m asked at book signing and other public events are about writing and publishing a book. How long does it take to write a novel? Where do you start? And what happens after you’re done? In this blog I’ll cover some of the different aspects of the process from my perspective. I’ll start at the beginning: the story seed.

How does the idea for a book begin? It could be anything, an interesting situation from real life, a scene from a movie that gets you thinking, a smell that reminds you of summers in Nantucket, or maybe you read a book and thought to yourself, “I could do something like this.” Once you have an idea for a story, the creation process begins. I’m not going to get into the specifics of how to write fiction or all the things people say you should do before you start your first novel. If you want lessons to hone your craft, there are roughly fourteen bajillion books about writing on the market. Some are helpful, others not so much. At the risk of sounding like a kiss-ass, I’ll plug Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s not the most comprehensive writing guide, but it gives you a lot of good advice in an easy-to-understand format.

So how does that initial spark transform into a living, breathing novel? For me, the first thing I do is make sure I’ve got a viable story idea. You can write about almost any situation that humans (or nonhumans) find themselves in, but to hold a reader’s interest for three or four hundred pages is a tall order. Not every story idea can stand up to that. So I daydream. Yep. I sit at my desk and daydream about the idea. I wonder where would be the ideal setting for this story. What kinds of characters would play the lead roles? Most importantly, where’s my conflict? Is it a story about love, honor, war, spell bees, horse whispering? As the idea grows, I write (type) everything down. Much of this will get tossed out at some point, but it’s important to get it all down now before the magic of the idea wanes. What’s that? You didn’t know that ideas can fade? Oh, yes. Even the most gripping story ideas can lose their luster if they aren’t continually nurtured and fed.

The next step for me is structuring the story. Some writers just dive in, but I use outlines for novel-length works. (You should use whatever system works best for you.) The outlining can take anywhere from one to three months, which sounds like a lot, but it cuts down my revision process by roughly the same amount of time. When I’m finished I have a scene-by-scene blueprint of the story. I know what every character is doing, and why, the conflicts they encounter and the results. With this document finished, I begin the actual writing.

Writing a 100k-word novel will take me about four to five months, depending on life’s distractions. But remember I also had to create the outline, so total creation time for the first draft can fall between five to eight months. This is my favorite part of the process, and I don’t think I’m alone. There is something special about creating a unique piece of fiction from out of nothing. Some days are tougher than others. Sometimes the prose doesn’t flow as smoothly as you might like, but that’s when you have to dig in and tell yourself, “I’m a professional. This is my job, so get to it.”

After the fun of writing, the hard work begins. I have a first draft, all sparkly and new (or dull and dreadful, depending on my mood), and the next phase is revising it into something readable. I start by letting the manuscript sit. It’s like letting a wine breathe. I have to get away from the project for a little while to gain some much-needed perspective. So I take a break from writing, or I work on something else like a short story. I try to take my mind off the novel for at least a week, two if I can hold out, but it’s tough because I really, really want to dive back in and start making fixes.

After the break, I go back and read the first draft. I try to do it in as few sittings as possible. One sitting would be ideal, but I usually can’t read an entire book in one go. While I read I try not to make any changes (but, being a perfectionist, I can’t help myself sometimes). I do take notes, however. What I’m looking for in this first read is coherence and pacing. Does the story move well throughout? Are there major plot holes I didn’t see before? Are the characters and situations convincing? All that goes into the notes.

After the first reread (there will be more), I devise a plan of action. I typically start with plotting—patching the holes and smoothing out the rough edges. Sometimes I have to delete entire scenes, or write new scenes from scratch, or maybe mess with the order of events until it makes more sense. Next I move on to the characters. How can I make them seem more “real?” Do their relationships feel authentic? Am using the most effective point of view in each scene? Would that execution scene read better if it was seen from the perspective of a scullery maid from the window, or the executioner, or the victim…? And this is also where I address worldbuilding, because the setting is a lot like a character, too. It has to evoke the right atmosphere in every scene. After I’ve cut and pasted and rebuilt the manuscript again and again until it feels right, the last phase of revision is the polish. Fixing the language, making it tight but expressive, seeking out tired clichés and overused words. Now I have a second draft. Yay.

Once I’m done, I give the manuscript to my beta readers to pick apart. For my first novel, I had two readers helping me out. I added a third for the sequel. More people offer more perspectives, obviously, but too many opinions can spoil the soup. For me, it’s most important to have readers that I respect and trust, and who will tell me the brutal truth without stomping on my guts. This is also the point at which I’ll send the manuscript to my agent. Some agents aren’t willing to edit their clients’ work, but mine does, for which I’m exceedingly glad because he’s got a great eye for the kinds of problems that can trip up a novel.

After I’ve collected all the feedback from my readers and agent, I pore over them and make the changes that I think the manuscript needs. The deciding is important. I don’t make every change suggested. At this point, I’m still in charge of the manuscript. First and foremost, it needs to please me. The entire editing phase takes about two to three months. After this latest revision, I read over the entire manuscript again, looking mainly for consistency issues and flow. When I’m satisfied, I send it off to my publisher, and the waiting begins.

I’m fortunate that my editor, Lou Anders (Pyr Books), doesn’t make me wait for very long. Usually within a few weeks, he’s gotten back to me with his thoughts on the book. So far (*knock on wood*) in the two manuscripts submitted, the changes requested were few and relatively minor. But it’s possible that the editor will have larger issues. You’re allowed to argue against changes you feel strongly about, but I would only suggest going that route if you feel a change will severely alter the heart of your book. We’ve all heard stories of authors who refused to allow editors to touch their precious manuscripts, and maybe you’ll agree that those are the books that really, really needed more editing. It’s not a contest of wills. The editor wants the same thing you want, to create the best book possible. Being too thin-skinned to take criticism is a good way to stall your career. Just my two cents.

Anyways, so after I’ve made the editor’s changes and sent the manuscript back, I’m waiting for the next phase of the process. Copyediting is a specialized type of editing. A copy editor’s job is to ensure a manuscript is as consistent, accurate, and error-free as possible. About three to four months after I’ve submitted the manuscript to the publisher, I’ll receive the copy editor’s version with more suggested changes. Most of these are grammatical (to which I always bow to the c.e.’s expertise with rare exceptions related to style), but some are substantive. For example, with my first book the copyeditor, the completely awesome (and Hugo-nominated) Deanna Hoak, noticed I had mixed up the phases of the moon over the course of several chapters. Now that’s a detail that 99% of readers wouldn’t have noticed, but she did. She also notices when a character’s eyes change from green in chapter six to blue in chapter twenty-five.

So, I make the copy editor’s changes and send it back to the publisher again. (Seeing a pattern?) But what am I doing between all this back and forth? Working on the next book, of course. Every writer’s situation is different, but in my contract I have a twelve-month window between novels. And if you add up the time for outlining, writing, and revising, I’m brushing up against that timeframe. I give myself a couple weeks away from writing between large projects, but then I’m back at it again. And I think that’s healthy. Writing is like any other form of intense activity; if you stop doing it for long enough, the muscles will atrophy.

Now, after sending back the copy edits, the book is largely out of my hands. By this time I’ve already been shown the cover art (no, I don’t get much real say over the final product, but the publisher at least asks me if I like it). Maybe a month or two after the copyediting phase, I’ll be sent the galleys, which are the pages of the book laid out the way they will appear in print, with the proper font, spacing, margins, etc… I read the galleys from front to back, looking for typos and mistakes in the formatting. This will likely be the last time I see the book before it’s sent to the printers. I mark any changes that need to be made and send it back.

In the coming months, Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) will be sent out to bloggers and reviewers, blurbs will be collected from other authors who have agreed to read the book and provide a comment, and the final package will be put together. A few weeks before the releases I’ll receive a special box. Inside are my author copies of the book. There are few things in this world sweeter than holding your printed and bound baby in your hands for the first time. The smell of the paper, the gloss of the cover. Of course, I have to read it again.

After that is the fun part. Setting up book signings (I keep it local because I’m just a little fish in a very big pond), doing interviews, and—of course—going to the bookstore to see your book on the shelf. And that’s when it hits you. You’re a published author. You don’t remember all the delays and headaches, all the nights worrying about whether the second act is strong enough. It’s all worth it and everything is right with the world.

Until you get home and look at the half-finished manuscript for the next book on your computer screen.

Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow’s Son (Pyr Books) and the soon-to-be-released sequel, Shadow’s Lure (June 2011). You can learn more about him and his work at


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