Welcome to my frequently asked questions on writing and self-publishing page. On this page, I will answer the top ten questions asked by my Blog Readers, Youtube Subscribers, Podcast Listeners, and through my Ask A Question form on my website.
As I prepared the notes for this page, I decided not to include the names of the people asking the questions. And, in many cases, I’ve also reworded the question asked because it contained details about the person’s story idea or current work in progress. In some instances, I decided not to reword the question because it needs a little bit of background information in order to provide an answer that makes sense. In a nutshell, I’m trying to respect the privacy of the people coming to me for advice. This decision comes from my background as a life and business coach, and the coach and client agreement of confidentiality.
However, in saying that, on my Ask A Question Form, I do point out that I will share the answer both with them through email and in a public forum like my blog, youtube channel, or podcast. I think the anonymity I provide gives people the freedom to ask those questions that can often feel too silly to ask. You know that question that you think has a simple answer, but it’s not clear to you. Anyway, I hope all of that makes sense for you.
I’m not one hundred percent sure if I will answer questions regularly on the podcast or over on my Patreon page once I finish setting it up. But, I’ll keep you posted once, I make up my mind.
So, let’s get into the questions.
Frequently Asked Questions on Outlining or Plotting
Do you have a framework and things to think about when making an outline?
I Use a Spreadsheet
Frequently Asked Questions on Writing
How long should a chapter be?
There isn’t a set number of words per chapter. Essentially, a chapter needs to be as long as it needs to be. But, in saying that. It’s important to note that you should write a story in scenes, not chapters.
A scene is a unit of a story that takes place, location, time, and follows one point of view. If any of these elements changes, you have a new scene. Whereas, a chapter is a tool used to group scenes together in a logical flow. You can have one or many scenes within a chapter. A single line break reveals a new scene within a chapter.
Writing in scenes instead of chapters will help you understand the units of a story, and it makes revision a little easier. Dividing your novel into chapters should be the last thing you do after you revise your story and submit it to an editor. So, in regards to the how many words question, you need to as many words that will serve the story. Having chapters and scenes of varying length is okay. Just, know that there’s no magic number of words. All that matters is the story.
How long does it take to write a novel?
The answer to this question depends on, how you define the word ‘write’. I interpret the word write as the entire publishing process from start to finish. However, most people are asking about the first draft phase.
If I’m going to be perfectly honest, it’s going to take longer than you expect. There’s a tonne of advice in the self-publishing world about writing a novel in a certain amount of days. However, if this is your first novel, I recommend a twelve to an eighteen-month time frame. If you’ve been writing your story for a more extended period than this, that’s fine as well. It’s essential that you write and revise at a pace that works for you. However, if you want to stick to a twelve to an eighteen-month time frame, then I recommend you follow this timeline (in months).
- One: develop your story idea and start outlining.
- Two to Three: write your first draft.
- Four: Give your manuscript a rest.
- Five to Seven: Revise and rewrite your novel.
- Eight and onwards: Hire professional editors for developmental editing, copy editing, and a final proofread. And, do rewrites based on this feedback.
Because this is your first novel, you don’t have an audience waiting or are pre-selling your book, so you have flexibility. The real secret to getting your novel onto the various online retailers is consistency: work on your novel every day, or most days of the week. Whatever writing time you have, be consistent about it. I’ve made this mistake with consistency enough times to realise its value.
How do you know if you've done enough research to start writing?
When you first start researching elements of your story idea, I recommend researching in stages. Create the premise, a synopsis, and a list of the major scenes in the story. After this, start reaching your story idea, then create a scene by scene outline of the story. Before you dive into writing the first draft, hold off for a moment and revise your outline. You may find at the outline stage that you need to go back an clarify a few things. So, do a bit more research here as well. It’s at this point you should start writing your first draft. The key to knowing when you’ve done enough research is doing enough to get started. So, ask yourself the following question.
Can I write a good foundation for a story with the knowledge I have right now?
Your first draft is a skeleton or the backbone of your story. You don’t need to know everything. So, research in stages. As you write things will come up. I place an X or a keyword and highlight it and continue writing. At some point, you may need to stop and research while writing the first draft. Do this, but don’t go back and edit. Continue writing with this new piece of knowledge and act as if the rest of the novel has been changed. After the first draft has been written, go back and make changes to your first draft.
As you read through your first draft and start revising your manuscript, you’ll probably do more research at this stage. That’s okay too. Sometimes more research is necessary to create a stronger story.
How do you flesh out a vague story idea?
When I first got my idea for my novella, Missing the initial idea was the backbone of the very first scene in the story. As I started to research the world of archaeology, I expanded on the initial idea with the information I had acquired. This expanded idea lead me to write a synopsis and a list of the most crucial scenes. After that, I turned to news from the archaeological world which resulted in a fleshed out story idea with a scene by scene outline.
The interesting thing about story ideas is an idea will tend to lead to another idea. So, don’t expect to have a fully developed idea straight away. You don’t develop a story idea after one writing session. The easiest way to flesh out a story idea is to start researching. It’s in the researching phase that your idea will grow into a more elaborate idea. Think of fleshing out vague story ideas as watering a plant. In order to see new green shoots, you need to water the plant over time. Write down the ideas that come to you, and over time, your story idea will flesh out into something bigger.
If I was telling a story over three novellas, does each book need an inciting incident?
There are two ways you can write a trilogy or series. The first is a series of Stand Alone’s similar to Harry Potter or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Series. The Second is a series of books where each part is a crucial piece of the story, similar to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or The Hunger Games Trilogy. To answer your question, yes, each part of the trilogy needs a beginning, middle, and an end. But, the overall story can be resolved at the end of the series of books.
How do you show the passing of time in fiction?
Great Question! There are a few ways you can show the passing of time within fiction. In thriller novels, where you see the ticking clock plot devise, chapters often start with titles that are a location or date and sometimes both.
But, the most obvious choice is the start of a new scene. Remember, a scene is a unit of Story that takes place in a specific location and time. Therefore, if one of these changes then you have a new scene. In the context of a scene, I’m referring to a passing of time that isn’t necessary to document for the story, because not all events will happen one after the other.
Another way you can show the passage of time is by starting a new chapter that focuses on a new event or story moment.
But, sometimes these ways of showing the passing of time is not enough. In this case, you can explicitly point out how much time has passed since the previous scene or chapter. Quite often I’ve seen sentences of new chapters or scenes with a reference like, twenty years later or thirty minutes later.
I’m a chronic procrastinator. I have a great story idea which I’m excited about and I’m 23,556 words into my first draft but I keep putting it off because it’s getting difficult. I’ve noticed that other people are more motivated than me. I can’t figure out how they do it. Do you have any advice?
Everyone struggles with procrastination. I too have heard other professional writers talk about how they wake up excited to write, and I’m calling BS on that. I’ve even had this conversation with my husband who is a former assistant professor turned software engineer. And, even he agrees that this notion of always feeling motivated is unrealistic. He’s written a PhD Thesis and understands what it’s like to write something of novel length and agrees that writing gets difficult and you don’t always feel like writing.
Perhaps, the truth is, that these people who claim to always feel motivated, don’t always feel like writing, but despite this feeling they love writing and have developed the habit of putting their butt in the chair and write regardless of how they feel. And, that is the key; developing the habit and doing the work anyway. Just for the sake of transparency, I’m not at this place either.
Why Are You Procrastinating?
But, for you, I recommend figuring out why you’re putting off writing the rest of your first draft. Based on the information you’ve provided me with I don’t know whether you’ve plotted or are writing without an outline. In light of this, I’m going to give you advice for either circumstance.
Tips for Pantsers
Are you pantsing your story? If so, try plotting out a few significant story moments just so you know where you’re going. This tip will help if you’re not sure where your story needs to go next. After this, you’ll find it a little easier to write the next few chapters or scenes because you now have a direction to go in but the freedom to choose whatever path you fancy. Or, read through your story so far.
Just a word of warning, read the story as a reader and not an editor. Then, allow yourself to daydream and simply ask yourself “What Next?” Run the next few story ideas through you’re mind, like you’re watching a movie.
Tips for Those of You Who Love Outlining
Did you outline your novel? If so, figure out why you don’t want to write the next scene. Are you bored with your story? In the case of boredom, get clear on what needs to happen in the scene. Once you’ve got clarity, start brainstorming other ways you can achieve the same scene goal but in a way that gets you excited to write the scene. The reason why I suggest this is, if you’re bored with a scene before you start writing, then there is a good chance that the reader may be bored reading the final product.
Or, move on to another scene in your story that you’re excited to write and come back to the scene you were stuck on at a later date. And go through the above steps once you’ve got a bit of distance between you and that scene. There is no rule saying that have to write in order, and a reader can’t tell that you wrote a story chronologically.
Create a Writing Habit
Now, that you’ve resolved your issue with your scene, it’s time to focus on creating a habit around writing. I’m not saying you have to write every day. Sometimes this advice is unrealistic, but the point of this advice is to write frequently. Take a look at your schedule.
What time do you have available to write?
Or, what are you prepared to give up in order to have the time to write?
For example, only watch Netflix two nights a week instead of every night. Block out whatever time you have decided to use a writing time in a calendar and tell your spouse, roommate, mother, or a close friend you regularly see that you’re writing during this time. And, treat this time as if you have someone waiting for you to show up. This is what helped me get my butt in the chair and write. No amount of calendar blocking helped but treating it like a coaching session with a client helped me show up and get the writing done.
Set the Right Type of Goal
If you’re a goal-orientated person, you might want to consider setting a weekly writing goal instead of a per-session word count goal. This will take the pressure off. There’s nothing worse than sitting at your computer knowing you need to write one thousand words today and you’re stuck on a scene.
Frequently Asked Questions on Revision and Self-Editing
What should you do when a scene in your novel is too similar to a scene in a tv show, movie, or another book?
If you’ve found a scene like this in your work, ask yourself these two questions as you read it over.
- Is the scene important to the overall story?
- Does the story make sense without it?
If yes, move the scene to a deleted scenes folder.
If the scene is important to your story, you need to ask a few more questions. Sometimes scenes are essential because they foreshadow moments at the end of your story or advance the plot.
- What needs to happen in this scene?
- Why does your character need to be at this particular location?
- What are the motivations of the characters in this scene?
- How can you do things differently?
The next step is to brainstorm ideas for the scene. Don’t choose the first option that comes to mind. I recommend choosing the third option. The most important thing you can do in a situation like this is to strip the scene back to it’s most important elements. Think of new and interesting ways to execute the story goal the scene needs to achieve.
What should you do when your story isn't working?
Step 1: Get Some Distance From Your Manuscript
Step 2: Embrace Story Structure
Step 3: Create a Plan of Attack
Should I revise or edit as I write my first draft? What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve done this, and the short answer is don’t do this. The best advice I can give to you is to fast draft your story and not go through it and make edits as you go alone.
When you write the first draft, you’re using the more creative part of your brain. However, when you’re editing and revising a story, you’re engaging the more analytical and crucial parts of your brain. As you write your first draft, you need to give yourself the freedom to simply write and create the story. And then, give yourself a break, then go back and read through your story as a whole and start the revision process.
Your first draft is not going to be perfect, and that’s okay. The purpose of the first draft is to get the story out of your head and onto the page, so you have something to edit and perfect. Nevertheless, as you write more books, you will start writing cleaner and stronger first drafts.
So, write first and edit second.
I’m about to start revising or editing my first draft but I don’t know where to start. Do you have any tips?
Take a one month break between finish the first draft and the first read-through of your completed manuscript. During this time do not think about your story, read it, or even make a list of things that you might need to change. The best thing I can do for you is to tell you how I approach the self-editing and revision process so that you can see what another author does, in the hope that it will give you ideas to try. You certainly don’t have to follow this system, so feel free to change things and make it your own.
Before You Start Revising
I write in scenes, so my manuscript within Scrivener is divided into three folders labelled Act I, Act II, and Act III. The last step I take, after I finish writing the first draft is to pull out my outline and divide the story up into Chapters. I take this step so that when I’m about to read my story for the first time, it reads like a novel. After this, I export the story from Scrivener to an ePub file. Then, I take a thirty-day break from my story. During these thirty days, I might start brainstorming ideas for the next book in the series or not write at all and focus on other administration or podcast related tasks.
The First Read-Through
On my first day of revisions, I open the ePub file in Apple books on my iPad, and I start reading. It’s best to use a different device then what you used to write your first draft. So, if you wrote your book in the Scrivener App on your phone, avoid using your phone and use a different device. This will help you see the story with fresh eyes.
The Multiple Pass Approach
Just a side note, I realise now that I should have pointed this out earlier. However, I revise my manuscripts in passes. What does it mean to revise in passes? I revise my manuscript from start to finish several times, but I don’t necessarily read through the manuscript every time. As I read through the story for the for time, I make notes about anything that jumps out at me, but I pay attention to plot related issues and add notes into the app. After this read through, I will create a revision list.
This list will be divided into sections focusing on the following elements:
- Character Arcs and Motivations
- Value Shifts
- Point of View, Narration, and Character Thought
- Setting and Dialogue
- Line editing and Continuity Issues
Once this list has been created, I will go through the manuscript and make the plot-related changes. I will then give myself the weekend off and the next Monday, I will start the process again.
The Character Pass
Export the manuscript from Scrivener to an ePub or MOBI format and read it through on a different device, add notes in the ebook app, then transfer the notes to the revision list. And, then go through the manuscript and make changes. In regards to character arcs and motivations, I usually create a spreadsheet and track my characters in each scene.
What can I say?
I’m a bit of a spreadsheet nerd. I will also make notes about what the character is doing, learning, growing, and struggling. And, in each scene I will ask myself what the character wants and if the scene is portraying this to the reader. But, sometimes the characters’ motivations will change. In this pass, I will also make sure that this change is logical and makes sense based upon what the character is going through.
The Value Shift Pass
The next week I will not do a read-through, but instead, I will go through each scene in my story and focus on the value shift of each scene. For the sake of keeping this answer short, a value shift is the turning point or polarity shift of a scene.
So, the scene will start off in one way and end in another way. Shifts can be from positive to negative, negative to positive, negative to double negative, and I guess you could do a positive to double positive, but I like to give my characters a hard time. Essentially, the value shift focused pass helps you figure out if each scene is moving the story forward.
If I discover a scene isn’t moving the story forward, I move it to the deleted scenes folder. I also take notes on how to improve any scenes where the value shift is weak and needs improvement. These notes are added to the revision list, and then I will go through and makes changes.
The Lots of Things Going on at Once Pass
The following Monday, I will start week four off with a read-through focusing on Point of View, Narration, and Character Thought. Notes will be made in the app and then transferred to the list before I start making revisions. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I give myself five days to make changes just in case there is a lot of mistakes. But, sometimes the revision pass does span the full five days, and I just move ahead to there next pass.
Now, that I’ve revised my third book, which is the first in the series, I tend to do the Point of View, Narration, and Character Thought pass with the Setting and Dialogue Pass. But, I didn’t do this at first. By the time I reached my third book which is a novella, I started to be able to manage these elements all at once without feeling overwhelmed. But, I still add the notes for these changes in separate sections, and I tend to focus week five on setting and dialogue or at least allocate an extra week.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel Pass
The final pass after the setting and dialogue pass is a line edit and continuity pass. In week six, I start the week off with me reading through the manuscript on my MacBook and making changes as I go along. I don’t class this as a read-through because it’s not, and I don’t technically read.
As I go through each line, I listen to the computer read back the text, and I make changes as I hear errors. After this I will copy, scene by scene into Grammarly Premium and ProWriting Aid. I can do this at the same time because the Chrome extension for Grammarly allows me to use it within ProWriting Aid. I will then make changes within these apps, and copy it across to Scrivener using the Paste and Match Style keyboard shortcut because you lose the formatting when you paste back into Scrivener.
The Third Draft
And, after all of this, I’ve reached the end of the second draft. Yes, I class all of this as my second draft. After a week-long break, I will create a snapshot of my manuscript in Scrivener before exporting it into a Word File. I will then complete the third draft using the report suggestions in the AutoCrit Software. This might take a few weeks but, its a new process for me. Basically, I have no idea what I’m doing with this software. At some point, once I get the hang of this, I will do a podcast episode on how to revise using AutoCrit.
How many drafts did you do before you felt happy with your novel?
As I’ve alluded to in question two, I do three complete drafts. Because I have a comprehensive outlining process, I’m not sure whether I should include that as a draft of its own. So, maybe outlining is draft zero.
The second draft is the multiple passes, I explained earlier. And, the third draft is the changes I made using AutoCrit.* The reason why I call the AutoCrit Pass a draft is because I couldn’t have achieved it without the use of the software, and therefore is a draft of its own. Actually, maybe I’m a four draft person because after I get editorial feedback, I will do a draft than as well.
So, yes, four drafts with the help of an editor, but three before I submit.
How long did you leave between the first draft phase and revisions?
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