Ever wonder about the process of how an author goes from idea to finished product?
This is something I’m often asked about by readers. It took me about two years to go from my initial idea for First Command to a final product. I’m sure the process varies from author to author, but here’s an overview of the process from my point of view.
Where do authors get their ideas?
Most authors really have no idea. It’s generally not online plot generators though. For the most part ideas for science fiction stories come from from a combination of personal experiences, curiosity, deep thought about the directions our own world is heading in, and exposure to the works and ideas of others through reading.
For many authors, myself included, idea generation is rarely the bottleneck in the process. In fact the main problem is often that there are so many ideas percolating in one’s mind, it’s challenging to latch on to one long enough to really develop it.
With First Command I started out wanting to write something that would be accessible to my own children at the middle grade level, and yet mature enough that adult audiences would enjoy. So I started with a team of cadets training to be astronauts. Some of the most important questions a writer can ask once they have a basic premise are…
What’s the most critical moment in these characters’ lives?
What the worst possible thing that could happen?
World Building and Character Creation
Ever wonder how writers keep entire fictional universes in order? That’s where world building comes in.
World building is the process of creating a fictional environment. Many writers will draw maps, write little backstories, generate character genealogy trees, or fill out character sheets to keep help solidify specific traits of the world and the characters within it. In science fiction authors can also spend a lot of time thinking about the science and technology in their universes. See for example my posts on travelling faster than light or the search for alien life.
Some people enjoy world building so much it becomes a hobby in and of itself.
Writers vary considerably in the degree to which they world build. I tend to do it on an as-necessary basis. For the Colonial Alliance Universe, at some point I had to establish a canon for all the little details that while they might not matter to the casual reader, are important to me as an author. For example, take spacecraft classification. A lot of writers default to navy terms for spacecraft, because that’s familiar. In First Command, the cadets are tasked with flying the Triumph, an old corvette that’s been decommissioned from the expeditionary fleet. I needed to call it something. I knew it was small and initially I’d been calling it a frigate, but after doing some research I decided that an expeditionary corvette was perhaps the most suitable name.
Somewhere I have a set of notes detailing spacecraft classifications along with details like crew size, how crews are organized, into which departments, how many astronaut officers and crew each contains and the like.
Plotting vs. Pantsing
This the act of preparing a detailed outline of your novel from beginning to end, mapping out each individual scene. It includes writing out character arcs and sub-plots. Some authors use templates known as “beat sheets” that help writers to organize the story by word count.
The advantages of plotting are generally pretty obvious. You start out with an organized story. And sometimes it can help make the process shorter in the long run because those scenes you think might be important in the beginning but really aren’t can be axed before you even write them.
This is the art of writing “by the seat of your pants.” No plot? No problem. Just sit down with a character and a situation and keep making things worse for the character based on the decisions they make until you reach a cathartic moment or final crisis to serve as the climax of the story.
The main advantage of this approach for a writer is that you get to live in the moment of the story and watch it unfold in real time, as you’re writing. Also, there’s less time investment before you get to write. Some people can do this naturally and produce wonderful, coherent stories even in a first draft. Often though, my experience is that this approach can lead you into a lot of dead ends.
This is what happens to your pants when you sit on the fence.
Personally I find I write best when I have at least a brief outline to follow. That’s because I have a hectic day job and sometimes it can be days between opportunities to write. Also, sometimes I don’t have a lot of time at any given sitting to write. An outline really helps to keep me on track.
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
I think this is what most non-writers think of when then envision someone writing. You sit at your computer, and type out a story. A typical novel is about 80,000 words long. When I’m in the groove, I can write at about 1000 words per hour. But it takes time to get into the groove, and some days you just don’t find it no matter what you do.
The first draft is all about getting the story down. The characters come alive for the first time and they tell the story. Writers scramble to organize thoughts into something coherent. Exercises like National Novel Writing Month encourage writers to ignore any urges to edit and lock away any feelings that what they are creating isn’t good enough and just delve deep into that creative zone to get the story written.
Getting to “the end” is an exhilarating experience, but completing the first draft is far from the end of the writing process, particularly for someone like me.
This is the process of making sense of the story that your characters have told you.
When people think of editing, many envision what’s called proof reading, i.e. checking for spelling mistakes. That’s later in the process. Once you have a first draft, you can finally see the story as a whole. This is when you have to start making surgical amputations and reconstructions. Some writers will cut out entire scenes or chapters because nothing really happens. You look for long paragraphs of exposition (known as “info dumps”), convict them of the crime of being boring and sent them to the guillotine. You look for logical coherence and fill in any plot holes that you can find.
This is not a single pass operation either. I probably went through First Command about three or four times on my own before sharing it with anyone else.
Editor: Developmental/Substantive Edits
Once you’re reasonably happy with your baby, it’s time to lift up the swaddling cloth and let a few others have a peek. You have to be careful about doing this. The world can be cruel and when your baby looks anything like a book it is often without mercy.
In Megavoltage Publishing, we hire a professional editor. The first step is substantive editing. That’s editing that is aimed at ensuring the content is coherent. Here an independent professional with experience in the genre reviews the work and gives detailed feedback on story structure, content, style, etc. A good editor here will help the writer find their voice, and help develop the basic meat and bones of the story into the best possible version of itself.
For writers this is often the most challenging step because this is where someone else will tell them what needs to be cut out and added. It’s not just finding out whether or not your baby is ugly. It’s sitting in an office to find out whether or not your baby has a cancer that needs to be removed.
But going through the process produces a health, vibrant story on the other side. You will also come out with a much deeper understanding of what the story is about and who the target audience should be.
Editor: Line Edits/Copy Edits
Once you have a manuscript you’re happy with structurally, you can move on to copy edits. This is where a professional editor will go though the manuscript in detail to make sure the text is clear and grammatically correct. The editor will look for consistency in details–do characters have consistent eye color, if you chose to capitalize the work Marine, is that consistent all the way through? Can the reader understand what the writer means to convey? Are there cliché phrases or over-used words?
You can get a manuscript that comes back with a lot of red ink on it in this process, but for the most part, every change makes the story that much more accessible to your readers.
Advance Reader Team/Beta Readers
Before releasing the story to the world, many authors will have some kind of advance reader team that get to read the book before anyone else. They get copies for free in exchange for feedback. Sometimes the feedback can be as simple as thumbs up or down. Sometimes it can be a review for when the book is released. Advance readers who are fans of a series are also invaluable for their knowledge of the universe and can help tremendously with consistency.
Anyone interested in joining my advance reader team can contact me here.
I should also throw in a plug for author readings. Along the way in the process, authors should read their work to anyone willing to listen. Every opportunity to share is an opportunity to make the work that much better. You can do live action slush readings at conferences, read to a writing group, find an online critique group, etc. But feedback is tremendously important, not just to a given story, but also to writers in terms of development of their own skills.
This is where you take your word document and translate it into a full print or electronic book. One of the most exciting aspects of this is cover design. You get to establish what your book is going to look like when you present it to the world.
On top of the cover, you need to format the file for print. There are online services that help with this. You figure out front matter like your copyright statement, and dedication and at the back it’s important to add a follow up page, so if readers enjoyed the book they know where to look for your next project.
Next you put all of this into your formatting program of choice and it generates a book. This needs to be reviewed meticulously by the author. The point is to avoid words drifting off of a page or off-center paragraphs!
You thought edits were done? There’s one more stage… searching out those illusive typos that have survived to this point. Ideally there shouldn’t be a lot of them, but some of those guys are survivors. And I like to bury them deep too. Most are caught with basic word processors these days. But those programs are only so intelligent.
Some authors will rely on their advance reader team to catch these, but you can also hire freelance proofreaders.
And then finally you find a distribution company, go through their process.
One of the big decisions at this point is something called “going wide” or publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing “Select.” Kindle’s “Select” program is kind of like Netflix for books. Readers pay a subscription fee and get to read whatever is in their inventory for free. Authors get paid by the number of their pages that get read. But in order to do that your ebook has to be exclusive with them for a period of 90 days.
When someone goes “wide” they’re publishing on platforms other than Amazon, so Kobo, Apple, Google Books, Indigo -Chapters, etc. It also allows you to make your book available through your local library. That’s the direction I’ve gone with First Command.
So that’s it. That’s how you go from an initial idea for a story to a published novel.