My name is Aaron S Gallagher. I’ve written and finished 16 novels, over 40 short stories, 6 books of poetry, and by my best estimate, put down more than a million words. This is my process.
Caveat Lector: This is my process. Your mileage may vary. But take heed, writer: my process is a combination of techniques I cherry-picked from other writers married with the long, grueling process of figuring out what works for me. Feel free to cannibalize this list, but always be on the lookout for other styles and techniques that may help. Also, be sure and figure out what works for you. Writing is a completely individual process. You can teach craftsmanship; you can’t teach the knack. But good news: 99% of writing is craftsmanship.
First: finish your shitty first draft. Don’t worry about anything. Forget characters’ names, forget descriptions of the houses, forget which continent you’re on. No big. Your first draft is a word-glurge. Get that stuff on paper (screen, tablet, rock, whatever you write on.) Get ALL the words on the page.
Second: let it sit for a week or two. Stephen King recommended six months. I’m impatient. After considerable trial and error, I’ve come to the conclusion that three weeks is about right for me to stop hating the book and look at it with fresh eyes. And yes, you WILL hate your book. You’ll hate looking at it, thinking about it, working on it… by the time you finish your first draft, you’ll hate it. Hence, the time apart. Let it mellow. Let it germinate. Let it get moldy. Let it fester and rot and give off that same bizarre dead-body stench that a Corpse-flower gives off once a year, and-
Too far. I always take it too far.
Third: your first read-through. No editing. I cannot stress this enough. Just read it. Absorb. Get the feel back. Because you spent so long laboring, you couldn’t just enjoy your story. Now’s the chance to fall in love with it again because all you’re doing is reminiscing. It’s a happy time. Just read it. In one day, if you can. And then let it sit for a day. Set aside four hours. And if you can, print it out. Get a couple of red pens. Now the work begins.
Important note: always save a new draft of your work if you make any changes. You never know what you may need to go back for. Consider it like your computer: your computer saves your ‘state’ when you make a backup, just in case you screw it up so badly that you have to restore it to its previous working state. These are ‘drafts’ of your final project. Any time you make ANY change, save a new draft. It works for me, anyhow.
Fourth: You’re gonna start what I call a skim-edit. You’ve got a checklist to follow right here; I suggest you read it all before you start on point 1.
Mark plot holes
Contradicting details like time, place, or description
Flag anything that doesn’t seem to forward your plot
This is enough for one day. Just the big stuff. This is framework craft. This is where you fix up the underlying story. Think of your story as a series of acetate sheets (like overhead projectors used to use, or the layers in a Photoshop file now) for animating cartoons. Hand-animated cartoons use several sheets of clear acetate (plastic, basically) to create an image. Sheet one is your background. The trees, houses, buildings, whatever. The unchanging stuff. The familiar. That’s your plot. That’s your framework. You want your story to be consistent all through, so the background never changes. Fix the framework, because everything else is going to build on top of it. Then you make those changes. That’s your second draft.
Fifth: you’re going to work on the meat of your book. Your characters. If your characters aren’t good, if they aren’t real, if they aren’t true to themselves, no one will care. You want reader buy-in. You want reader love. You want to make them laugh when your characters say funny things, cry when they go through hell, and loathe you with every morsel of their being when you kill someone they really, really love. That’s buy-in.
That kind of depth comes from consistency. And that’s what this checklist is for:
Focus on your main character. Get a sheet of paper. Write down their nationality, their accent, their speaking quirks (do they say y’all a lot?) and their fidgets. Fidgets are important. If one of your characters is constantly scratching their left ear when nervous, that’s a visual symbol of tension. If all your characters do it randomly, it’s a useless device.
Go through the entire draft. Read every sentence of their dialogue. Out loud. In their voice. Get the rhythm right. Get the timbre right. Make sure that, when you’re done, every line of dialogue that they speak is in their own voice. Other character may use their words, but none of them will say it quite the same as this one character.
Make damned sure every word they utter is theirs.
This is a pain in the ass, and it’s only going to get worse because this is draft 3. MC Dialogue. Your next however many drafts are going to be all your other characters. Or at least, all the significant characters. One draft per character.
Sixth: once your characters are all uniquely voiced, and you’re happy they’re their own people, you can do this for physical descriptions, personality, clothing, and other minor details that don’t matter except when a reader suddenly stops reading and says out loud, “Wait a minute. Blue dress? Half an hour ago, she was wearing a leather jacket and jeans. What the hell?”
Those things that don’t matter at all to the story matter a lot to the atmosphere of the reader. It’s about immersion. It’s about keeping your reader hypnotized. Keep them calm and relaxed so that the story can seep into them effortlessly. No sudden, jarring irregularities to pull them out of your narrative. Keep them soothed with a steady, fixed background so they can focus completely on the characters and the plot.
Seventh: now’s the time to start working on the pacing. Where does the story bog down? What do readers usually skip? Those parts need to be reworked. You need to tighten. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t hammer the reader over the head. Be less wordy. Don’t use fifty words when ten will do. Don’t overuse your dialogue tags. Use adverbs sparingly.
Eighth: grammar is key. But it only unlocks certain doors. Namely, narrative. Dialogue is off-limits in a grammar check. People don’t talk good. They use… uh… y’know? Weird speech. Fragments. Kinda freeform, like… whatever. Dialogue is a locked topic where grammar is concerned. Check your narrative only. Watch out for authorial intrusion (when you talk directly to the reader, telling them exactly what happened, what the characters feel or think about something, et cetera) and make sure your point of view (POV) is consistent. Pick one and stick with it.
Ninth: technical editing. Are all your names spelled consistently? Places? Is it day in one scene and five minutes later midnight? Technical editing is nitpicky work. It’s making sure each individual scene is consistent with all the others, and they all fit properly into the overall framework.
Tenth: by this time you’ll have probably ten or twelve drafts. Your twelfth draft may not even resemble your first except vaguely. (This is another reason to save a new copy each time you make a change. It’s fun to go back and look at the progress.) Let it sit for a couple days, come back, and give it another pleasure-read. You remember that first read-through after we finished the first draft? You’re essentially doing that again. Read it for fun! See what you like. See what you don’t. See what you forgot (because you WILL forget stuff. It’s weird, but you will.)
Once you do that, you’re ready to get a second editor who isn’t you. And they’ll be able to see all the words you’ve become blind to. And all the stuff you missed. Believe me, you WILL miss things. Despite your many, many drafts. You’ll miss big, glaringly dumb things. You’ll never figure out how you could have misspelled ‘cat’. And you’ll never understand why all your grammar and spell-checkers missed it either. But they (and you) will.
Getting a second editor (professional or not) is vital to the process. You cannot do this alone. The only writer I know of that does all her own editing (It’s in her contracts) is Anne Rice, and like her books or hate them, there’s no denying that she does tend to ramble. We get it, Anne. Lestat likes blue Brooks Brothers suits closely tailored. You mention it ALL THE TIME. I have opinions.
I hope this helps. Or helps you figure out what WILL.