- Katie Calautti
Teaching Myself to Write a Novel: Part 2
Hello from countless country miles on the other side of my first installment of this post. I left off at the end of my manuscript's first act assuming I'd update y'all when I finished my second act. Alas, here I am, on my third draft revision. Rule #853297 of writing: things rarely go as planned. Like its first-born sibling, this baby is also quite long. I'm covering everything in Dostoevsky-length detail not only to be helpful to as many people as possible, but also to leave a record for myself. Ideally, I'll look back on this one day as a published author and remember all I went through to get there!
Once I got past my tricky first act re-outline, the second and third acts flowed remarkably fast. And by "remarkably" I mean: in a cumulative 20 days. Who knows if this is normal for me—it may've been a fluke! I have a sneaking suspicion the process of writing each book is different (is it normal to cry with frustration over manifesting your main character's backstory? Asking for a gal working out her book two idea). All I know is that I've now spent almost as much time revising as I did writing this thing, which feels right (albeit insanity-inducing). Let's break it down by dates, shall we?
First outline started: May 21, 2020
Research/character bios: May 25, 2020—August 31, 2020
First draft started: September 12, 2020
First draft completed: March 3, 2021
Second draft completed: April 18, 2021
Third draft completed: June 5, 2021
Even more granular, that means:
Writing Act 1: September 12, 2020—February 6, 2020
Writing Act 2: February 9, 2021—February 19, 2021
Writing Act 3: February 23, 2021—March 3, 2021
The time between starting Act 2 and Act 3 was spent re-outlining each act (because items I'd inevitably changed while writing the prior act caused a ripple effect). That means I went from a whopping 5 months to 11 days to 9 days to complete a full act!
I'm not writing all this out to induce guilt (though I recognize that it may happen—I get triggered when other people do it sometimes, too! It's okay, I'm not offended—skip this part!) But I find it valuable to hone in on the process—how I stopped, re-outlined, re-educated myself throughout the drafting of Act 1, then how the rest flowed quickly from there. It's a great reminder that roadblocks are surmountable, and the rigor of scaling them makes the journey smoother. Don't let yourself quit!
The Drafting Process
When I first printed out my draft one manuscript, I had a Moment. I'd been working on it in scenes and sequences for six months and it was wild to see it all together, in order, in one tangible document. I imagine this is 1/1000th of the feeling authors have when holding their completed bound book. Now, here at the end of draft three, I've done five full start-to-finish read-throughs of my novel. It already feels like four too many, and I've only just begun!
I'm grateful to have an amazing writing partner (the aforementioned-in-Part-1 Jon) who boasts the sole set of eyeballs to have gazed upon my messy initial drafts. Poor guy. I always knew one of my drafts was finished when I had a) completely crossed off my to-do list (this could be everything from adding more show-don't-tell to a scene to describing a room more vividly), b) was exhausted/annoyed by it more often than I was not, and c) was no longer able to cast a critical eye upon it.
Here's how Jon and I arranged things: I'd finish a draft, he'd read it, then we'd spend a few hours discussing his feedback. Through these conversations, I began perfecting the subtle and crucial art of taking and leaving advice. Jon often has amazing ideas for my narrative, but they're not all what I want to do. And that's okay—it's my book! After a while, you learn how to tell the difference between a change that needs to be made and a suggestion that can be disregarded. It's a dynamic I've had loads of experience with as an editorial writer—receiving criticism is always hard, but if you keep things focused on staying in service to the story, you'll take it less personally.
The main marching orders from draft one were that I needed to partially restructure. Fun times! I grumbled and moped about it for a day, then I wrote every scene on a separate notecard, laid them out on my floor, and rearranged them for a few days until it all made sense. In draft two, I added more character development and description (in the form of key scenes and dialogue). For draft three, I consulted a developmental editor (more on that below) and ended up making major structural edits and doing a global tense change (it had been largely third person present, I updated it to first person present).
Remember how I said there's no set number of drafts for a manuscript to go through until it's "ready"? It remains a truth universally known! I'm in a place where it's developmental editor ready at draft three (ie: Jon and I have taken it as far as we can, but I know there are plenty of pain points left and I need an unbiased, professional set of eyes). Once I'm through the process with a dev editor, I'll be on at least draft five before it's query-ready. You'll go through as many drafts as you need until it's done enough ("enough" being: fully structured, fully character developed, clean copy. It'll never feel fully "done," or so I'm told...)
A Word on Word Count
Book agent Kate McKean (whose bi-weekly newsletter I adore, as I mentioned in Part 1) posted this super helpful breakdown of word count ranges by genre. I aimed for between 70,000-80,000, as my book is firmly fiction with paranormal and historical fiction sub-genres, and I want it to be relatively undaunting. At the end of draft three, I'm at 72,000 words. Using a word count to pages calculator, that's roughly 200 pages, depending on font type and size.
Finding a Developmental Editor
What is a developmental editor, you ask? K.M. Weiland wrote this super helpful piece about it. Basically, they're freelance editors (many of whom have industry experience) who specialize in reviewing manuscripts and giving narrative/structural/character/voice, etc. feedback. They are not affiliated with agents and publishing houses, they are simply an added step you can take with your manuscript before you officially submit it to agents. They are expensive. It's a full-on privilege to be able to work with one, and I'm grateful to have a tax return to use for it this year.
It's overwhelming to sift through the options, there's no way around it. Through online resources and recommendations, I whittled a list down to six candidates. I wanted my choice to not only be a good personality match, but also someone with in-house publishing or acquisitions experience who is fun to work with and who loves my book's genres.
I interviewed my top pick editor by sending her my first 5,000 words. Man, was I nervous about it! The first person other than Jon to see my writing, and a professional, at that! I realized, then, how the fear of coming off amateurish or making rookie errors can hold so many back. I had to tell myself that I am an amateur, that I will make rookie errors—it's an integral part of the process and the only way I'll get better, so I may as well embrace it! Hundreds of dollars and one phone conversation later, I had loads of great advice for how to proceed (see: my draft three edits above), but I knew we weren't a personality match.
One of my other choices became my top pick after a few lively conversations. Once she skimmed my full novel (more hand-wringing, more sweating!), we settled on a two-part editing process that involves a manuscript evaluation followed by a light developmental edit (turns out, all my hard work was worth it—all the elements are already in my story!) This was a huge decision! I spent a week fretting over it—all that money, all that time! But now that it's in motion, I'm ready to move forward.
Speaking of: the one negative about my awesome new dev editor is that she's not available to start with me until mid-August. Meaning I have to sit on my draft for two whole months before beginning what will likely be an eight-to-10-week total edit period with her. It's not ideal. I've worked on this thing every day for over a year, after all. But it's a good excuse to get started on book two ideation (because it's apparently quite important to have something else to focus on as you're querying! I can see that—I refreshed my email roughly 20 billion times throughout the weekend the editor was skimming my draft!)
A Few More Podcast Recommendations
I listed some of my favorite form books and podcasts in Part 1, but as I worked through my drafts I found that I needed to branch out. I discovered a few new super helpful podcasts, including:
The Shit No One Tells You About Writing (this is, IMO, the best all-around writing resource out there).
Books in the Freezer (if you're writing genre fiction, I highly recommend listening to shows that discuss your themes!)
Ladies of the Fright (see above).
There are many others—add a few and your podcast app will start suggesting others to you—but those are my mainstays. I've also searched within the app using keywords and blazed through random episodes that pertain to something I'm working on (for example, I listened to about a dozen other podcast episodes about writing first person before I made my tense change).
Sometimes, I find I can't listen to or read anything about writing or publishing. Other times, I can't get enough. I've learned not to beat myself up over the moments I require avoidance—I simply arm myself with options and deploy at will. Writing and learning about the process requires constant recalibration.
A fun new byproduct of the fact that I have to wait two months to continue work on my manuscript is that I have a very hard time reading anything at all or following the journeys of writers and authors I admire. I'm not jealous, I'm just...impatient. I want to be where they are, now! But a book cannot be rushed. External factors cannot be avoided. I have to breathe, promise myself I'll try not to float into a world of "if" and "when." Boy howdy, is it hard.
Putting Together an Agent Query List
I've lined up a few projects to work on while my dev editor is reviewing my pages. First, I'll use various resources (Publisher's Marketplace, QueryTracker, Manuscript Wish List, agents listed in the acknowledgments sections of modern books I admire) to create a massive list of agents who are a) currently open to queries and b) looking for manuscripts in my genre(s). Then, by researching their clients, experience, social media accounts, and general reputations, I'll arrange the list in order of preference. When I query (much later) I'll begin with the most ideal candidates, then move down the list and query in batches (of 20? 50? I'm not sure yet).
I'll also work on writing my query (a blog post unto itself, though you will find endless resources about how to do it online), my book summary, and my bio—all items will be needed to submit, though every agent/agency has slightly different requirements. Luckily, my dev editor also offers a submission package service, so I'm planning to work with her on this after my manuscript is in good order.
The querying process is rough, I'm told. I have to hope that I'll find the right person for my novel and my author journey, and stay focused on that. I treated myself to an NYU class with Kate McKean this past March called You've Finished The Book—Now What? It went into great detail about everything required for the querying process. A year ago, the class would've paralyzed me with fear and anxiety. But I've gotten to a place where I feel calm, excited, closer to ready because I've done the day-to-day work and committed to learning along the way—so the class proved not only incredibly helpful, but showed me how much more I knew than I thought. You can't rush progress, and gaining knowledge takes time and practice. Most importantly: you have to trust your gut. You'll never retain anything if you feel overwhelmed or scared. Do and learn what you can when you can—it all adds up.
I'm guessing I'll dip back in for Part 3 when I'm in the querying process. Until then, whatever it is you're working on, keep going! The world needs your creations.