My Creative Process for Writing a Novel

I made a mistake that cost me years of my writing life. And it all happened because I didn’t understand the creative process of writing a novel.

Originally, I’d edit immediately after the first draft, or even worse, while I was writing the first draft. Although I’ve made other mistakes—this has been the worst. 

My first (published) novel had about thirty drafts (not as many as Patrick Rofthuss's self-reported 80+ drafts) but still a lot. My second novel had seven or eight. 

My creative process now is faster and more streamlined process—but still developing.

Yellow flower from Blue PrometheusYellow flower from the ancient forest—Blue Prometheus Series

Vision

The Idea 

At one time I had problems finding ideas for my novels. I knew I wanted to write, but I had no idea what I wanted to write. I tried random topics, and not surprisingly, they failed. I almost gave up.

Then I decided to read. I’ve always read (apart from a gap of about six years in my early thirties), but I mean really read. I decided to read everything I could, in the hope of gaining inspiration.

For about three years, reading was my main hobby. I’d read for three or four hours a day, and I read everything I could, particularly classics (fiction and poetry in particular) and fantasy novels. 

At first I just read, enjoying some, but not others. Eventually, I began to understand, even in the most obscure literature, the writer’s intention. This was easy with modern fiction, but with some poetry written centuries ago, it took more time.

Soon after that, ideas started coming—almost too many. Ideas continue to flow easily, and I write them down to think about later.

There are, of course, many other ways to get ideas: dreams, trying new things, learning something new (especially something different from what you usually do), and many more. But for me, reading was the greatest inspiration.

From there, the ideas enter the next stage.

Incubation

I need to sit on ideas (usually), and let them grow at their own pace—I don’t rush this stage. 

I’ll work on them a bit by bit, adding notes, bits of dialogue, or scenes, as they appear. This can take time (even years). I have dozens of story ideas incubating at the same time.

Investigation

Investigation is the research stage. For me, that has included reading books and articles of geology, astronomy, microelectronics (I wanted to imagine what it might be like to enter a machine mind), crystals (new age stuff and geological), plants and trees, and many other subjects. For fantasy, this type of research can take time, but it adds to the richness of the world building.

Spending time in nature can help the creative process, too.

Writing And then Deepening the Story

The First Draft 

The First Draft is where I just try to get the story written. Just finish it. I’m not aiming for perfection, although I’ve found my first drafts getting more fully formed, the more I write. 

I used to accept the "first draft is always bad" idea. This was useful when I wrote my first and second novels. I don’t think it’s useful anymore. I don’t need it because my first draft is coming out more fully formed. 

About a third of the first draft for my third novel was almost ready to go, the second third needed a little work, only the final third of the first draft needed more work—and it was still quite good compared to the first draft of my first novel. 

I hope, with practice, that all of the first draft will be ready to go in the future. 

The Second Draft 

The Second Draft is my story deepening draft. I focus on developing the story. 

I'm not editing, but adding. 

At this stage, I’ll move elements of the story around (if necessary), possibly add new scenes or chapters, and delete scenes that don’t work (okay, so there’s a little editing, but it’s not the focus). 

The focus remains on improving the story.

The Third Draft

The third draft is my prose deepening draft. I focus on improving the language. A little bit of editing sometimes creeps in, but the main focus is on improving the prose.

Review or Re-View

Self-Editing 

Editing is when I look at the story with a critical eye. It’s the stage where I cut the parts that don’t serve the story (however much I like them). I’ll look at any aspect of the story that needs trimming back or fixing.

The more I write, the faster this stage of the creative process has become.

Editing

Once I’m happy with my edit, I’ll send the manuscript to my editor for a content edit.

When she sends me back a manuscript full of comments and notes, I may work on a fourth and final draft, or I may just tidy up the story—it depends. 

Then the story goes back for a copy edit. At this stage it’s basically finished. I just have to accept or reject the suggestions.

Ending

Ending is a stage of the creative process in itself. It’s all the things I have do at the end before I publish. These include proofreading it myself, which is my least favourite part of the creative process. I read it, of course, then I listen to my computer robotically read the entire novel aloud for me, and sometimes (if I can stand it) I read the entire manuscript backwards (which is another good way of picking up errors). 

Finally, I send the story to be proofread by a professional proofreader for anything that’s been missed in the process. 

And then I'm ready to format the book into different formats (thankfully helped with great software that’s now available) and  publish—and let go.

But before I go…

It’s taken me years to develop my own creative process, and of course, I’ve been influenced by others. Some of the ideas here came from the writing of Orna Ross, especially her Seven Stages of Creativity.

I have, however, adapted and altered these ideas to fit my own writing, as I’m sure I’ll continue doing.

Read more articles by Ned Marcus

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