The Three Stages of the Novel-Writing Journey

One writer’s journey from dream to publication, with all the lessons and setbacks and turnarounds that dot the broken road we travel.

 

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard

 

Let me guess, you dream of publishing a novel; of your book reaching bestseller status and having raving fans. You dream of being able to make a living from writing and publishing novels.

I get you, because I’ve had those same dreams since I was 13 years old. But getting there isn’t quite as easy as you dream it’s gonna be.

My journey to publishing my debut novel has taken 18-plus years—7 of those years actively working on it, 2 of those years spent on the story I published.

Over the course of my journey so far, I’ve found there are really three major “stages” that you go through:

• Stage 1: Oblivious Dream
• Stage 2: The Backtrack
• Stage 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Sadly, most writers spend their lives in Stage 1, refusing to believe that storytelling has a process and principles that need to be in play. They just keep dreaming, keep writing, oblivious that they’re heading nowhere.

You’ll also find a good number of writers in Stage 2, where they spend most of their time learning what it takes to write a novel. But never actually writing. Or if they do write, they don’t finish. They don’t go all the way.

It’s Stage 3 everyone strives for, but few actually get to. Because it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, sacrifices, practice and letting go.

Here’s how my journey unfolded over the three stages:

Stage 1: Oblivious Dream

I spent a good 13 years of my life in this stage.

This is the stage where you’re enamored with the dream: being a bestseller, having a book signing, going on a book tour. The stage where you have no idea what you’re doing, but you either don’t know or don’t care. So you sit down and start writing, to see what comes out.

I did this hundreds of times over the 13 years. Starting, stopping, starting over again, starting something new, never getting anywhere.

Back in 2008, I wrote my first novel. Pantsed the whole thing. And then I spent another year writing and rewriting and rewriting. Still not getting anywhere.

I was frustrated. I was pissed off. I had a ton of stories bouncing around inside me, but I couldn’t figure out how to make any of them work on paper.

I so badly wanted to get my stories out there. So I decided it was time to learn what I was missing.

Stage 2: The Backtrack

I call this stage the Backtrack because this stage is really step one in the novel-writing process. But 99 percent of writers skip over it and think they just intuitively know how to write a novel.

This is the stage where you make it your mission to become a student of story. To go back and learn what it takes to write a novel you can publish.

I had taken every fiction writing class I could get my hands on. Read every book under the sun about writing novels. And yet I couldn’t make my stories work. So I knew there had to be some vital information I was missing.

At this point in my journey, around the beginning of 2010, I went on a hunt.

And that’s when I found an article by Larry Brooks on story structure. I swear I heard trumpets in my head. It was like all the gaps and holes left by my previous fiction education got filled in.

All stories must have structure, they must have specific plot points occur at certain times and places in the story. Boom.

A life-changing moment I will never forget.

For months I studied every article, every eBook, everything written by Larry Brooks that I could find. I immersed myself in story. I dedicated myself to it.

I watched movies every day, sometimes twice a day, breaking down the structure, the scene missions, and really trying to wrap my head around the whole storytelling thing. I read books, studying the structure.

And toward the end of the year I had a thought: I need to teach story structure to writers, so they didn’t waste years of their lives writing stories that go nowhere.

Even though I was still learning, I knew I was a step further than the writers who were coming to me for help. And I kept expanding my education, reading more books by Brooks and anyone else I could find who aligned with Larry’s teachings (Randy Ingermanson, Syd Field, etc).

I even hired Larry to analyze two of my story plans, to see if I had anything viable yet.

My first story needed a lot more development, but he said my second story could work and be interesting, if I fixed my Premise.

Stage 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

This is the stage where you’ve learned enough and absorbed enough storytelling information and had enough practice at writing, where you are now able to turn out stories with publishing potential.

I spent three years in Stage 2, before I was able to move into Stage 3 (and I’d add that you never really leave Stage 2, because storytelling is a life-long journey, and you have to be committed to always being a student of story). Larry’s analysis of my story is what allowed me to move to Stage 3.

Because now I was getting somewhere. Now I had an idea that was viable, if executed properly.

I spent the next two years working through how to properly execute this story. But for the first time, I didn’t write several drafts in order to find my story.

Instead, I used a specific story planning and development process that allowed me to work through all the details of my story, including structure and scene architecture.

Once I felt really good about my story roadmap, then and only then, did I sit down to write the draft. When I finished it two short months later, I knew I finally had something with potential.

Of course, there were still edits and tweaks that were needed, but I was close. Much closer than I’d been previously.

I worked through a specific revision process to make sure the story worked, beginning to end. And then I gathered a team of people to help me with the final polish: an editor and Beta Readers.

I did it, I made it to the end. I finished a story.

And the story was actually good.

On June 16, I released this story into the world. My debut novel, SoundCheck, is now available on Amazon. Jennifer proper cover

I credit this achievement to my willingness to move out of Stage 1 and work through Stages 2 and 3, the ones that most writers never get to.

There’s a hell of a lot more to writing a publishable novel than you even realize. My entire process, from story plan to published novel, only took me about 7 months.

But I had 17 months (plus 16 years) of fear, doubt, Resistance, perfectionism, procrastination and distractions to contend with. All of this wrapped around the 7 months it actually took for me to finish this novel.

Is my debut novel perfect?

No. No such thing. There’s always something you can do to improve it. Always some way to make it better.  But it’s a novel from my heart, shaped with a keen understanding of craft, and my beta readers tell me its good.

Some say, really good.

At some point, you have to call it done.

You have to say, I’ve made it through all three Stages, this is my best work to date and I know my next one will be even better.

Some Super-Secret Tips No One Ever Talks About

As you’re working through these three stages of the novel-writing journey, here are some super-secret tips to help you out. These tips come directly from my journey to publishing my first novel.

These tips relate to things no one ever really talks about, but that are a huge part of the novel-writing process:

Work On Your Mindset—writing a novel takes strengthening your mindset, because if you don’t believe in yourself or believe you can do this, no amount of effort will bring you success. You have to make your mindset match your goal, your desired outcome.

Writers tend to have a lot of negative, limiting beliefs about what’s possible, and you have to transcend all of that to get where you want to go.

Set Intentional Ways of Being—when it comes to your writing goals, you have to be intentional. You have to know where you’re aiming to come even close. And you have to take consistent action every single day. Intention is a huge part of being successful.

Commit to the Process—because it’s definitely a process. And you won’t get it right the first time, the second time, maybe not even the third time. But if you’re committed to the process, you’ll eventually get it right.

So many writers give up when things get hard, when all they have to do is take a step back, reevaluate and be willing to let go of what’s not working.

Have Tools for Busting Through Fear—and distractions, and self-doubt, and perfectionism, and procrastination. All of these things are gonna come up while you’re working through your novel-writing journey, and if you don’t have tools to help you deal with them, you’ll get stopped in your tracks.

What stage are you at on your novel-writing journey?

Jennifer proper cover

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is an author, award-winning blogger, and story coach who helps serious emerging novelists write, revise and launch their books.

Her debut novel, SoundCheck, is now available. Read more about it HERE.

Want to know what it takes to go from Story Idea to Published in 7 Months? Contact Jennifer through her website to register for my upcoming webinar.

12 Comments

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12 Responses to The Three Stages of the Novel-Writing Journey

  1. Great post Jennifer, and congratulations on your novel debut! Working with you this past year was a real turning point for me as a writer. You’ve got a remarkable grasp of the principles and you are an inspiring coach. I learned a lot from you. May “Soundcheck” be the first of many successful books.

  2. Kerry Boytzun

    Nice share, Jennifer.

    Your 3 stages are like the first three parts of Story Structure: orphan, wanderer, warrior. Story emulates life experience, hence the subconscious mind’s interest in it, and the success or failure of a story due to fulfilling that interest.

    I’m in stage 3.

    Kerry

  3. This is going in my “recommend to clients” folder. Great stuff, Jennifer.

    Had a marvelous lunch with Larry a while back, and he told me something that made me feel a whole lot like your statement “I’ve made it through all three Stages, this is my best work to date and I know my next one will be even better.”

    Getting the first book perfect means there’ll never be a second book. Or a first, for that matter. Encouraging to hear it from another voice.

    Oh; to answer your question: 9 nonfiction books over the past 8 years, and now working on my 4th mystery.

    • @Joel I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re so right–we can’t get it perfect or there won’t be a first or second book. And I want to do this for the long-haul, so I know there are plenty more books to come.

      It’s great that you’ve been able to go through the stages so many times. Congrats!

  4. Congratulations (again, because I follow you too) on your debut, Jennifer! To answer your questions: Like you, I immersed myself in the magic that is Larry Brooks and his teachings, studied everything I could find on story structure–still do–and I’m thrilled to report I just scored my first publishing deal for my psychological thriller, Marred. You’re right; there’s no better feeling!

  5. Really good post, Jennifer. Larry is a great mentor, as is Randy Ingermanson. I would suggest a fourth Tip: Be prepared to throw out your first attempt. By that, I mean first attempts, as much as we’re tied to them emotionally, are probably intrinsically flawed and may not be be worth the time and effort to make right.

    Congratulations on your debut. Here’s to spending increasing amounts of time on Stage 3.

    Good luck,
    Michael

  6. @Michael Thank you! I am taking a short marination period to enjoy the summer and then I’m jumping into my next story in the fall. I am committed to spending my life in stage 3 (with some stage 2 thrown into the mix).

  7. Maggie

    Me: Over eighteen years writing in sunny oblivious bliss – which officially makes me thicker than Jennifer.
    Four years backtracking and learning story structure by taking as many classes as I could,and buying dozens of writing books, Larry’s included. In the perfect world we know that should have come first but since I’m far from perfect and I can’t get those years back I think of the positives, learning to type fast and developing voice. (gotta smile)
    Now I’m getting somewhere…I have a full manuscript under consideration by a publisher. It may not sell but I’ve never been that close before and I’ve never had an editor take the time to help me develop my story so it’s a win win either way. Jennifer summed up my writing life very well.
    Congratulations on your book Jennifer. It’s well deserved.

  8. @Maggie Amazing how our journeys mirror each other’s. Congrats on your manuscript being under consideration for publication!

  9. Robert Jones

    Congrats, Jennifer 🙂

    I think your story mirrors most people’s creative journey. Stage 3 is a lifetime committment. It has its rough areas though. One can easily become complacent after a while. Or bottom out trying to reach perfection–or even trying to recapture their best moments once you hit your stride.

    You have to keep challenging yourself and making it interesting. But the craft of writing is such a vast pool, it’s difficult not to find some new part of it to engulf one’s interest.