An Action Plan for Actual Humans
By Fred Koehler
Like almost every other writer I know, I’m not a full time novelist. Publishing is, at the best of times, really slow. In the meantime, kids need braces. Cars break down. The rent doesn’t pay itself.
And yet, through each of the last three years, I managed to get a new novel approved by my agent and out on submission while working full time.
It starts with every writer’s favorite acronym. B.I.C. Butt In Chair. You MUST make the time to write.
Some superhuman writers can do this in a sprint. Fifteen hour days. Doritos for dinner. Bi-weekly personal grooming. To those of you successfully writing and selling novels using a quick draft methodology, I tip my hat. The rest of us mere mortals, however, might need an alternative approach.
For me, B.I.C. means getting up and out the door two hours early each day. It also means coffee at the only fast food joint in town with an open lobby at 5 a.m. (For a while this included breakfast until I put on ten pounds from all the hash browns.)
However you get in the time, I find that eight hours of writing per week is enough to finish drafting a novel in ten months. But that’s just the drafting. I also like to polish as I go. This method is likely to resonate well with ‘Plotters’ who love outlines and keep detailed notes. As for ‘Pantsers’ (so named because they write by the seat of their pants), these exercises can be infused in a more free-flowing way.
Each week, work towards eight hours of just plain writing. Then, add two to four hours of polish based on an element of craft that changes month by month. Once you polish a scene to perfectly embody a specific element of craft, use that section of writing as a litmus test for the rest of your draft.
Month 1: Rework the Concept
You want your “Big Idea” to be fresh, easy to explain, and make a promise to the reader of an unexpected and satisfying journey. If it’s similar to existing stories, difficult to understand, or lacks enough conflict to be intriguing, now is the time to go through ideation exercises before you write yourself into a corner. Here’s a link to a favorite of mine called Mythic Mashup.
Month 2: Realize your Characters
“We fall in love with character first.” This advice was given to me by a well-known editor as she kindly rejected a novel. Sadly, I’d filled my incredibly fun world with cardboard characters. Don’t do that. Instead, give your characters flaws so deep you sometimes can’t tell apart the heroes and villains. Make it worse with impossible choices where every conceivable decision has terrible consequences. This up-front understanding of your characters will give them nuance that makes them unforgettable.
Month 3: Lift your Voice
Humor, wit, imagination, confidence, authority – these are all elements of Voice. You want yours to feel fresh, confident, and distinct. You want readers to know they’re in the hands of a master storyteller and excited for the ride ahead. Is this a tall order? Yes. But I find it easier to dial in Voice when I’m only a few chapters deep instead of trying to infuse it once the book is drafted.
Month 4: Raise the Stakes
Your stakes should be well-established by this point in your story. If your character does not reach their goal, what does it cost them? Increase that cost tenfold and, in your opening chapters, show us why it matters so much. The more that’s at risk (physically and emotionally) for a character we love, the more we have to see them through.
Month 5: Bend the Arc(s)
The characters at the beginning of your story must undergo trials to gain the emotional and physical strength they need to overcome the major conflict. You bend the arc by giving your characters greater odds to overcome. Essentially, keep asking “What would make it harder for them?” Practice this in even your opening scenes to foreshadow the overwhelming challenges you’ll need to build for the climax.
Month 6: Reshape Dialogue
Do your characters feel like individuals with distinct personalities? Do words and actions reflect how they would actually speak / think? Work to make conversations feel so natural we can envision the characters in our heads. As you rework the first half of your novel, find a section of pitch-perfect dialogue you can channel for the rest of your draft.
Month 7: Ramp up the Tension
Tension is the ability to create conflict on the page that tugs at your reader’s imagination and gives them concern for the outcome. This can happen in big ways through the main plot but also through tiny details in each scene. Teach yourself to add an extra element of tension to each scene, and you’ll start to automatically build it into your remaining chapters.
Month 8: Set the Pace
As you revisit key scenes, revise the intentional swiftness or slowness with which you move us through those moments. If it’s high-octane action, explore the senses during a breath between bullets. If nothing happens on the drive across Texas, cut the chapter to a single sentence.
Month 9: Make the World Deeper and Wider
Whether it’s the 1920’s fashion industry or an alien cyborg planet, pay close attention to details and descriptions that pull us into your world. Are your scenes thoughtfully and artistically imagined? Are there enough curious details in the landscape and character interactions to reveal what makes it special?
Month 10: Polish & Plan your Pitch
You’re going to keep polishing in month ten. Revisit each element of craft and look for scenes that still have room for improvement. But this is also a great time to review the ‘shelf’ on which your book will sit. Which publishers fill that shelf? Who edited those books and which agent did the deal? Did you research those gatekeepers and personalize each query? A thoughtful pitch plan, even if it ends in rejection, demonstrates your professionalism and helps grow your network.
I recognize that I’ve opened the door to scrutiny here. Some writers might define an element of craft differently. Some will feel I’ve got my timelines or order of importance mixed up. But like I said, this is a starting point, not a finished roadmap. Rework the formula based on your own writing habits. The goal of this method is to infuse your story with critical elements of craft that lead to publishing success.
And if the manuscript doesn’t feel like it’s ready, take an extra month. Let it simmer a while longer. Ask your beta readers to go heavy on a specific chapter or scene. Whatever you do, keep your butt in the chair. The world needs your stories now more than ever.
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Fred Koehler is an artist and storyteller whose real-life misadventures include hurricanes, sunken ships, and shark encounters. His writing and artwork have earned numerous starred reviews and awards, including a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award. Fred lives in Florida with his wife, kids, and a rescue dog named Cheerio Mutt-Face McChubbybutt. He’s passionate about elevating new voices in writing and founded Ready Chapter 1 Academy to help students of all levels write, polish and pitch their novel in less than a year.