By Elaine Ash
I write a lot of fiction as a ghost—five novels in 2022 alone. Whether a client has a complete manuscript or just an idea, I always start with an outline. A novel outline can compare to the blueprint of a house. Both are easier to change than building the whole thing from scratch and then tearing it down to start over. An outline provides an overview of the complete project and runs about ten to twelve single-spaced pages.
Work Smarter Not Harder
The first thing I tell clients is, we’re going to work smarter, not harder. The outline contains only the most important events of the story from beginning to end. Anyone reading it (especially an agent, or movie producer) can get an overview of who the characters are and what happens to them.
In addition to the outline, I also prepare a list of the major characters and include a one-paragraph description and background for each. Usually, the major characters number ten or less, and minor characters don’t make it into this document. By the time the outline and the character profiles are finished to the client’s satisfaction, the story and its main players have been summarized in fifteen pages or less. Why is this process important? Because without it all this information remains scattered over scores of pages. Some of it may be rattling around in the client’s brain, never written down. But with an outline and character profiles, now it’s summarized and all in one place for reference.
Shaping the Plot
Next comes a plot assessment. Does the outline reflect a complete and compelling story? Are there any plot holes? Anything unresolved? Is “what happens” dramatic enough? Are the stakes high enough? If the answer to any of these questions is “no” the client has a chance to reconsider and revise the outline—or not. My job is to clearly explain the hallmarks of a successful novel, not dictate changes. If the client understands the facts and still decides against a revision, their decision is enough for me.
Outlining is hard work, and at this stage most clients want to see something other than plot points on a page. I write the first chapter quickly so they can see tangible proof that this is a good story with a professional-caliber start. Once they are assured of a great beginning, most clients can relax a little more while I write my way through a first draft.
What Happens During the First Draft?
Deliverable dates have all been worked out beforehand in the contract. Deadlines for the outline, first draft, second draft and final draft are in writing. It’s perfectly OK for clients to miss deadlines but not for me. If life gets in the way, as it sometimes does, we agree to a timeline adjustment and carry on.
While I’m writing, the client will get periodic requests for descriptions. These aren’t included in the outline because it explains what happens, it doesn’t explain what things look like.
For example, in 2021 I received a manuscript of 100,000 words. Despite the large word count there were almost no descriptions of settings or the physical world. This is common to first-time novelists when they’re so familiar with the world they’ve created it’s easy to forget readers are not. The best novelists describe things in ways that make everything leap off the page. Whether a character is piloting a spaceship or reclining on a desert island, the setting needs to be described so readers feel they can almost reach out and touch the stars, or feel warm sand under their feet.
A big part of my job is asking the client what things look like so I can bring it to the page. I don’t need the information perfectly written out for me, I just need rough notes, or it can be relayed in a phone call. It’s my job to make descriptions read well and flow along with the story.
Second and Final Drafts
Finally the day arrives, about six months after the contract is signed, and a first draft is delivered. The client has time to read and consider. We take a few meetings, discuss additions, deletions, and changes. Then I sit down and write the second draft. This time around, if the client is satisfied, I send it out to beta readers of the genre for notes, or the client assigns his or her own trusted beta readers. One hard rule: I never accept feedback from someone who is not a fan of the genre. I learned this the hard way in a writers’ group many years ago when I let romance fans weigh in on my serial-killer thriller. I rewrote that thing for years before realizing I was never going to please them because they hated the genre! But I digress…
The client and I mull over all the opinions from betas and decide which changes should be adopted and which should be ignored. In my opinion, if every beta has something different to say, and nobody agrees on any one point, the manuscript is ready. But if two or three betas have the same complaints, they should be taken seriously.
Copyediting and Teacher-Proofing the Proofreading
Once the content of that final draft is locked, I perform a full copyedit. If the client approves, the manuscript goes out for proofreading with a professional highly experienced in the genre. No teachers or university professors need apply. This includes professors of English and all related specialists. Although academics are well qualified to proofread in their area of expertise, they are surprisingly uninformed on commercial fiction. The off-genre proofer will riddle the text with bloopers and glitches—not because their corrections are wrong—but because they are blissfully ignorant of colloquial language specific to genre.
Also, no academic can stick to “just proofreading.” They will slowly slide into a full copyedit, changing sentence structure and tone to what they know best. These corrections will stick out like Aretha Franklin’s hat to agents and publishers. An exception to this rule might be a teacher or professor who reads the genre and is “a fan” meaning they’ve read at least 100 similar novels in that specific genre and know the buzzwords and modern parlance.
I won’t detail the process of formatting here except to say there are two kinds; for agents and acquiring editors at publishing houses, and for publishing e-books. Unless I’m staying on to run production for the client, I’m only concerned with the first kind. The second should always be handled by a professional e-book formatter.
Agents and acquiring editors require double-spacing, 12-point font size, and more. Lots of online resources detail the specifics. Formatting for agents should be done before sending the manuscript to the proofer because they will keep an eye on consistency in this regard.
When the manuscript comes back from proofing—look out world!—the adventurous writing process is done and the final product is ready for agents, acquiring editors and publishers. I submit the final draft to my client, await approval sealed with a final check, and like all good ghosts, fade away in a puff of mist. Not really, but it’s a nice way to end this article, don’t you think?