The First Novel Mambo: Prepping and Writing

This is the first in what’s going to be a series of posts about how my first novel came into being. Like so many people, I’d always wanted to write a novel, but always had excuses why it wasn’t a good time. Well, I finally did it, and here’s how.

Setting a Timeline

I’d watched my husband Scott write a pair of novels the previous year, and he was just starting into a third. Granted, he’d been working part-time, while I was working full-time, but I still figured that if he could do it, I could do it. NO EXCUSES.

I chose my start date carefully─since I had a habit of coming home, eating dinner, then watching TV for a couple of hours, I decided to start writing on June 1st, when most TV programs went on hiatus for the summer. If there wasn’t good TV to distract me, I could probably avoid the siren’s song of bad summer-replacement TV.

Prepping / Outlining

For about a month leading up to my June 1st start date, I worked on an outline. They say there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers (the latter fly by the seat of their pants). The plotters draw up an outline and all sorts of lists in advance, while pantsers go in with a bunch of ideas in their heads, a couple of character names, and maybe a few scattered notes. I’d pantsed in the past, and the problem was always that I’d get stuck and put things aside, and only come back to them much, much later. I figure that’s how some books take years to write.

This was the first time that I plotted, and I know now that it’s definitely the way for me. I wrote up a character cheat sheet─everyone has a last name, and an age, and hair color / eye color / build / nationality / etc. Even if those things don’t come up in the book.

I also wrote a rough outline of the whole book, with a paragraph for each chapter. In the beginning, I’d just ask questions of myself in the outline, and highlight them. If I saw any yellow on that thing, I knew that meant there were blanks I needed to fill in before I could start writing, so that I wouldn’t get stuck on a problem and then stop while I waited for inspiration to come.

That’s not to say that I followed the outline precisely. Looking at it now, there are parts of it crossed off, and things are moved around all over the place, and there’s a chapter 10.5 in between 10 and 11. And for a lot of things, I found better solutions for problems as I was writing. But I had the original solutions there, in case they were needed.

(I’m actually in the middle of plotting and prepping for my next book, which I plan on starting December 1st. Because TV gets pretty crappy around the holidays, too.)

There are a ton of tools out there that you can use to help with strucure, from Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet (aka “Save the Cat”) to the classic three-act structure. I started with Save the Cat as a general baseline and branched off from there on my own.


When June 1st rolled around, I had an outline, a list of characters, and a pretty good idea of how the book was going to go. There were still plenty of places to take side roads and detours, but I had my outline to always go back to.

After dinner every night that month, instead of sitting in front of the TV, I sat in front of the computer. And for about two hours a night, I pounded out as many words as I could. Some people edit as they go; I just wanted to get the words out, knowing that I could edit them later. I kept a spreadsheet and plugged in the total number of words each night (thanks, Word, for putting that in plain sight down in the corner) and used a formula to show the daily totals.


My goal was 2,000 words per night, though I ended up pretty much writing a chapter a night, whatever length it turned out to be. Although if a chapter was under 2,000 words, I kept going until I passed 2,000. (Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s one day that’s exactly 2,000. Which is eerie.) As you can see, some days I did a bit better. Scott writes on a timer, but I need to keep going until I get to a natural place to stop. The times I tried to stop writing in the middle of a scene, I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I went back and finished. But if I made it to the end of a scene or a chapter, I was able to relax afterward.

The first draft took exactly 30 days. On June 30, I hit 81,606 words and typed “THE END”. Which I then erased, because books don’t end with that anymore. Still, it felt good to write.

Editing the Draft

Some authors will tell you that for your second draft, you should cut 10% off of your first draft. That may be what works for them, but it wasn’t what worked for me. I ended up adding almost 10,000 words through a couple of passes through the manuscript─a new scene here, more detail there, swapping plot points around so that things made more sense. If I read through and asked myself if a reader would have a question about something, I rewrote for clarity or added more detail. My edits took over a month.

Finally, in mid-August, I was ready for someone other than me to read the book.

Next up: beta readers, and how totally amazeballs they are.

We Could Be Villains
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