Iterative Novel Development

I’m currently working on my Master’s dissertation, which centres around software development. A key element of modern software development is the concept of iterative development, in which you create a prototype, test it, modify it, test it, etc. With each iteration, the program gets closer to the final product. It occurred to me recently that writing a novel is similar.

Most writers, I think, start with a draft. That draft is polished through successive iterations in the editing process. From what I’ve read here and here, this tends to be a coarse-to-fine approach, starting with the structure of the book and ending with minor issues of spelling and grammar. This is quite clearly an iterative process, with each iteration taking the book closer to completion.

Some people take this iteration much further, using the Snowflake Method (coincidentally developed by a former software developer). I tried this method myself several years ago and I did find the early stages useful but, personally, I get the best feel for my characters by actually writing them, and the more I get to know them the more the story changes. I learned the hard way during NaNoWriMo a few years ago that I do need to know where the story’s going to get far at all, but without actually getting some proper interactions between the characters on the page I really have no more than a vague outline of where it will go. I’ve known for years the general ending of this book, but it wasn’t until I was actually writing it that it all came together in a way I hadn’t anticipated. This might change as I become a more accomplished writer, but at the moment, on my first novel, I really didn’t get far with the Snowflake Method.

What really got me thinking about iterative development was finishing my first draft on the weekend. Now that I’ve done it, I really don’t understand people who think you start querying agents after finishing the first draft, because I know this sucks. There’s a switch from first- to third-person 20 000-odd words in, a character going by two different names because I changed my mind midway through, dangling plot threads. Oh, and it’s only 50k words. Even without the voice/detail issues, I know there’s a lot more to incorporate. It has pretty much all the scenes and chapters the final book will have, but a lot of them have elements that no longer apply or are lacking elements that do. It would be more accurate, I suppose, to call it a prototype than a draft. It’s where I’ve developed character and plot in order to improve it in my next draft. And it must have done something right, because I’m getting words on the page in this draft at twice the rate of the prototype. In a way, it’s similar to Step 9 of the Snowflake Method, though more in-depth.

I’m interested in how other authors approach iteration, especially those with completed novels. Do you write a draft in one go and then edit it? Do you go through successive planning stages that each flesh out the previous segment a little more until you’re writing a draft? Or is your process somewhere in between?


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