How to Write a Novel
Have you ever had a brilliant idea for a novel? You sat down to write, and the first two/three chapters came out fast as lightning, but then it stopped. You got stuck. “Writer’s block.” Right?
I finished my first “novel” (novella length) when I was 14, and since then have brought 5, going on 6 different novels at least as far as a complete first draft. I’m told this is considered unusually productive.
I understand that the same writing process doesn’t work for everyone,
but if you’re stuck trying to be productive, or don’t understand how
people can finish books, you might find it useful to have a look into my
writing process. If you have a process that works for you, ignore this. If you’re stuck trying to get anywhere on a project, read on.
Ah! But this is productive daydreaming. Every time you think of something that seems like it could be part of a story, write it down. Preferably in a specific place. Simply the act of gathering these ideas will help you think of more of them. Soon you cannot bear to have a cool idea without writing it down.
2. Isolating the story
Not all ideas will work equally well together. After I have a lot of fragments, I start to pick out all the ones that seem like they work together in the same setting. They have typically a type or aesthetic. At this stage maybe make a Pinterest board or some other type of aesthetic compilation. Cautionary: do not reupload photos that do not belong to you.
Next I set up a sort of “pastebin” (usually a notepad file) into which I can dump all the related fragments. I put everything there I can think of. Plot events, character details, all jumbled together. Building this bank or repository usually goes on for several months. If I feel compelled to start writing, I just put it here. Everything here and earlier can be done simultaneously while working on another project.
When I finally feel like I have enough ideas, as well as a solid idea of the aesthetic of the novel, I take the pastebin contents into a separate document and start to assemble them a summary. I consider this the official beginning of the project. This is also the point at which I start to list and define my characters and start to strike out ideas which have turned out to be irrelevant.
I use the program Scrivener for this, which is truly invaluable. This can be done without Scrivener, though, and I did it before Scrivener, it was just more difficult. Write each separate event of the story on a different notecard and experiment with arranging them until you find the correct order of events. Be sure to consider cause/effect relationships. If there is anything implicit that has to take place between point A and point B in your plot, write up a card for it. If you have any favored plot structures like the Hero’s Journey or the Midpoint Reversal, now is the time to consider them. Notecards can be color-coded by subplot or POV or anything you like.
At this point I open up a word document and start to write. For most chapters I usually start by creating a bullet-like list of things that happen, in order to make sure I hit all my goals for the chapter. This can include setting details, foreshadowing, character development goals, that snappy line of dialogue you just thought of, whatever. Don’t delete these (except the ones you decide not to use). Save them somewhere. Scrivener makes this easy.
The bullet lists can prove invaluable in helping you rewrite. You can also rearrange your notecards at any time during the draft and add new ones.
7. The Grind
Word count goals are pretty effective at keeping me motivated to progress. If you feel so inclined, join Nanowrimo or use some other program to help you turn out fast word count. Sharing with others helps with motivation too. If you don’t have a writing group to support you, find a child who likes being read to. Read your shitty draft out loud to them. Provided it’s child appropriate, of course. Nothing is more motivating than a kid demanding to know what happens next. Don’t forget to: get physical exercise! Drink water! Have something else going on in your life! I’m serious. Don’t spend more than like 20 minutes staring at a page without writing anything. Get up.
8. Starting Over
Midway through you might find some humongous flaw, or discover that your vision for the story has changed completely. This is okay! Rewrite your summary. Scrap your first draft entirely (well, don’t throw anything away, but you know what I mean) and start over from your notes. Use the chapter bullet points that you developed while writing the first draft. Try not to look at your old draft while rewriting or your brain will get in a rut and you will make the same mistakes again.
Once I am done with my first draft, I put together a list of all the things I want to change. Outside input helps a lot with this. As in the previous step, I build another summary. I get my chapter bullet lists and modify them as I go to include and remind me of the changes I need to make. These lists and the original summary really help you remember the original vision for the story. Sometimes you can look at what you’ve written and all you see is text. The notes will help you dissect it again. If you haven’t started over from scratch yet, now is the time to do so. If you have already done so, then your overall plot structure ought to be sound, and chapter-by-chapter level edits should be okay.
When I’m done with either the second draft, or what I call “1.5″ (which is a story that I had to start over in the middle), I need some space. At this point you need to take at least several months away from your novel to “see it with fresh eyes”. Work on something else.
Feedback essential for rewriting at the chapter level. For a beginner, you will need to get feedback before doing any rewriting at all because you might have trouble identifying the flaws in your first draft. Feedback is hard to get. I know. Try to arrange editing swaps with other writers. Even the experience of editing other people’s novels can help you spot mistakes in your own. Never take anyone’s advice for your story at face value. Only you know what you are trying to say - other people can guess wrong. Try to figure out what led them to the wrong conclusion.
Note that revision can be a never-ending process if you let it. At some point you have to move on - whether that is publication or whatever you have in mind for your novel.
I haven’t yet published, and since there are many other blogs who have and are more qualified to talk about the publishing process, I’ll leave that to them. Here are some of my other writing posts: