Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard. That’s just life. If it were easy, we’d all be writing best-selling, prize-winning fiction. Frankly, there are a thousand different people out there who can tell you how to write a novel. There are a thousand different methods. The best one for you is the one that works for you. In this article, I’d like to share with you what works for me. I’ve published six novels and won about a dozen awards for my writing. I teach the craft of writing fiction at writing conferences all the time. One of my most popular lectures is this one: How to write a novel using what I call the “Snowflake Method.” This page is the most popular one on my web site, and gets over a thousand page views per day, so you can guess that a lot of people find it useful. But you may not, and that’s fine by me. Look it over, decide what might work for you, and ignore the rest! If it makes you puke, I won’t be insulted. Different writers are different. If my methods get you rolling, I’ll be happy. I’ll make the best case I can for my way of organizing things, but you are the final judge of what works best for you. Have fun and . . . write your novel!
The Importance of Design
Good fiction doesn’t just happen, it is designed. You can do the design work before or after you write your novel. I’ve done it both ways and I strongly believe that doing it first is quicker and leads to a better result. Design is hard work, so it’s important to find a guiding principle early on. This article will give you a powerful metaphor to guide your design. Our fundamental question is this: How do you design a novel? For a number of years, I was a software architect designing large software projects. I write novels the same way I write software, using the “snowflake metaphor”.
OK, what’s the snowflake metaphor? Before you go further, take a look at this cool web site. At the top of the page, you’ll see a cute pattern known as a snowflake fractal. Don’t tell anyone, but this is an important mathematical object that’s been widely studied. For our purposes, it’s just a cool sketch of a snowflake. If you scroll down that same web page a little, you’ll see a box with a large triangle in it and arrows underneath. If you press the right-arrow button repeatedly, you’ll see the steps used to create the snowflake. It doesn’t look much like a snowflake at first, but after a few steps, it starts looking more and more like one, until it’s done. The first few steps look like this:
I claim that that’s how you design a novel – you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. Part of this is creative work, and I can’t teach you how to do that. Not here, anyway. But part of the work is just managing your creativity — getting it organized into a well-structured novel. That’s what I’d like to teach you here. If you’re like most people, you spend a long time thinking about your novel before you ever start writing. You may do some research. You daydream about how the story’s going to work. You brainstorm. You start hearing the voices of different characters. You think about what the book’s about — the Deep Theme. This is an essential part of every book which I call “composting”. It’s an informal process and every writer does it differently. I’m going to assume that you know how to compost your story ideas and that you have already got a novel well-composted in your mind and that you’re ready to sit down and start writing that novel.
The Ten Steps of Design
But before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story — holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document. And you need to produce it using a process that doesn’t kill your desire to actually write the story. Here is my ten-step process for writing a design document. I use this process for writing my novels, and I hope it will help you.
Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture. When you later write your book proposal, this sentence should appear very early in the proposal. It’s the hook that will sell your book to your editor, to your committee, to the sales force, to bookstore owners, and ultimately to readers. So make the best one you can! Some hints on what makes a good sentence:
* Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words. * No character names, please! Better to say “a handicapped trapeze artist” than “Jane Doe”. * Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win. * Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form. Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. This is the analog of the second stage of the snowflake. I like to structure a story as “three disasters plus an ending”. Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter.
I don’t know if this is the ideal structure, it’s just my personal taste. If you believe in the Three-Act structure, then the first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up. It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist’s attempts to “fix things”. Things just get worse and worse. You can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup.
Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. Don’t confuse this paragraph with the back-cover copy for your book. This paragraph summarizes the whole story. Your back-cover copy should summarize only about the first quarter of the story. Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells: * The character’s name
* A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline * The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?) * The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?) * The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?) * The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change? * A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline
An important point: You may find that you need to go back and revise your one-sentence summary and/or your one-paragraph summary. Go ahead! This is good–it means your characters are teaching you things about your story. It’s always okay at any stage of the design process to go back and revise earlier stages. In fact, it’s not just okay–it’s inevitable. And it’s good. Any revisions you make now are revisions you won’t need to make later on to a clunky 400 page manuscript. Another important point: It doesn’t have to be perfect. The purpose of each step in the design process is to advance you to the next step. Keep your forward momentum! You can always come back later and fix it when you understand the story better. You will do this too, unless you’re a lot smarter than I am. Step 4) By this stage, you should have a good idea of the large-scale structure of your novel, and you have only spent a day or two. Well, truthfully, you may have spent as much as a week, but it doesn’t matter. If the story is broken, you know it now, rather than after investing 500 hours in a rambling first draft. So now just keep growing the story.
Take several hours and expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into a full paragraph. All but the last paragraph should end in a disaster. The final paragraph should tell how the book ends. This is a lot of fun, and at the end of the exercise, you have a pretty decent one-page skeleton of your novel. It’s okay if you can’t get it all onto one single-spaced page. What matters is that you are growing the ideas that will go into your story. You are expanding the conflict. You should now have a synopsis suitable for a proposal, although there is a better alternative for proposals . . . Step 5) Take a day or two and write up a one-page description of each major character and a half-page description of the other important characters. These “character synopses” should tell the story from the point of view of each character. As always, feel free to cycle back to the earlier steps and make revisions as you learn cool stuff about your characters. I usually enjoy this step the most and lately, I have been putting the resulting “character synopses” into my proposals instead of a plot-based synopsis.
Editors love character synopses, because editors love character-based fiction. Step 6) By now, you have a solid story and several story-threads, one for each character. Now take a week and expand the one-page plot synopsis of the novel to a four-page synopsis. Basically, you will again be expanding each paragraph from step (4) into a full page. This is a lot of fun, because you are figuring out the high-level logic of the story and making strategic decisions. Here, you will definitely want to cycle back and fix things in the earlier steps as you gain insight into the story and new ideas whack you in the face. Step 7) Take another week and expand your character descriptions into full-fledged character charts detailing everything there is to know about each character. The standard stuff such as birthdate, description, history, motivation, goal, etc. Most importantly, how will this character change by the end of the novel?
This is an expansion of your work in step (3), and it will teach you a lot about your characters. You will probably go back and revise steps (1-6) as your characters become “real” to you and begin making petulant demands on the story. This is good — great fiction is character-driven. Take as much time as you need to do this, because you’re just saving time downstream. When you have finished this process, (and it may take a full month of solid effort to get here), you have most of what you need to write a proposal. If you are a published novelist, then you can write a proposal now and sell your novel before you write it. If you’re not yet published, then you’ll need to write your entire novel first before you can sell it. No, that’s not fair, but life isn’t fair and the world of fiction writing is especially unfair. Step 8) You may or may not take a hiatus here, waiting for the book to sell. At some point, you’ve got to actually write the novel. Before you do that, there are a couple of things you can do to make that traumatic first draft easier. The first thing to do is to take that four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel.
And the easiest way to make that list is . . . with a spreadsheet. For some reason, this is scary to a lot of writers. Oh the horror. Deal with it. You learned to use a word-processor. Spreadsheets are easier. You need to make a list of scenes, and spreadsheets were invented for making lists. If you need some tutoring, buy a book. There are a thousand out there, and one of them will work for you. It should take you less than a day to learn the itty bit you need. It’ll be the most valuable day you ever spent. Do it. Make a spreadsheet detailing the scenes that emerge from your four-page plot outline. Make just one line for each scene. In one column, list the POV character. In another (wide) column, tell what happens. If you want to get fancy, add more columns that tell you how many pages you expect to write for the scene.
A spreadsheet is ideal, because you can see the whole storyline at a glance, and it’s easy to move scenes around to reorder things. My spreadsheets usually wind up being over 100 lines long, one line for each scene of the novel. As I develop the story, I make new versions of my story spreadsheet. This is incredibly valuable for analyzing a story. It can take a week to make a good spreadsheet. When you are done, you can add a new column for chapter numbers and assign a chapter to each scene. Step 9) (Optional. I don’t do this step anymore.) Switch back to your word processor and begin writing a narrative description of the story. Take each line of the spreadsheet and expand it to a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Put in any cool lines of dialogue you think of, and sketch out the essential conflict of that scene. If there’s no conflict, you’ll know it here and you should either add conflict or scrub the scene. I used to write either one or two pages per chapter, and I started each chapter on a new page. Then I just printed it all out and put it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily swap chapters around later or revise chapters without messing up the others. This process usually took me a week and the end result was a massive 50-page printed document that I would revise in red ink as I wrote the first draft.
All my good ideas when I woke up in the morning got hand-written in the margins of this document. This, by the way, is a rather painless way of writing that dreaded detailed synopsis that all writers seem to hate. But it’s actually fun to develop, if you have done steps (1) through (8) first. When I did this step, I never showed this synopsis to anyone, least of all to an editor — it was for me alone. I liked to think of it as the prototype first draft. Imagine writing a first draft in a week! Yes, you can do it and it’s well worth the time. But I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like I need this step anymore, so I don’t do it now. Step 10) At this point, just sit down and start pounding out the real first draft of the novel. You will be astounded at how fast the story flies out of your fingers at this stage. I have seen writers triple their fiction writing speed overnight, while producing better quality first drafts than they usually produce on a third draft. You might think that all the creativity is chewed out of the story by this time. Well, no, not unless you overdid your analysis when you wrote your Snowflake.
This is supposed to be the fun part, because there are many small-scale logic problems to work out here. How does Hero get out of that tree surrounded by alligators and rescue Heroine who’s in the burning rowboat? This is the time to figure it out! But it’s fun because you already know that the large-scale structure of the novel works. So you only have to solve a limited set of problems, and so you can write relatively fast. This stage is incredibly fun and exciting. I have heard many fiction writers complain about how hard the first draft is. Invariably, that’s because they have no clue what’s coming next. Good grief! Life is too short to write like that! There is no reason to spend 500 hours writing a wandering first draft of your novel when you can write a solid one in 150.
Counting the 100 hours it takes to do the design documents, you come out way ahead in time. About midway through a first draft, I usually take a breather and fix all the broken parts of my design documents. Yes, the design documents are not perfect. That’s okay. The design documents are not fixed in concrete, they are a living set of documents that grows as you develop your novel. If you are doing your job right, at the end of the first draft you will laugh at what an amateurish piece of junk your original design documents were. And you’ll be thrilled at how deep your story has become. Over the years, I’ve taught the Snowflake method to hundreds of writers at conferences. I’ve also had this article posted here on my web site for a long time, and the page has now been viewed over 2,400,000 times. I’ve heard from many, many writers. Some people love the Snowflake; some don’t. My attitude is that if it works for you, then use it. If only parts of it work for you, then use only those parts.
I write my own novels using the Snowflake method. Make no mistake — it’s a fair bit of work. For a long time, I did it the hard way, using Microsoft Word to write the text and Microsoft Excel to manage the list of scenes. Unfortunately, neither of those tools knows about the structure of fiction. Finally, I realized that it would be a whole lot easier to work through the method if the tools were designed specially for fiction. So one day I decided to create that software. I wanted something that would automate every step that could be automated. The result was a commercial software package I call Snowflake Pro. It makes my own Snowflaking incredibly easier, and it’s now doing the same for zillions of other writers. Ways To Use The Snowflake
Are you struggling right now with a horrible first draft of your novel that just seems hopeless? Take an hour and summarize your story in one sentence. Does that clarify things? You’ve just completed step (1) of the Snowflake, and it only took an hour. Why not try the next few steps of the Snowflake and see if your story doesn’t suddenly start coming to life? What have you got to lose, except a horrible first draft that you already hate? Are you a seat-of-the-pants writer who finally finished your novel, but now you’re staring at an enormous pile of manuscript that desperately needs rewriting? Take heart! Your novel’s done, isn’t it? You’ve done something many writers only dream about. Now imagine a big-shot editor bumps into you in the elevator and asks what your novel’s about. In fifteen words or less, what would you say?
Take your time! This is a thought game. What would you say? If you can come up with an answer in the next hour . . . you’ve just completed Step 1 of the Snowflake! Do you think some of the other steps might help you put some order into that manuscript? Give it a shot. What have you got to lose? Have you just got a nightmarishly long letter from your editor detailing all the things that are wrong with your novel? Are you wondering how you can possibly make all the changes before your impossible deadline? It’s never too late to do the Snowflake. How about if you take a week and drill through all the steps right now? It’ll clarify things wonderfully, and then you’ll have a plan for executing all those revisions. I bet you’ll get it done in record time. And I bet the book will come out better than you imagined. If the Snowflake Method works for you, I’d like to hear from you. You can reach me through the contact page on my web-site. Acknowledgments: I thank my many friends on the Chi Libris list and especially Janelle Schneider for a large number of discussions on the Snowflake and much else.
HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL: 7 TIPS EVERYONE CAN USE
1. Write the story you’d most want to read. Don’t write a story just because you think it might be a bestseller or that it would make Great Aunt Edna proud. Think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, then don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel. It might not be anything genre-specific that you love, but a certain voice, or type of story, or kinds of characters. Write what you love. Do me a favor — right now, today, start a list of all your crazy obsessions, the things that get your heart pumping, that wake you up in the middle of the night. Put it above your desk and use it to guide you, to jumpstart your writing each and every day. GIVEAWAY: Jennifer is excited to give away a free copy of her latest novel to a random commenter.
Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Karen Gough won.) 2. Begin with character. Make her flawed and believable. Let her live and breathe and give her the freedom to surprise you and take the story in unexpected directions. If she’s not surprising you, you can bet she’ll seem flat to your readers. One exercise I always do when I’m getting to know a character is ask her to tell me her secrets. Sit down with a pen and paper and start with, “I never told anybody…” and go from there, writing in the voice of your character. 3. Give that character a compelling problem. Your character has to have something that’s going to challenge her, torment her and propel her forward. At the heart of every story is conflict – whether external or internal, make it a good one, and remember that this problem is going to shape your character, leaving her forever changed. (Learn How to Start Your Novel or Book.)
4. Make things happen! You can have the greatest characters in the world, and write beautifully, but if nothing’s happening, the story falls on its face pretty quickly. In my books, I make sure something important to the plot is happening in each scene. And if there’s a scene in there that isn’t helping to move the story along in some vital way, I cut it, no matter how great it is. When I’m editing, I’ll go scene by scene and write a single word sentence describing the action on an index card. Then I lay the cards out and I’ve got the bare bones of my story. I can see if things are moving forward, if I’m throwing in enough twists and turns, and if there are scenes that just aren’t pulling their weight.
5. Make it believable. Ah, you say, but you sometimes write stories with ghosts and fairies – how believable is that? It works if you make it believable in the universe of the book. In Promise Not to Tell, I came up with rules for the ghost – things she could and couldn’t do. I gave her a history and compelling reason to return. Readers hate cheap tricks. Don’t pull the evil twin routine in the final hour. Don’t bring in a new character at the end to solve the protagonist’s problem for her. She’s got to resolve things herself, for better or worse. 6. Stick with it the project. You’ll be tempted to give up a thousand and one times. Don’t. Finish the story. Then work twice as hard to revise it. Do your best to get it out in the world. When it’s rejected by agents and publishers (which it will be) keep sending it out. In the meantime, write another.
Then another. Trust me, you get better every time. You’re not in this writing business because it’s easy. It took me four books, two agents and seven years to get my first novel published. It was a long tough road, but so, so worth it in the end! 7. And lastly: Ignore the rules. (Including mine.) Everyone’s got advice and theories; people want to pigeonhole you, put you in a genre with its own rules and conventions. I think the work comes out better when we leave all that behind; when the only thing to be true to is the writing. GIVEAWAY: Jennifer is excited to give away a free copy of her latest novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Karen Gough won.)
How to write a novel*
Ever wanted to write a novel but had no clue how? Having just finished my fifth novel, I am now ready to pass on my accummulated novel-writing wisdom to those what have never writ one but wants to. Here is the complete, full and unexpurgated guide:
First of all you need a computer. (Yeah, yeah, I know in the olden days they made do with quill, ink and paper, and typewriters—aargh! don’t get me started on how creepy and scary typewriters are—plus, whatever, this is notthe olden days.) On that computer you need a word processing program. If you want to be compatible with the publishing industry it should be microsoft word. If you want a program that doesn’t make you froth with rage it should be anything other than microsoft word. (Sadly, I have gone with the rage-frothing option.) You’ll also need some kind of spreadsheet program which needn’t be compatible with anything else—it is for your eyes only. If you want to write your novel relatively quickly and productively, it should have no access to the interweb thingy, also no games, or anything other than the two aforementioned programs. If you can’t write without easy access to endless forms of procrastination, sorry, I mean, research tools, then by all means be connected to that gateway to hell the intramanet.
Once you have your equipment set up in a suitably ergonomic way (that’s right, I’m with Scalzi on the efficacy of coffee shops—that way lies bad backs, soul-destroying one-night stands, and caffeine-stained teeth) open up your wp program and type in the title of your novel. Do not spend a lot of time on this. The novel I am about to be currently working on is called The Fairy Novel which is shorthand for The Great Australian Feminist Monkey Knife-Fighting Cricket Elvis Mangosteen Young Adult Fairy Novel. It’s a working title, which means the crappy title I came up with while waiting for my agent, editor, or marketing, or someone, to come up with something better. Untitled is another excellent working title (Sean P. Fodera explains in the comments why Untitled is actually a terrible working title). Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi! has also worked well for me. Maybe Go! Little Novelist, Go! might work for you. Sometimes working titles wind up being the actual title (Snakes on a Plane, anyone?
Or how about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?) but mostly not. The title at the top of the page is purely there for psychological reasons. So that even before you’ve written the first sentence you’ve still got something, and not just a little something, but the title! The beating heart of your novel! Make sure you make it a bigger and fancier font than your novel proper, underline it, too. Making it red or blue or some other colour can also be very motivating. You could even create a funky animated title so that Untitled bops across the top of the page and waves at you. Though that might be a little distracting. Once you have your title, in a font you like, at the top of the page, a choice lies before you: Do you just start the novel or do you outline?
Hang on, what am I saying? This is your first novel! Under no circumstances should you outline first. Outlining is something you’ll figure out whether you need later on, after you’ve written a few novels. First novels should be written by the seat-of-the-pants method: make it up as you go along. If you have no particular story to tell, then borrow one from someone else. This has worked pretty well for Shakespeare and pretty much every other great writer. The bible is good for plots, as are myths, fairy tales, legends, ballads, pop songs, and crappy movies that didn’t quite work (rewrite them so they do). If you’re worried about your plot being a bit too recognisable, set it somewhere completely different, and change the sex, age, race, ethnicity and religion of all the characters. You can further cunningly disguise it by mashing two or three plots together. It’s about time someone wrote Romeo & Juliet plus The Hustler plus The Ramayana.
I’m not going to tell you what your novel should be about except to say that it must not be about a first-time novelist working in a coffee shop. Also stay away from unicorns, dragons, butterflies and washed-up alcoholic salesman (though possibly combining all four might work). Whether you write your novel in first, second, or third person is also up to you. Just know that currently third is considered the most invisible, and second the least. Just muck around until you find which one suits you (or this particular novel) best. The first sentence should begin with “The” or “Once upon a time”. You can change it later, but those are the sure-fire sentence starters that’ll get the novel up and running lickety split.
You may get stuck along the way, and have no idea what your characters should do next. Raymond Chandler says that’s when it’s time to send someone in brandishing a gun. Sending in a vampire also works. Or you can set something on fire, have a long lost relative or best friend show up, have your protag lose all their worldly goods, or discover that the lovers are actually siblings (ewww!). I.e. if you get stuck, throw something into the mix and see what happens. The more stuff you have in your pot the less likely you are to run out of momentum and things to write about. Once you’ve written the first 20 thousand words it’s time to crack open your spreadsheet program and start mapping your novel. This is a handy trick taught me by the old man. Here’s what my very first spreadsheet (ss) looks like:
At a glance I can see which pov was telling what chapter, what day it was, where they were, and who was getting the lion share of the novel. You can also have a content column that lets you know whether it’s a sitting-around-talking chapter (“) or a sitting-around-and-thinking (‘) or an action-packed chapter (!) or somewhere in between (^) or one with sex (*). If your content column (cc) looks like this then you might decide that after all that running/shooting/jumping/giving birth, it may be time for a wee spot of (“) or (‘) or (*) or (@), so as not to exhaust your reader. Mix ‘em up. See what happens. If you’re worried that your protag has a tendency to be a tourist, you can also have a column for whether they’ve done anything. Put an x if they have, and nothing if they haven’t. It’ll soon be clear whether you have sleeping-beauty issues or not. The full utility of the ss does not reveal itself until you’ve finished the first draft and are ready to start rewriting.
Then the ss functions as a mini-map, instead of scrolling back and forth frantically trying to find who done what where, you can have a squiz at your ss. You may be tempted to start shifting chapters around and inserting extra (!) or (“) before you’ve completed your novel—resist that temptation! I have a friend who has been rewriting and rearranging their brilliant-but-unfinished novel for many, many, years now and they’re still no closer to finishing it. That way lies madness. (Or, you know, a novel that takes ages to finish.) Which doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it along the way. Why not reward yourself at the end of each chapter by adding it to the spreadsheet? You can even invent new symbols to describe its content. Or find some other thing that must be mapped. See? Procrastination is yours even without the intramaweb thingie. The really hard work of novel writing begins after you complete the first draft. Then, and only then, can you start figuring out how to make that which is broken way less broken. In order to do that you should give yourself at least a week off after completing said first draft.
Walk away, go play, dance, juggle. Sleep for a week. But do not so much as think about your novel during your time off. When you’re ready to get back to work sit down and read it from start to finish. Most people find it easiest to do this by printing out the ms. and scribbling comments in the margins. Try not to get bogged down by proof reading, keep your eye out for the big stuff: Mark the boring bits, the confusing bits, the incomprehensible bits. Think about how to fix ‘em. Scribble your ideas down. When you’ve gone through the whole ms. it’s time to implement all your changes. Each change will spark a whole bunch of others. Keep at it until you think your novel’s in pretty good shape. Don’t forget to keep track with your ss to see how the balance of (!) and (“) and (*) and (‘) is going. Make adjustments accordingly.
When you truly think you’re done it’s time to send it out to first readers. Who should your first readers be? you ask. Who do you know who reads a lot, and talks about what they’ve read in smart and interesting ways? Do you know any other writers? Send it out to everyone who agrees to read and comment on your work of genius. The more people you send it to the greater your odds of getting feedback. I promise to read books for friends all the time and frequently fail to keep my promise. (Sorry, everyone! I am a bad friend.) I send my first drafts out to ten or more people; I rarely get more than five responses. When you get the feedback rewrite accordingly. Once you’ve done so to your satisfaction then congratulations! You’ve written a novel! It is now time to begin your second novel. To sum up:
* borrow plot
* first readers
And that’s all there is to it. Good luck! It’s as easy as falling off a log and into a secret hidden portal into John Malkovich’s brain. Or something like that. *This guide was written to supplement Maureen Johnson‘s genius post about writers and deadlines. NOTE: The above is not a description of how I write novels.
How to Write a Novel: 10 Steps
The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is that there are no easy answers. The second thing you need to know is that, if you’re anything like most of us, it’s going to be quite difficult. There’s no magic formula for novel-writing. Every novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world. Still with me? Good. Because, as it turns out, novel writing isn’t just a head-banging exercise in utter frustration and despair (although, trust me, sometimes it is just that). It’s also a deep swim into your own head space, a really fun adventure, and one of the most thrillingly creative things a person can do. It’s your world; you get to make it, populate it, cultivate it, and bring all of the pieces together. If you’re ready to take on the challenge of writing a novel, here are 10 steps to get your started.
1. Forget the outline.
Outlines are good, unless they are bad. The nice thing about an outline is that it gives you a direction. The bad thing about an outline is that it limits your novel’s possibilities. For the first fifty pages, at least, work without an outline. See where the story is beginning to take you. Need help with this? Try The Paperclip Method.
2. Consider the setting.
Setting encompasses not only place, but also time. Where does your novel happen, and when? Ian McEwan’s chilling novella, The Comfort of Strangers, derives much of its tension from the setting of Venice—the convoluted streets and hidden alleys are essential to the feeling of disorientation that leads to the protagonist’s undoing. When I began writing The Year of Fog, I knew that this book could happen only one place: San Francisco. And I knew the story of a child disappearing into the fog must begin on Ocean Beach, where the summer fog is so dense, you can see only a few feet in front of you. When you consider the setting of your novel, be as specific as possible. If it begins in a city, what part of the city? What street? What building?Why does the story happen here? 3. Consider the point of view.
Who is telling the story, from what distance? Do you have a first-person narrator who is at the center of the action, an omniscient narrator who is able to go into the thoughts of any character at any time, a limited third person narration that sticks closely to one character? Mersault engages the reader’s empathy in The Stranger, despite his seeming coldness, because the first-person narration brings the reader straight into Mersault’s mind. We understand his motivations from his own point of view, and, as a result, actions that might otherwise seem reprehensible begin to make sense to us.
4. Consider the protagonist.
There has to be someone at the center of the action. Generally, this will be someone your reader ends up rooting for, no matter how flawed the character may be. (And he or she must be flawed in order to be realistic.) Emma Bovary is deeply flawed, but in the end, we care what happens to her as she hurtles toward self-destruction. Flaubert isn’t easy on Emma, but he portrays her in all of her complexity—her ambition, her passion, her rapacious desire for status and luxury. Every great novel is character-driven; your protagonist must be a character worth caring about.
5. Consider the conflict.
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, there is no novel without trouble. Every story begins with conflict. What’s yours? In Gone Girl, a woman goes missing in the first chapter, and her husband appears to be implicated in her disappearance. In Here Is Where We Meet, a middle-aged man meets his dead mother along an aqueduct in Lisbon, and must come to terms not only with his own country’s past, but also with the mysterious nature of the uncertain boundaries between life and death.
6. Consider the stakes.
What is at risk in the story? What does your protagonist stand to lose or gain? What does he or she want, and why is it important? The stakes must be clear if you want the reader to care.
7. Embrace fragments.
Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged chapter in the early stages of novel-writing. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, allow yourself the freedom to think in small bits. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 1200 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator,” or “Today I’m going to write the last paragraph of the novel.” That last one is kind of weird, right? But the point is, you don’t have to write in a linear fashion. You can piece your novel together later. For now, get some stuff on the page.
8. Write what you don’t know.
The old adage is, “Write what you know.” But you also need to be willing to write what you don’t know. In the spirit of discovery, allow one character to work in a field about which you know very little, or allow some element of the plot, or a subplot, to delve into something you find unusual. Then research it. Sure, you could make your main character’s sister a struggling writer, something you presumably know a thing or two about, but that’s a little boring, isn’t it? Why not make her a welder instead? Then go online and research welding. Take a welder out for beer. Write five paragraphs that can be sprinkled throughout your novel that embrace the lingo and physicality of welding. Voila–you’ve created something interesting and textural, something that may just take you in an unusual metaphorical direction you never would have imagined if you were sticking to what you knew. When I was writing No One You Know, I had a character who was a math prodigy.
Math was always my worst subject in school, and even in adult life, my limitations in mathematics have been something of an albatross. But the book required me to stretch myself, and I ended up writing in depth about The Goldbach Conjecture, a mathematical mystery that has remained unsolved for hundreds of years. I learned a great deal not only about that one math problem, but about the world of mathematics and the personalities that populate it. I also came across one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, A Mathemetician’s Apology, by G. H. Hardy. If I’d chosen to skim the math part, I would have had an easier time of it, but a much less interesting journey.
9. Set a deadline, but be realistic and kind.
Not for the completion of the novel, but for the first fifty pages. Set a second deadline, far enough in the future, for the completion of the second fifty pages. It’s great to tell yourself you’re going to write a novel in a month (NaNoWriMo, anyone?), but it can be very discouraging once you get to the end of the month and realize you’ve produced only 35 pages. 35 pages is great, unless you’ve set yourself up for failure by believing you would produce 300 in that amount of time. 35 good pages are better than 300 bad pages any day. Be kind to yourself and set yourself up for success by setting realistic deadlines.
10: Keep it to yourself.
One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is showing their early efforts to anyone who will look. I know, it’s tempting. You’re writing a novel. You want feedback! You want support! You want someone to tell you it’s awesome. But hold your horses. For one thing, if you let people see your novel too early, they’re going to have all sorts of ideas about where it should go and what it should be about, what you should include and what you should leave out. If you show it to two people, you’re going to get a double dose of all those well-intentioned ideas. Show it to three people, and triple the effect. You see what I mean. Worst case scenario is that no one likes it and you’re so discouraged you end up ditching it before you’ve had a chance to get very far. For a little while, at least, you need to protect your novel.
Don’t show it to anyone, and don’t ask for advice. Give yourself some time to get your own vision onto the page before other visions interject. Many novels are written by collaboration, but, unlike screenplays, most are not written by committee. It’s your story; hide it in a drawer until it’s ready to see the light. Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the forthcoming novel Golden State, the forthcoming story collection Hum, and three other books of fiction. She is the founder of Fiction Attic Press and the creator of the The Paperclip Method. View Michelle’s online writing classes or sign up to receive Michelle’s free writing and publishing tips newsletter.
How to Write a Novel
A novel is a fictitious, complex work of narrative prose. Good novels illuminate reality even as they transcend it, allowing readers to find truth and humanity in worlds that are completely fabricated. No matter what type of novel you want to write – literary or commercial, romance or science fiction, a wartime epic or a family drama – you’ll need boundless creative energy and a commitment to see you through drafting your novel, and the revision and editing process. 1
1. Decide what type of novel you want to write. Not every novel fits neatly into a certain category, but it’s helpful to think about your intended genre and audience as you begin planning your work. Read all of the major works that fall into your chosen genre to get a good understanding of how to construct a novel according to the standards of your chosen genre. Choose to either use a formula or break the mold. Consider the following options: * Literary novels are intended to be works of art, complete with deep themes, symbolism, and complex literary devices. Read classic works by the great novelists and refer to lists like The Guardian’s “100 Greatest Novels of All Time” which are helpful.
* Commercial novels are intended to entertain audiences and sell a lot of copies. They are divided into many genres, including science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, fantasies, romances, and historical fiction, among others. Many novels in these genres follow predictable formulas and are written in long series. * There is plenty of crossover between literary and commercial novels. Many writers of science fiction, fantasies, thrillers, and so on create novels just as complex and meaningful as writers of novels that are classically “literary.” Just because a novel sells well does not mean it isn’t a work of art.
2. Think about the setting. Once you’ve decided which genre (or genres) to write within, start dreaming up a setting for your novel. This goes beyond the particular city where your characters will dwell; you’ve got an entire universe to dream up. The setting you create will determine the mood and tone of your novel, and will affect the problems your characters will face. Think about these questions as you sketch out the perimeters of the new world you’re creating: * Will it be loosely based on places that are familiar to you in real life? * Will it be set in the present, or in some other time?
* Will it take place on earth, or somewhere imaginary?
* Will it be centered in one city or neighborhood, or expanded to a range of locations?
* Will it take place over the course of a month, a year, or decades?
* Will the world be cast in shadows, or will it inspire optimism?
* Will it end on a sad or happy note?
3. Create a protagonist and other characters. The protagonist of your novel should be fleshed out with recognizable personality traits and thought patterns. Protagonists don’t necessarily have to be likable, but they are usually relateable in some way so that readers stay interested in the story. One of the joys of reading fiction is recognizing yourself and living vicariously through your favorite characters. * Your world should be populated with other characters too. Think about who will interact with your protagonist, serving as either friends or foils. * Many novelists describe thinking of their characters as real people, asking themselves what the characters would do in a given situation and doing their best to stay “true” to the characters. Your characters should be so well-developed in your mind that it feels natural to help them navigate your fictional world. * 4
4. Visualize the plot. Most novels, regardless of genre, have some sort of conflict. Tension builds until the problem comes to a climax, and then it’s resolved in some way. This doesn’t mean novels always have happy endings; it’s more about providing motivations for the characters’ actions and creating a vehicle for change and meaning across the span of your novel. Drafting the Novel
Consider making an outline. Every novelist has a different method for starting a new novel. Creating an outline can be a good way to map out your ideas and give you small goals to accomplish as you work toward the larger goal of writing an entire book. * Your outline does not have to be linear. You could do a quick sketch of each character’s arc, or make a sort of Venn Diagram showing how different characters’ stories will overlap. * Once you make your outline, don’t attempt to follow it exactly. The point is simply to jump-start the writing process with a visual representation of where the story might go. It will certainly change as you begin the writing process.
2. Carry a notebook. Writing a novel is a creative process, and you never know when a good idea might come to you. Carry a notebook and a pen so you can jot down ideas wherever you go. You might feel inspired by something you hear on your morning commute, or while daydreaming in a coffee shop. * Use your notebook to write fragments – paragraphs, or even sentences, that will become part of a more complete story. * Remember that writing isn’t always a perfect process. It often proceeds backwards, inside out, or upside down instead of in a linear fashion. 3. Write a first draft. When you feel ready, sit down and begin writing the first draft of your novel. Don’t worry about making the language perfect – no one will read this draft but you. Write without judging yourself. * Make the commitment and write every single day. You do need to understand what you’re undertaking. Many wonderful writers go unnoticed and unread because their drawers are filled with unfinished novels. Set small goals – finishing a chapter, a few pages, or a certain amount of words every few days – to keep yourself motivated.
* Create a writing space. Find a cozy place where you can relax and there are no distractions. Get a good chair to use which won’t give you back pains after hours and hours of sitting and writing. You don’t write a book in an hour; it takes months, so protect your back. 4. Conduct a lot of research. As you begin filling out your novel, your setting and characters will get more detailed. If you’re writing about an archaeologist, you’ll have to perform some research to paint an accurate picture of what that profession entails. The same goes for writing about historical time periods, cities, and so on. * Make use of the library. You’ll be able to find most of the information you need in your local library, and libraries are also excellent places to do some writing. * Interview people. If you’re unsure whether a topic you’re writing about rings true, find someone with firsthand knowledge on the subject and ask a lot of questions.
The Revision Process1
1. Practice self-editing. When your first draft is finished, the real work begins! It’s time to cut what isn’t working, rewrite entire chapters, and hone your language. * Start by printing out your draft and reading it through from start to finish. Take notes on what you think should change. * Don’t be precious with your writing. You may feel attached to a particular paragraph that just isn’t moving the story forward. Challenge yourself to make the right decision. You can always use the paragraph in a different piece.
* Repeat this process over and over until you have a draft you’d be proud to show other people. It may be months or years before your novel gets to this stage; be patient with yourself.2 2. Show your work to other people. Begin by showing your writing to someone you completely trust, so you can get used to the feeling of having others read your work. Since it isn’t always easy to get honest feedback from people who love you and want to spare your feelings, consider getting outside opinions in one or more of the following ways: * Join a writing workshop. Local colleges and writing centers are great places to find fiction workshops. You’ll review other people’s writing and receive notes on yours as well.
* Start a writing group. If you know a few other people who are writing novels, arrange to meet with them once a month to share progress and ask for tips. * Take advice with a grain of salt. If someone tells you a chapter isn’t working, get a second opinion before you decide to cut it from your manuscript. 5. Publish your book. This is the conclusion that most writers aim for. Choose to publish with a traditional book publishing house, an online e-publisher, or self-publish. * If you’re going the traditional route, it helps to find a literary agent to shop your book around to publishers. Go to www.writersmarket.com for a list of agents. You’ll be asked to submit a query letter and a synopsis of your manuscript. * Self-publishing companies vary a lot in quality. Before choosing a company, ask for a few samples so you can see the quality of their paper and printing.
* Sometimes that perfect character has everything– except a good name. Invest in a baby book that provides names and their meanings, and keep it with you while writing. There are also websites online that can generate names. * You’ll know after a while if a story you’re writing has really captivated your attention and imagination. If you don’t feel this right away, keep developing ideas and trying. Sometimes it helps to listen to music in between moments when you’re writing. It helps you think of different scenarios and chapters, and how characters might feel about these adventures, themselves or even other characters around them.
* Listen to music to help inspire you.
* Avoid using too many clichés or stock phrases. They have their place, but over using them is boring and unoriginal. * Start a diary or journal and read more, this will improve your skills. Remember if you want to change something, change it. Your novel can start as a war in the Middle East to a simple high school predicament. It happens. You might be just starting it or in the middle of the book. So make sure you really think about things before you write them. * “It is better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self.” Write your story the way you want. There are markets for all genres, and there will always be a slot for your story if it’s well written and interesting. * Keep a dictionary and thesaurus with you while writing. * Write about anything .Like things coming from your heart and feel that your feeling’s are flying like you are freedom from every thing. But you related with your mind. * Make your characters believable.
Make them seem real.
* Just because you love your story, doesn’t mean others will. Let a minimum of 3-4 trustworthy, reliable friends read it before sending it off to a publisher. Remember to copyright your work first even if its not finished. * If you are a procrastinator, try joining NaNoWriMo: write 50,000 words in one month to complete your novel. Writers tend to work better when there’s a deadline to face. More motivation. * Write a page a day regardless how creative you are feeling. * Before starting to write a novel you should read a lot of books first.