How I write a novel

I’m writing a new novel. I thought it would be useful to record the process. I wish I’d done this before. So I could see how my approach has changed over the years. (I have already writen about writing software.)

Anyway, this is how I’m doing it now.

I start at the end. Which is to say my end goal. And I work back from that. My goal is to complete an 90,000+ word manuscript.

Next, I think about the chapters.

It’s important that the length of each chapter is feels comfortably obtainable. So I don’t get stressed. Stress means fear. Fear means writer’s block. It’s important to feel comfortable. Challenged. Yes. But also comfortable. I know that I can write 1,000 words on just about anything. (I do it on this blog all the time.) So that’s my comfortable word count length. It’s also makes for quite a short chapter, so I tend to write 1,000 word scenes and join them up into 3,000 word chapters.

To get to 90,000 words, I must write 90 1,000 word scenes, or 30 chapters. If your comfort length is 5,000 words you only need 16 chapters.

If you’re writing a novel with multiple POVs it’s a little more complicated. You might, for example, opt for alternate POVs. 15 x 3,000 word chapters in one POV. 15 chapters in a second POV… Whatever you prefer.

Next comes the outline. My concept of an ‘outline’ is a bare-bones bullet point list. Each bullet point is three to five words long. Three words is the ideal. If I can’t summarise a chapter in less than a dozen words then I have to question my grasp on the story. Typically each outline idea is: subject, verb, object. A character does something to something / someone. Or: Object, verb, subject. Something happens to someone / something.

It’s important not to start the outline as a numbered list. Numbers get you stuck into a fixed way of thinking. They lock you into an order. At the outline stage anything can and should change. This is where you shift things around. Do it here, rather than 65,000 words later on. So, avoid numbered chapters.

For now, stay in the comfort zone. Don’t stress out, because stress creates fear. Fear is writer’s block.

Begin with simple ideas, and build it up from there.

First. A simple idea for the story:

  • Zak breaks out of prison.

Then add a complication:

  • Zak assembles his team.
  • They break out of prison together.

Then add a further complication:

  • Zak is unfairly framed for a murder.
  • Zak is imprisoned.
  • Zak assembles his team.
  • They break out of prison together.
  • Zak takes revenge on the people who framed him.

Personally, I think it’s much easier to make an outline more complicated than it is to simplify complexity. Complexity is confusion, and confusion means writer’s block.

For example: ‘Zak is unfairly framed for a murder’ could occur over the space of three chapters and involve sub-elements — a build up.

Once I’ve got my basic ideas down, I start breaking them into scenes. Complicated stories are comprised of lots of smaller events (or scenes). Each one works in unison with the rest of the story.

After a fair amount of contemplation and tinkering (and coffee) I have enough scenes to make a story. In this case it’s about 90 scenes, or 30 3,000 word chapters.

The order of some of the scenes will inevitably have to be rejigged, removed, and new ones might have to be added. But — at some point — you should be, more of less, satisfied with what you’ve got. Ideally, this means that you’re good to go. The less changes from this point onwards, the better. Now you can start the actual writing.

Before I begin the writing, I have a clear understanding of the story. I'm aware of the POV, the dramatic action, the main characters, their motives, the tone, and the locations. This is how I do it now. I used to do it differently and I will probably change my process in the future. The important thing is to ensure the writing process is a creative experience that alleviates writer’s block.

Writer’s block is FUD. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. My aim is to provide a framework for my writing. So that I never have to feel that fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Although an outline means that I know exactly what is going to happen, I do not know how it is going to happen. This is the essence of suspense, and it ensures that the story I am writing is as exciting for me (as I write it) as it is (hopefully) for the reader.