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 80,000+ 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.

To get to 80,000 words, I must write 80 1,000 word chapters. If your comfort length is 5,000 words you only need 16 chapters. (Alternatively, there's no reason why you can’t join up five 1,000 word scenes, using scene breaks, to create a single, longer chapter.)

If you’re writing a novel with multiple POVs it’s a little more complicated. You might, for example, opt for alternate POVs. 20 x 2,000 word chapters in one POV. 20 chapters in a second POV… Whatever it takes to tell your story.

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 ordering. At the outline stage anything can and should be changed. This is where you can shift things around. Rather here than after you’ve written 65,000 words.

Numbered lists are stressful. For now, stay in the comfort zone. Don’t stress out. Stress creates fear. Fear is writer’s block.

Begin with simple ideas. 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 shape complexity into coherence. Complexity is confusion. Confusion is 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 segments. (I use the word segments. They could be scenes, chapters, etc. Whatever you prefer.) Big stories or events are comprised of lots of smaller events (or segments). Each one works in unison with the rest of the story.

After a fair amount of contemplation and tinkering (and coffee) I have enough segments to make a story. In this case it’s 80 segments. 80 chapters. It’s still best to leave things for a while. To give the outline time to settle in your mind. It’s normal that some of the chapters will need to be rejigged, removed, or new ones added. But — at some point — you should be satisfied with what you’ve got. Ideally, this means that you’re good to go. You don’t need to change anything further. You can start writing.

By the time you start writing you should have a clear understanding of the story. You should be aware of the POV, the dramatic action, the main characters, their motives, the tone, and the personality of the locations.

This method is designed to alleviate writer’s block. Writer’s block is FUD. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. My aim is to provide a guiding framework for myself. So that I never have to feel uncertain or doubt what I’m doing. And to allow enough room to creatively make things up as I go along.

I do know what happens in each chapter. But I don’t know how it happens. This is the essence of suspense. And it ensures that the story is as exciting for me (as I write it) as it is for someone to read it.