Some people recently expressed to me an interest in learning how I write these novels (and how I write novels in general, I suppose). Having gotten through outlining the next book (Zero Avalon), I now have some time to elaborate on my process.
I don’t think anything I say here will be particularly novel (pun intended), but I hope I can demystify the novel-building process for people who still find it intimidating, as I once did.
Every novel starts with an idea. It could be one or two sentences. You just need one. For the Totality series, I actually began with a very simple idea: what if, in the future, humanity is besieged by demon-like entities which can overtake and control human bodies?
But an idea, in and of itself, does not make a novel. So, the next step is to start building elements that will enable you to flesh out a novel. What I will not do here is explain the extremely simple basics of a story. You should know what a premise is, that most stories have structure in which events build to a climax, followed by a resolution and conclusion. I don’t think I need to cover that here.
I also want to take a moment to express that this is my process. This is what works for me. If you are not a meticulous planner, if you prefer to write without a net (so to speak), that is completely fine and valid. This advice is for people who find themselves stymied by a lack of planning, who find the whole idea of writing a novel too imposing and don’t know where to begin.
Some might tell you that, to start with, you should focus on character, or plot, or theme–that one of these is supreme and must be the foundation for your book. In my experience, what’s important is to pick one as an initial angle of attack and run with it. You will ultimately need all three, but it helps a lot to pick one and build from there.
Unless you are writing an unusual, experimental novel, you will need at least one character. Since you should have a basic idea for your novel in mind, start developing characters that will help you explore that idea. Think of characters who might have interesting or unexpected reactions to your premise. Think of characters who might be profoundly changed by such a premise. Build characters that suit your initial idea, and then build some more that you aren’t sure what to do with yet–you can think of these as “alternates” that you can throw in when you want to mix things up a bit. This obviously raises the question of how you build characters. Well, take from what’s around you: your own experiences, your friends, your family, and other people you may know about. Don’t make carbon copies of people you know, of course, but it’s fine to develop characters after real people. Just make sure to put your own creative stamp on them!
Again, unless you are doing something highly unconventional, a novel has to go somewhere. Circumstances at the end of the book should not be the same as circumstances at the beginning.
If you have not developed your characters yet, that’s OK. Think of a narrative suitable to your novel idea. Where could this premise go? How would it begin, how would it end, and what would happen in the middle to move it from A to B? Interesting stories don’t follow obvious paths, but it’s fine to take the obvious route when initially developing your plot. You can fix this later. But what you should end up with at this stage is a brief–perhaps paragraph length–description of where the story begins, where it goes, and where it ends.
One of the things that makes a story powerful and memorable is theme. A lot of people seem confused or intimidated by theme, but there is no need to be. For one thing, theme often develops organically from the basic elements of your story. Theme is just whatever your story is about over and above what the text explicitly communicates–it is subtext. It’s a broader message that can be intimated from the story as a whole. It is commentary on the human condition, or whatever topic the novel focuses on. For instance, the Totality series develops multiple themes:
- The human impacts of civilization-wide disruption
- The nature of self and identity
- The alienating nature of leadership
- The difficulties of impactful choices where there are no good options
And that’s just a sampling. These are likely to emerge as you work on the story, so don’t worry if you don’t think of any right away. Or they may crop up easily from your original idea!
Once you are armed with at least basic versions of your characters, plot, and themes, you can start outlining the novel itself. I recommend keeping documents for each of these elements, by the way, so you can keep track of all your notes.
Story Treatment vs. Outline
At this point, you have a decision to make. Depending on how confident you feel in what you’ve developed, you can move straight on to a chapter-by-chapter outline, or you can pause and work up a story treatment instead.
A story treatment is a notion I have essentially stolen from the world of screenwriting. Often times, before a screenplay is written, a writer will come up with a scene-by-scene prose description of the entire film. This is used to sell the idea of a script to a studio without having to actually write the entire screenplay up front. When it comes to writing a novel, this can be a useful method to flesh out your story beat-by-beat, one step at a time, but without worrying about where your chapter breaks will be. A film treatment is usually a bit long–thirty to eighty pages. Personally, I have benefited from writing treatments that range ten to twenty pages.
As a practical matter, the treatment does little more than describe the story one event at a time, describing situations, scenes, character actions and reactions, and so on, from beginning to end. Mingled within may be notes about why a specific action or event is significant, or what it may be foreshadowing about future events. Since the treatment is for your own use, it’s entirely up to you what information you put in it. But its purpose is to make you think logically through your story from one end to the other.
Outlining can be one of the most challenging parts of planning a novel, but once you do it, you will never be at a loss for where your story should go next. Whether you’ve already written a story treatment or just want to dive right into the outline, the process is essentially the same. Create a new document where you will store your outline, then start a numbered list. For #1, describe how you introduce your novel and what happens in the first chapter. Then move on to #2, describing your second chapter. Do this until you have reached the end of your story.
This brings up obvious questions. How much should happen in a single chapter? As a rule of thumb, my approach to each chapter (apart from the first and last) is to a) pick up with whatever crisis or important event concluded the last chapter, b) respond to and/or develop that event, then c) lead into or introduce a new, complicating event on which the chapter concludes. Now, one could easily see that this is essentially a “thriller” model of narrative construction–that each chapter basically picks up from a previous cliffhanger, allows events to unfold, then ends on another cliffhanger. You don’t have to do things this way, and ending chapters on quiet notes can be highly effective and even essential. But this model allows you to pace your novel in terms of action transpiring on a consistent chapter-by-chapter basis. And that is the key word: pacing. Your novel should unfold at a clear and consistent pace, so readers feel momentum and sense that the story is going somewhere.
Now, your first pass at the outline may be very simple. Each line might be one or two brief sentences about where the chapter opens, what happens, and where it leaves off. As you work through the outline, you may find yourself detecting holes in your story logic, or events which don’t flow well into each other. Or perhaps the story feels too linear, as if everything is simply happening too easily. This is the value of outlining! Make note of these, but don’t worry about them until you have a complete outline from start to finish. Then, go back and read each chapter description in your outline. If you don’t feel a consistent rhythm from one chapter to the next, if you don’t feel tension building up to a climax, your readers won’t, either. Change that outline! Hack it to pieces if you have to. If you get halfway through reading it and realize you don’t like the back half of the story, throw it out from that point and rebuild the rest of the outline.
You may end up making three, four, five, six passes at it–possibly even more. Just keep revising the outline until you are confident you know the flow of your story. You know the major events, you know why they are important, you have a structure that can be readily identified as an introduction, rising action, climax, resolution, and so forth. This outline will be the skeleton of your novel.
Here we come to something of an aside. An inherent risk to outlining is that you become entirely plot-focused, moving characters from event to event without consideration for the characters’ own motives, desires, and reactions. Ideally, you have been thinking through these as you’ve outlined, but perhaps you have inadvertently turned your beloved characters into mere chess pieces that you move around the board as your story demands. If you suspect this may be the case, I recommend a dedicated outline pass for character arcs. Bearing your major characters in mind, think about who they are and what they are like at the beginning of the story, and what they are like at the end. Have they changed at all? Have they had transformative experiences? Have they learned anything? Have they been damaged, traumatized, even killed? If they come out of the story pretty much the same as they entered it, is that really something anyone would care to read?
This character arc pass may disrupt your intricately-plotted outline, and that’s perfectly fine. Good characters should do that. They should mess up your plans and do things you don’t expect, but which are consistent with their personalities, histories, and motives. If you don’t know how a character would react to a particular situation, think on it until you do. Have conversations in your head with them until they have a clear and distinct voice and you feel that you understand them.
Character arcs are a bit like themes in that they often emerge organically from the underlying structure of your story, and may even develop unintentionally. This is fine, too. Real people often don’t know how they would react to a situation until they encounter it, and the same can hold for storytelling, as well.
My recommendation is that, after completing your outline and doing a character arc pass, if you still don’t understand your characters and how the events of the story affect them (and indeed, how they drive and affect the events of the story, themselves) then you should do more passes on the outline until you feel more confident in that understanding.
Writing the Book
Well, now there’s nothing left to do but write the book! You know your characters, you know your plot, you may have an idea of your themes. You have a strong outline, possibly a story treatment. Now comes the hard part: actually writing a book.
Truth be told, there is no secret to this. It is ultimately a matter of discipline. I have participated in National Novel Writing Month for a number of years, which has been good motivation for putting words down. You can use whatever best motivates you. My personal writing ritual is as follows:
- Set down a specific time each day for writing. Block out at least an hour.
- Throughout the day, give at least some thought to what I will be writing today, so I don’t feel completely lost once I’m sitting at the keyboard. (If you have a dull or monotonous job or no job at all, you can use that time to think about your story!)
- When the time comes, I pull out my laptop, put on some music (usually something ambient or at least without lyrics, as I find them distracting), and launch WriteMonkey. (I recommend using any distraction-eliminating full-screen text editor.)
- I set my goal for the day (usually the 1667 words called for by NaNoWriMo) and start writing until I reach the goal, and then continue until I feel I am at a stopping point. I hate leaving off in the middle of something really interesting!
It’s easy to get stuck and worry about the specific words you are using to tell your story. Remember: none of this is set in stone. You can always change it later. What matters most is getting words down–any words–to tell your story. Get it done, start to finish. Work on it every day, or at least set aside time on a very regular basis, such as several times a week. Personally, I try to stick to a weekday schedule, giving myself the weekends to recharge and think through what’s happening next.
If you have what amounts to a 100,000 word novel idea, write about 1800 words for it a day (that’s less than the length of this post!), and do this five days a week, you will have a rough draft completed in less than 12 weeks. That’s not even 3 months! Once you have a rough draft completed, you can work on editing and revising, although many people look for professional help with that (and there is certainly no shame in doing so). Everything beyond the first draft is outside the scope of this post, however, so I will have to end it here!
I hope this post has been informative and enlightening. I’ve done my best to describe my own approach to novel writing. Above all, the most important thing is discipline. You have to keep working on it, day after day, even when you don’t feel like it, or when you feel like it’s going nowhere, or it’s bad, or you’ll never get it published, or no one will like it, etc. etc. etc. Virtually all writers experience these intrusive thoughts of self-doubt. They don’t mean you suck or that your story is bad. Push past them and keep writing. You can do it!