HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL:
IN TEN EASY STEPS!
Please note: This particular method, while helpful to me, may not be helpful to everyone; we all write in our own way. It is meant merely to be taken as a suggestion. Also, I cannot take credit for coming up with this method on my own. It is slightly modified from a technique I read about elsewhere. Should I remember the name of the author who suggested it, I will give him credit here.
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Many people talk about the day when they will "write their first novel." Saying such makes it seem like an easy process that can be accomplished in a matter of days. Very few people, however, either take the time to actually write that novel or understand the actual hard work that must go into doing so. It is not simply a matter of "putting words down on paper." A novel is something you must spend a lot of time with, getting to know it almost as well as the people you know in your family. Writing and completing it is, to use the cliché, a "labor of love."
For me, novel writing used to mean coming up with some good plot ideas, tossing some characters into the mix, starting the writing process blindly, and wrapping the whole thing up in a matter of several years--if I ever finished it at all. Different books lay around in different stages of completion. The thing was that most of them weren't complete, nor were they even near completion. I had simply run out of ideas and motivation before I could finish them.
A couple of years ago I came across a novel-writing method that, at first, seemed too deceptively easy to be true, yet it intrigued me enough to try. I followed the method as closely as I could. And voila, I ended up writing a completely new novel in under two months! Revision and proofreading took not much longer, so that a novel I had started in late July was ready for reading by October. Although this may be commonplace for many novel writers, for me it was nothing short of miraculous. And now, for others who may be interested in writing a novel but simply aren't certain where to begin or how to finish, I present the method that worked so very well for me.
This how-to will assume that any readers will, in the first place, have a general idea of what they want their novel to be about. They must have the basic plot and setting, and most of the characters. If not, this is the first thing they must "get out of the way." No novel can get even into the planning stage without basic plot and characterization; and so the instructions given here will be most useful to those of you who have already taken care of this. For those of you who haven't, there are many ways to generate a compelling plot and compelling characters. I suggest you look into them before you decide to take any of the advice you read here.
(For advice on creating believable characters, please see my item "Creating Detailed Characters!" .)
And now...HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL, in only a few months, in several easy steps!
1. BRAINSTORMING. 'Tis a word I dread, "brainstorming." To me it never made much sense, to sit still and try to think up as many things as I could, to jot them down on paper, within a certain period of time. The problem with brainstorming in school is that there is always a time limit set upon it. Time limits, when it comes to creativity, can be constraining. Especially when you are trying to generate as many good ideas as you can. And so when you brainstorm, don't make it a traumatic experience. Give yourself as much time as you need to come up with ideas!
There is also the suggestion to write down the first things that pop into your mind, whether they have anything to do with your projected story idea or not. You never know, you may be surprised by what you come up with. I myself don't do this; I am a bit more selective with what I jot down, or else I'll find myself deluged with pointless ideas that go nowhere. The choice is yours. Go all out, limit yourself to the matter at hand, or stay in the middle ground. Whichever helps you out the most.
Go over all aspects of your soon-to-be story. Beginning, middle, and end. Prologue, chapters, and epilogue. Characters. Character motivations. Setting. Timeline. Plot points. Pivotal moments. Important meetings and happenings. Funny moments. Sad moments. Story just for the sake of story. Leave nothing out. Come up with a few ideas for every part of the story you can think of, and this way, that part of the story will not be too bare for what comes later on.
2. IDEAS. You now should have a long list of ideas, in no particular order, of no particular importance, in no particular fashion or style. This is a good thing! Because now you can sort them out a bit and focus on those which seem most valid, and discard those which have no bearing on your story. Which means you must resort to...
3. KILLING THE DEADWOOD. Thin those ranks! There are too many ideas there--nullify some of them! Toss them in the trash! Wring their scrawny, worthless necks! If you come across one of your seemingly brilliant ideas and can find no way for it to logically fit into your story--if it serves no purpose other than being there--don't hesitate to be vicious. KILL THE DEADWOOD! If you let it stay around, it will leech off the rest of your story! Nip it in the bud and get rid of it while there's still time!
Once you've worn your pencil down to a nub scribbling out all those worthless ideas, you should see there are still plenty of good ones for you to use. (If not...it's time to get brainstorming again. Back to step one. :) ) Here comes the fun part.
4. INDEX CARDS OR SCRAP PAPER? If you are the prim and proper type, invest in a good set of index cards. If you are anal retentive, make sure they're lined. If, however, you are sloppy and cheap like me, the Oscar Madison of novel writing, then little scraps of paper will do. For this stage I always took some sheets of paper and cut them up into tiny little squares, as small as I could make them while still being able to put actual words on the scraps. I stacked them into nice little piles--and I began scribbling. For each scrap of paper, there was an idea, and for each idea, there was a scrap of paper. For those of you with index cards, it can be even more fun--but I suggest you don't use index cards unless you have a LOT of spare room. The smaller your cards or scraps, the better--it's best to have them as small as you can while still having space to write legibly. In either case, this is the part where the least amount of thinking is involved, so you'd best enjoy it while you can. (Brainless moments in novel writing are so rare.) Following the ideas scribbled down on your brainstorming sheet(s), write one idea down on each card/scrap, and set the finished ones aside. If there are any cards/scraps left over when you're done...simply put them away for the next time you manage to make time to write a novel. (What a joy to think of!) :)
Beware! It's Brain-Using Time again...
5. SORTING & TIMELINE CONSTRUCTION. First you must take your little cards/scraps and sort them into general piles. Whichever events strike you as happening near the beginning of the story go on the left. Whichever events happen near the middle go in--you guessed it--the middle. And whichever events happen near the end go on the right. (Unless you are the backwards type and prefer putting the beginning to the right and the end to the left.) Whichever way works best for you. Once you've done this comes the really difficult part. You must now construct a timeline of events, which will eventually become the plot of your story.
This is the part that causes me the most irritation and difficulty. Proceed with caution.
Start out small. Take the cards/scraps from your "beginning" pile and go through them. Determine which event came before which, and which event came after which. Narrow things down. Take the very first scene and put it to the far left. (Or right--depending on your mood. :) ) Take the very last and put it where it belongs. And now sort out all those events that happen in between.
Take as much time as you need--this is a time-consuming procedure, and it needs to be followed carefully. Or else you will have plot points later on that are so out of whack that they ruin the balance and flow of your story.
Once you've finished sorting out the beginning, do the same to the middle, and then to the end. Take care with each. And when you have finished, it's time for a little more brainless fun again. Get out the big paper and tape, or the corkboard and tacks--whichever strikes your fancy the most. Take those cards/scraps and, making sure to keep them in order, fasten them to your chosen surface, creating a visual "timeline" of events, much like the ones you find in history books. This will take up a lot of space, depending on how long your projected novel is. It's best to use larger paper, wider than tall (or horizontal/landscape style), and to possibly dedicate separate pieces of paper to the beginning, middle, and end of your story. This will look very sloppy and amateurish once you're done--but this is no matter. Nobody, hopefully, will ever see this but you. You can be as completely sloppy as you like.
When this has been completed, voila--there's your timeline--your plot is complete! Or is it?...
6. OUTLINE. Well, not quite. Now that you've got the rough timeline, it's time to construct a more decent outline. Do this by taking that timeline and typing it up on your computer. (Don't tell me you don't have one--you are here reading this, are you not?) There's no need to get fancy, no need to use I's and A's and 1's and a's like you did in school. By outline I simply mean a more advanced version of the timeline, and a simpler version of a synopsis. Once again, nobody has to see this but you. Simply dedicate a line each to every idea. There is no need to get detailed yet.
Take special care with this outline. Once you've "completed" it, look it over again for holes or sparse areas. If an important plot element is missing, now is the time to add it. If one area of the story is too loaded with deadwood, get that ax and chop it out. (Or better yet, hit the Backspace key.) If another area is too thin, flesh it out a bit. When you are done, you should have a decent picture of how your future story is to look. At last, one of the most difficult areas is almost complete!
7. THE JOY OF TITLES. Here comes yet another fun--yet challenging--part! This is also the step that helped me clarify and eventually complete my own novel--so put a lot of thought into it. For every one of those original ideas, now turned plot points that you have printed out on your page (you did print them all out, didn't you?), you must now: COME UP WITH A TITLE AND PLOT POINT DESCRIPTION. Yikes! Don't let this frighten you too much. It's easier than it looks--and it can be fun. It may be best to come up with the descriptions first. This is the true fleshing-out period. Take one of your plot ideas--preferably the first one--and come up with a brief description of the action that will take place in this scene. This is the deal here--these ideas are now to be known as scenes. Every one of them encapsulates a small part of the story that can stand alone, apart from, yet still a part of, the rest of the story. When you provide a short description for each of these simple scene ideas, you will complete their transformation into real scenes, and be that much closer to completing your novel. Again, there is still yet no need to go into absolute detail--just put down a sentence or two that describes what is going on, only the most important actions that are taking place.
The second thing you must come up with for each scene is a SCENE MEANING. This is the most difficult part, and the part that often had me most discouraged. Some scenes simply don't seem to have as much meaning as others. Don't let this deter you; there will be times when a scene is there just to describe someone or to provide a laugh. If that is the point, jot it down. Don't fret because it isn't deep or philosophical or movingly brilliant. Come up with a sentence (just one sentence!--there's no need for more!)detailing the meaning of this scene--its purpose in the novel.
The last thing you must provide is a scene title. This is simple and can be fun. For each scene, just provide a short little title that helps describe what the scene is about. These titles do not have to be serious or even make sense. They are just a way to further clarify the story and get your "creative juices flowing." (Though if your creative juices aren't already flowing by now, you must be in trouble!) Trust me, you do not have to put too much thought into this step; have fun and be creative, if you'd like.
Here I have provided an example from my own novel, Horus, which you can find online on my website or in my portfolio-- ;) :
Scene Thirty-Six: "Elephantine." Isis tells Horus of her encounter with Anubis, and warns him to watch himself. Horus tells her not to worry and he and the others make the journey south to Elephantine Island, where they meet Khnum, the potter god. On his wheel he creates the animal Horus will need to secure the throne: the horse. He also points out something Osiris left behind: several large riverboats, in various stages of disrepair. The Moru band together to make the boats seaworthy. Only after they're fixed do the others realize the wind is blowing the wrong way for them to sail north. Horus enters an old abandoned temple to the sun god Ra to pray for the wind to change. Purpose of scene: To provide the key to Horus's victory over the Apsiu. (To read this scene as it appears in final form, please see the last part of "Horus: Chapter 13" and the first parts of "Horus: Chapter 14" .)
There you go. This scene description here is a bit long, but only for the details that are needed; it actually doesn't provide all the information for everything that takes place. For example, somewhere in this scene, there was a rather dangerous tumble in the river, as well as a description of how the bodies of all living creatures are formed. Neither of which was alluded to in my outline; either these events weren't important enough to be included, or they were added later on to flesh out the story. Either way, notice that the scene is given a title--"Elephantine Island" (telling where the party is going)--as well as a purpose--"To provide the key to Horus's victory over the Apsiu." This purpose isn't as obvious as it may seem on reading this one scene alone; however, this doesn't matter, as the only thing potential readers will see is the whole story itself--thus, the scene should tie in nicely, with no loose ends.
Congratulations! Once you've completed these steps, you now have your complete NOVEL SYNOPSIS. And what's more important--you are finally ready to start writing your novel!
8. TIMING IS EVERYTHING. You must now set up a schedule and keep it. Timing is everything at this point. Your schedule is not set in stone--if you later on find it to be too much for you, you can always alter it. But you must make time to write every day. There will be days when you simply can't write--in such cases nothing can be done--but this will only mean the novel will take that much longer to complete. The more you put it off, the longer it waits, and the fewer are your chances of ever finishing it. You must prioritize. If you feel you don't have it in you to dedicate part of every day to it, then you'd best back out now, before you end up disappointed.
However...if you decide to stick to your schedule...more power to you! My personal schedule was one scene a day. As far as I can remember, I never strayed from it. I began on July 23 and, since I had 49 scenes, I ended sometime around September 9. (If the math here does not add up...I may have written more than one scene in a day. I am too lazy right now to check--I wish to finish this how-to. :) )
You may find one scene a day too much for you to handle. A simple scene, after all, can get very long. No matter. You can write as little as a page a day, and as much as a chapter. ("Chapter" being a collection of relevant scenes, which ends at a point of your choosing.) Keep in mind once again, though, that the smaller the amount that you write each day (or the shorter the amount of time that you dedicate to writing, if this is how you wish to follow your schedule), the longer it will take you to finish the book. I am basing this how-to on a novel of roughly 50 scenes, 70,000 words, which equaled less than two months' writing time. A novel of, say, 300,000 words would take substantially longer, I would presume. It all depends on the depth and detail in your writing.
But the most important thing to keep in mind is...write, write, WRITE! Stick to that schedule more faithfully than you'd stick to an exercise schedule. Consider your novel to be your baby, which needs its feeding of words every single day! Keep feeding that story until it's all grown up--until it's a FINISHED NOVEL!
The day that you complete your last chapter, your last scene, your last sentence, is truly the day that you wipe a tear from your eye as you say, "I still remember when it was just a little scribble on the page!"
But beware! Now that your novel is "complete"--now that it is all grown up--it's still not ready to go out in the world all on its own! It needs...to be CIVILIZED!
9. MMM...REVISION. How do you civilize an untamed novel? Simple--you REVISE it. Now, don't scream in fear--revision is not a dirty word. It took me years to learn this, but I learned it nonetheless. Just because your story is all grown up now doesn't mean it's able to go out in the world without strangers laughing at it. You're going to have to make it presentable. You wouldn't send your child off to college in just their underwear, would you?
The first and easiest way to revise is to simply read your story, beginning to end. Do it twice if you have to. Take note of things that don't seem "right" to you--clear up vague spots, declunkify clunky sentences, add details where they're needed, subtract them where they're not. Nitpick. When it comes to revising, nitpicking can be your worst enemy, but it can also be your best friend. You must make nitpicking work for you. Behold the power of the Nitpick!
When you've done this--READ YOUR STORY ALOUD. Go ahead, I won't think you're crazy if you read out loud to yourself. You can always read it to someone else if you prefer--to your kids, your significant other, your cat, your toys, someone you met in the park--it doesn't even matter if they listen or not. The main point is that you hear your own voice, the way your words come out when they're spoken aloud. This is a good way to weed out even more difficult and tangly sentences and phrases. It also helps with dialogue--"Do people really talk like that?" If it sounds false to you, no, they probably don't. Go on and fix it. Fix everything that doesn't sound "just right" to you. That includes poor phrasing as well as bad spelling and grammar--not to mention any factual details you may have gotten wrong. Grab the dictionary, phrasebook, or encyclopedia--fix it all! This is the time to do so.
At this point you may wish to print out another copy of your story. This will be your second draft. (Or your third draft, if your first draft was written in notebooks and not typed up on the computer--as was mine. Face it, when you're at a family gathering or in the restaurant, a notebook IS your laptop. At least the battery doesn't run out after a few hours.)
And once you have done this--READ YOUR STORY BACKWARDS.
"Er...what?" you may be saying.
Read it backwards. That means the whole thing. From end to beginning.
I don't mean read it backwards scene by scene, or even sentence by sentence. I mean word by word. This is rather difficult and very time consuming, but trust me, I know from experience--it works wonders in finding typos and misspellings. But make sure you do this only after you've taken care of all the other flaws and problems with your story--for if you must majorly rework it all later on--you'll have to read it all backwards later on as well!! You shouldn't have to put yourself through this torture any more times than you have to--so please, make sure you've cleared up everything else first. Everything that you could.
Every time you come across a typo--and believe me, unless you're perfect, you will--scratch it out and correct it. If you were bright and saved your last draft to disk-- :) --all you have to do once you've finished this grueling task (I hope you have glasses!) is go back to your saved copy and correct your little typos. It's as simple as that. Hit "Save." And...
Congratulations! IT'S A NOVEL!!
10. MA, ARE WE THERE YET? Is your novel "finished" yet? That depends on how willing you are to make it "likable." I myself considered my novel finished, yet I wasn't certain, and so I decided to try for outside assistance. If you feel that your novel isn't yet presentable--and even if you feel it is--it's best to seek out another person who is willing to read it on their own time, and is honest enough to point out not only all that they find good about the book, but all that they find "bad." Make sure you choose your reader wisely. Preferably it should be someone who reads a lot, someone who is good with grammar and spelling, someone who has enough time to put the effort into reading that your story deserves. Ask them kindly to critique it for you. If you want, provide them with a list of questions you'd like answered about the story--"Which character did you find most believable? Which needed more work to make him realistic? Did this part of the plot move along smoothly? Was this scene superfluous? What could I add so this part makes more sense? Which was your favorite scene and why? Does this dialogue sound 'stilted' to you?..." etc. etc. etc. This is another time to nitpick, and tell your friend to nitpick as well. They needn't bash you over the head with critical details, but the more help they can provide you with, the better. You should be grateful for their ability to nitpick. For with their nitpicking, you have gotten one step closer to a completed, readable, publishable novel.
Once your friend has given you the diagnosis, it's time for you to work on your story again. You don't have to take all their advice--their feelings shouldn't be hurt if you decide to skip some of it. It all depends on you. However, keep in mind that at least some of that advice has to be valid--take off your blinkers, quit seeing your story as something that is sacrosanct and unable to be retouched once more, and work on it again as if your very life depended on it. Your life might not--but your story's does!
And when you have finished this...when you have followed all these steps to a T, to the best of your ability...all your hard work will have finally paid off...and you'll not only have a novel you can be proud of, but one that you are finally ready to send out into the world!
Goodbye, Novel! Hello, empty nest! Go on...wipe that tear from your eye. Your pride was well earned. :)
To view the end results of my own use of this technique, please see "Horus" . And don't forget to comment--it's still a work in progress! :)