How I Write a Novel
This is my methodology. Feel free to use it, borrow it, smash it, mangle it, fold it, staple it, do whatever you like with it to make it work for you, even toss it out and do your own thing. Everyone writes in a different manner, and that’s what makes reading wonderful.
Some people are Pantsers, writing scenes from the seat of their pants, all over the place, and then stringing them together. Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author of the Outlander books, says she does it this way. Others, like me, are Planners. As an accountant, I’m a methodical person. I set things out step by step and, for the most part, follow that plan.
Step 1: Concept
My first novel was easy. I was, in fact, inspired to start writing the story long before I actually gave it a go. The story of my parents’ love, interrupted by 30 years, and finally married because I, the result of their first affair, found my father. But often the concept is difficult to come up with. There is a misconception that the concept needs to be unique, unusual, never done before. Maeve Binchy wrote many wonderful books about people in everyday life, going about their business. Buying houses, losing jobs, going to night school, going to college, whatever it was, she wrote character-driven stories in normal plots.
Other novels are plot-driven, full of adventure, betrayal and alien worlds. Neither is better, nor worse. It’s simply a different market.
My second novel was a bit more difficult. I knew I wanted to write about Ireland, as that is my soul’s home, and I’ve been there many times. There are many areas of history in Ireland that I love, and I felt needed to be highlighted. For instance, the Great Hunger of 1846, when half the population died or emigrated, was a great example. So, what would happen if someone went back, instead? Someone, descended from a prior immigrant, returned to Ireland to find her family, only to discover she was in the midst of a genocide? Also, I wanted to add in some fairy magic, as this was, after all, Ireland, a land of myth and mystery. This became the concept for my second novel, Legacy of Hunger. “A spoiled young lady travels back to Ireland in 1846 to discover her family and a lost magical heirloom.”
Step 2: Synopsis
Once I had the concept, I used something called the Snowflake Method. It’s what I use – not everyone will love it, but I do. The basic idea is that you start with your concept, and write one basic sentence about it. Then you expand that into three sentences, adding a few details about plot and character. Then each sentence becomes a paragraph, and then again until you have a 2-3 page synopsis with subplots and minor characters. Sort of like a snowflake gets more details as it gets larger. Get it? Of course!
Step 3: Characters
The synopsis then gets set aside for a moment and I work on characters. The same thing holds true. Start with a name, add some physical and mental characteristics, a couple of motivations. Make sure to add both flaws and virtues. Maybe a nervous tic, or a bad habit or two. Find good names. A basic rule of thumb is not to have them too similar. In fact, keep the beginning letters different if you can. If you have a Tommy, don’t have a Todd as well. Make him a Robert. Or better yet, a Roberto. And Tommy might be better remembered if he’s Tomas. Does Tomas have a cowlick? And perhaps a hook nose. Maybe he has a habit of running his hands through his hair, or clicking his fingers on a surface. And he gambles. But he’s a good guy, after all – all he wants is to help our heroine find her lost cat. As you work on the characters, you may add some subplots to the main synopsis. That’s OK! Go back and add them in.
Step 4: Scene list
This is when I begin to get down and dirty. I write out all of the scenes of my main plot, and then the subplots, and mix them like a salad. Each scene should advance the story, the character, be a bridge, or be removed. Sometimes I have difficulty, but I try. I use an Excel spreadsheet to list out my scenes. Just a short description (and often this gets cut and moved around later). I list the location, date and point of view, to help me keep track of timeline and who is currently in the center of the scene. Here is the example from Legacy of Hunger, though I’d cut out the first 10 scenes in editing.
I also use the spreadsheet to keep track of my daily word count, my themes, subplots, etc. I color each one once I’ve finished writing them.
Step 5: Writing!
Yes, it’s finally time for me to start writing! While I could, in pure time terms, write up my first four steps in about 6 hours, it usually takes a week or two, as things percolate in my mind. But once I’ve got the scene list down, I write. From scene 1. Now, this doesn’t usually end up being scene 1 in the final draft, but it’s there. Then scene 2, etc. I often move things around a bit, cut a scene, combine, add a scene, sometimes add a whole new subplot while I’m writing, but I’ve got the plan, and it’s my plan, and I’ll change it if I want, so there!
I try to set a minimum each day. 2000 words is normal for me, and I’m pretty good about catching up if I slack off one day. I’m better about writing a couple hundred words extra so if I do slack off, I’ve got cushion. Again, as an accountant, I’m all about the deadlines, so this works for me. One novel, Call of the Morrigan, I simply couldn’t get 2000 words a day out, so I adjusted my minimum to 1000 a day, and that worked fine. That novel fought me tooth and nail, but I finished. The next one (The Enchanted Swans) is working out at 2000 again.
It normally takes me about six weeks to two months to write a 100,000 word novel. As I get near the end, my daily word count increases. I’ve done 10,000 word days before, near the end. It’s like the sprint towards the finish line, no longer a measured marathon.
Step 6: Waiting
Yup! Now we wait. If you go back to edit your first draft right now, your mind moves past the bits that aren’t right, filling in the blanks with the images you have in your mind and haven’t gotten on paper. If you wait, a month, two, even six, your mind is clearer, and you are reading it with fewer preconceptions of how it should be. It is then easier for you to see your holes, your bad grammar, your purple prose, and edit it.
Step 7: Percolating
Like a good wine, stories usually benefit from sitting in your brain. You think of things. You realize that the ending scene would have much more oomph if the cousin comes to kill the evil step-brother, just as the heroine is about to shoot him, so she isn’t accused of murder. Or that the beginning scene should be of a fire in Pittsburgh, not a drawing room in Ohio. You chew on your opening lines, to make sure they have good impact and hook. You decide that the protagonist is TOO good, she needs some flaws and bad habits. I email myself these notes as I think of them, and then add them to notes in the draft itself (I use Word). Then, when I sit down to do edits, they are all there, waiting for my attention.
Step 8: First edit
This is usually when you realize the first three chapters are just story setup, and can be done in flashbacks or recalls. The real action starts in chapter 4. This hurts. Yes, it does. It hurts a lot. Those three chapters were a lot of work, damnit! But it’s worth it, in the end. Read through the whole draft. Subvocalize or read out loud, you will catch more errors. You may move entire parts around, cut out the mushy middle, make the evil twin a greater adversary, all sorts of changes. You may change characters’ names, combine two weak characters into one stronger, more detailed one. You may spend a lot of time with this edit. It’s here that you start taking that lump of clay you created and throw it on the potter’s wheel. You also want to make sure your grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. is all kosher and up to snuff. Here is a great list of self-editing tips!
Step 9: Feedback – Alpha
Alpha readers are gold. Many people call them beta readers, but really, after your first major edit, the folks that read through your manuscript and offer feedback at this stage are alpha readers. They can pick out major plotholes, inconsistencies, unrealistic characters, etc. for you. If you have someone you can go to for this, reward them kindly. Often, other authors will swap with you. AWWC has a great resource thread for readers. DON’T use your friends and family for this. They are too apt to be kind, rather than helpful. You need brutality. You need someone who doesn’t care about your precious feelings, that aren’t here to coddle your child.
Step 10: Adjusting for feedback
Oh, yes, more editing! Listen to your alpha readers. Change the things you agree with. Sometimes it takes a while to realize you agree with them. Sometimes you won’t agree with them, and you leave it in – but note that someone has a problem with it. When you have someone else read it (the more, the better!) if they also have an issue, maybe it is better to change that bit.
You may rearrange everything again. Often alpha readers point out a basic plotline hole, and requires a lot of rewriting. Don’t be afraid – do it! Then do a re-read and make sure everything fits after your rewriting. I go through and do minor edits, too – have the same spaces between scene markers, whittle down words you overuse, make sure my grammar and spelling is fixed again, etc.
Step 11: Feedback – Beta
Beta readers are a little more refining than alpha. The major plotholes should be fixed, but perhaps you’ve moved things around so that there is a time inconsistency that you couldn’t see yourself.
Sometimes an alpha or beta reader will make suggestions to make things better. You may take their advice, or you may not – that is up to you. But if their suggestions makes a huge improvement, let them know how much they’ve helped. In fact, any time someone takes HOURS of their time to help you with your novel, thank them profusely. You may want to acknowledge them in your book, even. Or send a nice gift. Even if you are reciprocating by reading their novel in return, thank them. Even if you don’t agree with their advice, or are hurt by their critique, thank them. And get over it. They are helping!
Step 12: Final edits and read-through
Adjusting for the beta reader suggestions is sort of like the almost final touches on your novel. The final ones are that last read-through. Again, subvocalize or read aloud. Polish it. Make those beautiful touches that make it shine and glitter. Then, and only then, should you consider sending it into your agent, publisher, or editor. Since I have a relationship with my publisher, I send it to her, and she sends it on to the editor.
Step 13: Wait and more editing
The waiting is hard. I shan’t sugarcoat it. Often it’s a couple months before your editor has read through the book and decided if they are willing to take a chance on it. But when they do – there is more work ahead! The editor will send back several rounds of edits. Usually the first is the harshest – lots of changes! Each one after (usually around three rounds) gets easier, until your lump has become a sparkling diamond!
Step 14: Pre-release
During this time you will work with a cover artist, and work on marketing. Your publisher might send you an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of your novel – get that thing out there! Send it to reviewers so you have some reviews when it’s released! Do marketing and promotion NOW. It’s never too early to start the buzz! If your book is available for pre-order, even better – get those people buying!
Step 15: Release
This is it, your big day! Promote and market the HELL out of it. Make sure everyone knows about it. Social media, live signings, anything you can get. Your publisher may do some promotion, but this is YOUR baby. You are the person who benefits most from this, get out there and WORK. Why would you spend months creating a novel, and then do nothing to sell it? It’s like having a child, and release day is the day you are sending it to college. You may not be doing any real work on the novel any longer, but you have to pay for college, and help support your child emotionally while they are learning to live on their own!
Chase reviews. The more reviews you have (at least decent and positive reviews) the more people will buy your book. Also, many promotions require a minimum number of reviews on Amazon to be eligible for their promotion, so court them. Go on a review virtual blog tour. Ask people to review the book. Often!
Step 16: Keep going!
The work doesn’t stop when your novel releases. Keep the buzz going. The best way to sell your novel is to release another one – so have another child. Have eight! The buzz from one will spill onto the other.
It’s a long and arduous process. Most people never even start that novel they always think they should write. Most who do start never finish. Many first drafts are sitting around, waiting to be edited. If you actually complete and edit a novel, you are special. You are wonderful. But the work never actually finishes… it just gets better!
I’ve now written two travel guides and five novels, and am halfway through my sixth. The two travel guides and one novel have been published, and a second novel is submitted for publication. I may not be an expert, but this is how I’ve done it so far. I hope this helps!
For a more extensive treatment of each step, I wrote a series of blog posts: