How to Write a Novel: A Writer’s Journey from Blank Document to Finished Book

writingIf you came to visit me in Invercargill, New Zealand (home to the Southernmost Starbucks in the world), you’d quickly find out one thing. My husband could drive you to a certain place, or I could drive you, but we’d take two different routes getting there. I’m a cautious driver who likes the security of traffic lights, but my husband takes the side roads to avoid traffic lights and get there quicker.

In the same way, every novel writer takes a different route from a totally blank document to a finished book. Different approaches work for different writers. With my last couple of books I’ve revised my approach and found a method that uses my time to the best advantage. But first, let’s look at some of the basic approaches writers often use.

The Wanderer

This writer starts with a basic story in mind and just writes the story from beginning to end. Every scene is fresh and spontaneous, but there are several problems with this. Wanderers often get seriously lost because they don’t know where they are going. Sometimes these writer s get to the end of their books and can think of no way to end them.

In his excellent book called Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell calls this kind of writer a NOP or a no-outline person. They can feel what plot elements need to be in what place and make the story up as they go along. Of course, these writers usually have to revise heavily after their first drafts to give their novels good structure.

One of my writer friends who is normally an OP (outline person) recently wrote a novel this way. He’d been assured by another writer that this would give him a sense of freedom that would bring great originality to his story. Unfortunately, as my friend neared the end, he realized he had painted himself into a plot corner and much of his story had to be deleted.

I’d be scared to death to write this way, but it works for some writers.

The GPS Addict

This writer plans every detail of his book before he starts to write Chapter One. I did this with my first books. I outlined all the scenes in my story and detailed how each scene moved the plot forward. I did a chapter outline, a chronological outline, and a climactic outline. When I knew where each piece fit, I began writing with chapter one, scene one and worked through the outline. I revised and polished each scene or chapter as I wrote it. When I completed my first draft this way, I ended up with a well-structured, highly polished novel .

But no matter how well I planned, as I worked through my plan I found some pieces didn’t fit. I thought of new scenes that would work better than the ones I’d planned. As a result I had revised and polished scenes that ended up being cut entirely. I mentally resisted cutting highly polished scenes when others would work better. Since every scene was rigidly tied to my outline, I found it hard to be creative and spontaneous throughout the book.

The Middle Road

When I started writing Broken Windows I decided to try a new approach that would guarantee good structure but would allow a high degree of creativity and not waste a lot of time fine-tuning scenes that I wouldn’t end up using. I don’t know anyone else that writes quite like this, but it works so well for me that I’m now writing my second novel this way. I’ll break this down into a step-by-step process.

  1. Basic Storyline

I started with a basic cast of quirky characters that I loved and put them in a setting where they would have to stay together and settle their differences. I gave them some challenges to face together. While I had intended to write Broken Windows as simply contemporary Christian fiction, in time I shifted the genre to cozy mystery. I worked out a basic storyline and determined how the various characters would change and grow.

The planning stage of a book is a good time to read James Bell’s Plot and Structure.  It will help you organize your ideas into a well-structured plot.

  1. Chapter Outline

I put the various story elements into a chapter outline, making sure that each section of the story built into a climax, with the strongest climax coming at the end.

  1. Dialog

I tend to write fiction that is strong on character development more than action and chase scenes. As a result, the dialog carries the book forward. What the characters say is the backbone of the plot.  So for my last two books I’ve gone through the entire book writing the dialog before I flesh out the scenes.

At first I was afraid to do this. I feared that this would lead to sloppy writing that would never be put right. Actually it worked very well.

Concentrating on dialog alone helped me write faster and be able to compare the various parts of the book all at once. I could connect what a character said in one chapter with something he said much later in the book. This approach made it easier to plant a thought early in the book and reap it later. Since I was not bogged down in detail, the dialog flowed better and I was better able to think of creative expressions, snappy comebacks, and unexpected twists.

Writing dialog throughout the whole book also helped me to see what parts worked and what didn’t. A book often evolves during the writing process and the writer finds herself moving in a different direction than first expected. After writing my first draft of Broken Windows I realized some minor plotlines were bogging my story down. I had to rip out whole sections of my book. If you’ve only written dialog for those sections, as opposed to fully fleshed-out, revised, and polished scenes, it doesn’t hurt as much to delete those scenes.

Along with dialog, I wrote the basic action that needed to go in the scenes, but I didn’t worry about details. I just wrote enough to remind me of what needed to happen.

  1. Flesh out the scenes.

Once my dialog was written I knew exactly where I was going with my book. Then I began at the beginning and added the details to every scene. I used checklists I’ve come up with over the years to fill out every scene.

I made sure every scene had dialog, thought, and action. (Think, talk, act.) I put my characters in an interesting setting and had them interact with the objects in that setting. I worked to put a hook at the beginning of each scene and something at the end to make the reader want to read on. I checked for sentence length and action verbs and use of the various senses.

I wanted the basic elements of the scene to be in place so I didn’t have to worry about that part in revision. (You can find more about the things I check for in this article.)

  1. Timing and Weather

Sometimes I’ve worked out the timing of all the events before I start writing the book. This time, however, I’m trying something new. I’m working on the sequel to Broken Windows with a working title of Deja Who? I wanted to work freely with the dialog and flow of the story without being tied to constraints. I decided to add the timing after I was done writing. By then I knew exactly what would happen and I could make that fit into a time frame and weather pattern that worked best for the story.

When I began this process I printed out a calendar for a basic year. Then I put all the events of the book on that calendar. Since I’m not naming the year in my book, I can adjust the dates a few days one way or another to fit the plot. Some events need to happen on a certain day of the week or at a certain holiday. I adjust the events to fit the calendar.

Just recently I went back over my book, scene by scene adding time details. Some scenes only needed a few words added like “the next day” or “on Sunday.” They helped the reader to see the basic passage of time. I also added weather details. Since my sequel takes place in Minneapolis, weather plays a strong part. I can add interest to the book by having the characters interact with weather elements.

  1. Think It Through

When you’ve got a good basic first draft done, you really need to set the whole book aside for a few weeks or a month so that you can pick it up again with a fresh perspective. Then read the whole thing through as a reader, not attempting to correct anything except obvious typos. Then think about it. Take walks, think while you’re cooking meals or weeding the garden or shovelling show. What works and what doesn’t? Are their elements dragging the plot down that need to be deleted? Does the book say what you want it to say? Can you change it to make it less predictable?

  1. Revise and Polish

Then work through the whole book, fine tuning it to make it your best work possible.

I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King for guidelines for this final revision.

That takes you to the end of writing your novel. After that it’s a good idea to get feedback from advanced readers. You may be sending your novel to editors or agents or you may be going the self-publication route, but that’s another blog topic. I’m nearing the completion the writing process of Deja Who? and nearly ready to take those next steps myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *