How to Write a Novel (Part 1)

January 15th, 2008

One of the Ten Commandments of Author Blogging is “thou must write a post explaining how thou writest thine novels.” And so, in an effort to save my immortal writerly soul from scribbler’s purgatory, I’m going to explain my process in easy numbered steps that anyone can follow.

Since I’ve only written two novels to date — Infoquake and MultiReal — and am now in the midst of a third, I can’t say that this is always going to be my process. All I can say is that it’s worked for me twice now, and it seems to be doing just dandy the third time around.

More importantly, I can’t say whether this process will work for you. No two writers write the same way, and sometimes what works for one person will only trip up the next person. Life’s like that. You’ll need to adapt to your own unique circumstances as you see fit.

Here goes. How to write a novel:

Illustration of Bilbo Baggins writing Step 1: Come up with an amazing idea. Believe it or not, this is the easy part. Over my thirty-six years on this planet, I’ve thunk up a couple dozen incredible ideas for novels. Really. Shakespeare, Kafka, and Steinbeck are all huddling together in the afterlife praying I get a chance to explore some of these stories before I kick the bucket. Sometimes the ideas are just simple juxtapositions, sometimes they’re extrapolations of life experiences, sometimes they’re twists on existing stories. Sometimes they’re just hazy impressions.

Great ideas aren’t quite a dime a dozen, but you can definitely find them on the discount rack in Wal-Mart. All it takes to come up with a great idea is confidence, imagination, and a certain unique perspective on the world. That’s it. I’m willing to bet that you — yes, you — have plenty of ideas for great novels inside you.

Step 2: Noodle around and figure out if your idea is novel-worthy. I said that coming up with an idea was the easy part. Your first real challenge is to explore that idea to see if it’s worthy of spending a year or two of your life on. This is not a light decision to make. These characters are going to set up camp in your dreams, they’re going to pop out at you from the side of the road while you’re driving. You’re going to find yourself standing in a 7-11 wondering which flavor of Slurpee your protagonist would choose and how they would pay for it (corporate credit card? cash from wad in pocket? five finger discount?). You need to know if you can live with these people.

How do you noodle around to figure out if your idea is novel-worthy? Well, just start writing. Explore. Go wild. Improvise. Doodle. Daydream. Don’t worry about whether you’re writing the beginning or the end or some passage in the middle that will never make the final cut. If the book explodes under your fingertips, and you’re all a-twitter with logistical, ethical, and epistemological questions about your idea, that’s a good sign. If you reach page 10 and discover you’ve got nothing left to say, that’s an indication that your idea isn’t novel-worthy. It might be short story-worthy, or it might be novel-worthy for someone else – but if it’s not for you, don’t force it. Move on.

Step 3: Commit. This is the crucial step. You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “Damn it, I’m writing this novel. The whole frickin’ thing. I don’t care if my spouse thinks I’m loony and people snicker at me when I walk into Starbucks with my laptop. Even if it never, ever gets published, I’m still going to write this novel. There’s a very good chance that it’ll sink like a stone even if it does get published, and the critics will completely ignore it or call me nasty names. I’ll probably never, ever make any money off it. But I don’t care.”

Sometimes it helps to tie that commitment to something tangible. Clear yourself a room or a part of a room to use as Your Writing Space. Take a couple days off work. When I decided to write Infoquake, I quit my job and bought a new laptop. (A cheap one.) (On credit.) Believe it or not, buying that laptop helped, because I kept looking at it and telling myself, Dude, you better make sure you didn’t waste your money.

Of course, there are all kinds of perils involved in making any commitment. You need to believe you’re committing to something worthwhile, you need to have the time to devote to making it work, and you need to be able to stick through the rough times. You need to make sure you’re not committing to too many things at once.

Step 4: Start banging out a first draft. You’ve got a novel-worthy idea, and you’re committed to fleshing it out. So go do it already. Don’t know where to start? Don’t know which character to focus on, or whether you want to set your story on a fire planet, an ice planet, or a mud planet? No need to panic. Just try one. You don’t need to have a fully developed outline or even a half-developed one before you start. The important thing is just to get yourself moving in any direction.

Keep in mind that nobody is going to see your first drafts but you, so it doesn’t matter if you have to run through an entire solar system of planets, moons, asteroids, and floating geodesic domes before you hit on the right one. You may find yourself chasing a lot of dead ends, pursuing a lot of ideas that lead nowhere. That’s okay, that’s all part of the process.

Step 5: Structure as you go. Some writers can zip through a draft of a novel by the seat of their pants. Others diligently outline every step their character’s going to take over the next hundred thousand words. It’s likely your process will fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Regardless, you need to have some idea of structure if you expect your novel to work. You might not know what that structure is when you start, and you might change it drastically as you go, but you can’t just expect Frodo and Sam to wander to Mount Doom by themselves. Illustration of monk chained to desk writingEither they’ll wander around aimlessly or they’ll wind up at the Cracks of Doom at the end of chapter 3, and then your novel will be in big trouble.

I find it easiest to start with a broad structure and increasingly fine-tune in smaller and smaller increments as I go. For instance: you know where your protagonist starts the novel, and you know where she’s going to end up. You’ve got a general idea of the trials and tribulations she’ll face along the way. So break up the book into three to five acts, and map out where she’s going to be physically and emotionally at the beginning and the end of each act.

Step 6: Persevere. Many young writers get the idea in college that the Muse is supposed to beam you perfectly formed sentences that will just flow from your fingertips in a demonic burst of inspiration at 2 a.m. And this does happen, sometimes. But the Muse doesn’t parse out these perfectly formed sentences often, and she expects you to fill in the gaps yourself.

One of the most important skills every writer has to learn is the ability to keep writing even when you don’t feel that tingle of inspiration. Sometimes you just need to plod through, get from point A to B. There are a lot of footsteps between the Shire and Mount Doom, and occasionally you’re going to just trip or stumble along. Often you’ll find that after you’ve trudged for a while, you’ll stumble on a sudden idea or inspiration that will make that passage light on its feet. Other times, you just have to keep trudging.

Step 7: Get that first draft done, by hook or by crook. There’s no law that says you need to write your novel in order; skip around if you need to. I find that I’ll get interested in certain two- or three-chapter segments at a time from all over the book. I’ll start writing those and poop out along the way, stopping when I get interested in another section of the book. Sometimes when I come back to those chapters that were giving me such difficulty a month ago, I’ve figured out something along the way that makes the writing easier.

But regardless, by the time I’m 85% of the way to the first draft finish line, I’m cutting corners. I’m taking shortcuts and throwing in sloppy bridging scenes. I’m starting to doubt the whole enterprise, and I’ve already tossed aside many of the ideas that framed the whole thing in the first place. But at some point, I can sit back, print out a big stack of paper, and pat myself on the back for having finished my first draft.

Congratulations! You’ve finished the first draft of your novel. And now, the fun begins (as I’ll elaborate on part 2 of this article).

Update 1/21/08: Here’s part 2.

38 Responses to “How to Write a Novel (Part 1)”

  1. Seaboeon 15 Jan 2008 at 11:25 am

    I’ve discovered that I structure novels and short stories very differently. And this

    For instance: you know where your protagonist starts the novel, and you know where she’s going to end up.

    is exactly how I structure novels.

    Beautifully put.

    Seaboe

  2. DougMon 15 Jan 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Stephen King doesn’t always know how his story will end when he starts to write. (Maybe that’s why a lot of his stories have bizzare endings (e.g, IT, Insomnia, The Tommyknockers).

  3. betsy dornbuschon 15 Jan 2008 at 2:47 pm

    My process has changed quite a bit over time. For my next book, still in mulling over stages, I’m going through a “sales process.” I started with a pitch/query graph, refined it based on advice, and now I’m doing a synopsis and chracter descriptions. I’m sure the book will change over time, but it’s giving me lots of direction up front.

  4. Kristinon 15 Jan 2008 at 2:47 pm

    This is almost identical to how I write! I don’t like knowing all the specifics…like outlining the thing to death…but I always go from “basic idea” to “basic idea + ending” to “basic idea + trials & tribulations + ending.”

    The middles tend to get mushy. So lately I have been starting to use notecards to structure my book once I get stuck or freaked out. But most of it comes right out of my head as I am writing…

    Thanks for an interesting post!

  5. IntoTheWeston 16 Jan 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Thank God I’m not alone! About halfway through the first draft, I began to wonder if I was committing hari kari by hopping around willy-nilly between scenes, chapters, sections — even other books in the series! The non-linear process caused some perplexing moments during rewrite (“What a sec…. Didn’t she have red hair just a few pages ago? When did she find time for a trip to the salon between bullets?”), but all in all it turned out to be a less-stressful — and much more enjoyable — way to approach the project. :-)

  6. Anyaon 17 Jan 2008 at 8:58 am

    “Step 3: Commit. This is the crucial step.”

    Very true. It’s the most important thing, and not just when you start a project. Many people tell me they have written 7 or so novels, none of them, in their own opinion, polished enough to be published. OK, so maybe these writers really hate the word “revision” but it also seems to me like a lack of commitment to the story, or perhaps lack of confidence in it?

    Then there is the other extreme: an author who keeps rewriting and polishing the same story over and over for a decade on and off, wondering if she shouldn’t have given up long ago and try something else. (That’s me. ;))

    Is that much commitment healthy? (There’s a chance I’ll find out this year.)

    Why couldn’t I give up on my story and write something else? (Twice I’ve tried . . .) Obviously, because I feel very commited to my story. Not many story ideas my mind’s been toying with make me feel like that. Precious few in fact. Three weeks ago, I had an idea that immediatedly intrigued me so much I know I want to do it, even though I had just promised myself to quit writing unless I find an agent this year. (OK, not promised, but strongly considered as being the only sane solution . . . ;o) Anyway, it really doesn’t happen often that an idea for a new novel hits me this strongly; I was quite surprised.

    Commitment only works if you really believe that this is your story to write, if the premise really intrigues you (or the character, in case of a story idea that starts with the character.)

    Cheers,

    A.

  7. David Louis Edelmanon 17 Jan 2008 at 9:19 am

    Then there is the other extreme: an author who keeps rewriting and polishing the same story over and over for a decade on and off, wondering if she shouldn’t have given up long ago and try something else. (That’s me. ;))

    Well, people thought that was me, too. It took J. D. Salinger 10 years to write Catcher in the Rye. It took Susanna Clarke 10 years to write Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I read that Jeff Vandermeer took about 10 years to write City of Saints and Madmen.

    Taking a long time to write a book is no disqualification, although it’s not generally the best strategy for commercial success. But who cares, really?

  8. Anyaon 17 Jan 2008 at 9:49 am

    – “It took J. D. Salinger 10 years to write Catcher in the Rye. It took Susanna Clarke 10 years to write Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. (…)”

    That’s why I like debut novels! They are the ones that get polished until they’re the best they can be.

    Of the ten years, I now consider the first five my “apprentice years.” (Although at the time I thought my first draft a masterpiece. ;o) One and a half years I didn’t write at all (finishing Uni), and the story is a 400k trilogy, so the one-novel-a-year dogma doesn’t seem too far off.

    – “it’s not generally the best strategy for commercial success. But who cares, really?”

    Perhaps not commercial success, but I sure would like to get the thing published — if only to stop myself from doing another rewrite.

    Art is never finished, only abandoned. (da Vinci)

    Replace “abandoned” with “published.” ;o)

  9. Stacyon 18 Jan 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for the emphasis on “you need your own system” as I think developing your own system teaches you a lot about writing, and thus about yourself. I learned I need a ridiculous amount of system to write a novel, far more than any published novelist would ever suggest to anyone. I am the most inorganic writer and outline the crap out of everything so I don’t get lost, because I learned lost meant stopped, and stopped meant never going again. And hurrah for non-sequential drafts – it seems so much easier to jump ahead and connect the dots later than plod straight through not knowing where it’s all going.

    It can probably never be said enough that first drafts are mostly crap. I recently got into a long discussion with a mother of a teen who refused to develop outlining or editing skills for school papers, and just wasn’t listening, so I suggested seeing if the mother could find a copy of a first draft by one of the teen’s favorite writers, and see if the advice sunk in after that demonstration. I’ve got Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Archives which includes the original premise, first draft and outline for the first Deryni novel, and it’s an amazing exercise to be able to dissect a novel (and series) I really love and see how it all came about.

  10. David Louis Edelmanon 18 Jan 2008 at 1:29 pm

    It can probably never be said enough that first drafts are mostly crap.

    Absolutely! I posted here a while back about the first drafts for my first novel. I posted all nine drafts of chapter 1 on my website so you could see just how awful the book was at the beginning.

  11. Stacyon 18 Jan 2008 at 3:46 pm

    I can’t imagine living through nine drafts – I stopped counting after 1.5! I think having the guts to post first draft material where others can learn from it is one of the more important things authors can do for others.

  12. Gyp Orienson 18 Jan 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks a lot for this! Me, I am at the “commit” stage at the moment. I wrote one complete novel when I was in elementary school… took me three years to do it, but each chapter was ten handwritten pages and it had a beginning, middle, and end. I lost the manuscript, unfortunately… but man, do I wish I had that kind of resolve now!

    I’m really looking forward to part 2.

  13. Jim Murdochon 19 Jan 2008 at 11:48 am

    I’ve written four novels and I’m slugging it out with a fifth at the moment. No one can write a definitive set of instructions for how to write a novel any more than anyone can define a poem these days. That said, this was as decent a stab at is as I’ve seen.

    I’d like to add a couple of words on commitment:

    This is a hard one. It’s easier once you’ve got a couple of books under your belt to know what you’re committing to. I actually wrote my first two novels over a five year period in conjunction. The first drafts took a matter of weeks, rewrites and editing took far longer than I could have ever imagined. My third took another five years but with a gap in the middle of a couple of years where I wrote a short story collection (didn’t see that coming) The fourth was a relatively easy two years and so far the present one has taken me two years during which time I’ve scrapped the whole thing and began again from scratch (that was a hard decision to make).

    You never really don’t know what you’re committing to but you still have to commit.

  14. Carol Bergon 19 Jan 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Great post, David – and timely. See my new post…

    Don’t Panic.

    Carol

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  21. Nicoleon 16 Apr 2008 at 10:04 am

    I, admittedly, have always toyed with the idea of writing a novel. I’m not extremely talented, nor am I particularily imaginative, but I do get those moments where an idea pops into my head and I start writing it word for word, sentence by sentence. I’m sure this isn’t the ideal method of doing it, but, you’ve pointed out a few things in your post that I’ve taken a liking to– and a few things I’m already familiar with. That’s a good thing, I think.

    Thanks for this.

  22. peggyon 29 May 2008 at 7:56 pm

    i have started writing a novel. although i dearly love it,i didn’t have any idea what i was doing when i first began, nor did i realize the endless hours of study and revising the material ,that it takes to really write a story. i want to thankyou for this site and the time you have put into it. as a writer ,i know that time is a precious thing. i wish there were more hours in a day sometimes because i could really use it!!! i have used your advice on the web site when writing.it has really helped me from step to step!i’m getting there !i have finished my ever revised 6th page !i thought i would never get this far !! thankyou again,peggy

  23. kurisutaon 28 Sep 2008 at 9:55 pm

    (This is almost identical to how I write! I don’t like knowing all the specifics…like outlining the thing to death…but I always go from “basic idea” to “basic idea + ending” to “basic idea + trials & tribulations + ending.”)

    that’s just how i do it too! Once you have basic idea + trials & tribulations + ending you can start jumping around to writing what intrests you in the story at the time, but I wouldn’t suggest that before you have basic idea + trials & tribulations + ending

    if you do the story gets muddled. New ideas of the how and why it starts, ends and is start jumping out and then your not even sure what your writing anymore. then the story will seem pretty much hopeless, it will seem like the whole time its really been conspiring against you.

    you should always make sure you have the basic of idea of not just how it starts and ends but what trials and tribulations inbetween insentially set up all of it happening.

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  25. haidenon 03 Dec 2008 at 1:29 am

    I’m pretty horrible.
    I have a general vague idea, but I don’t quite know what it is.
    And I’ll write a few pages about some random part of the idea (once wrote about a guy scared to death of walking down this alleyway, and left off before he even walked in)
    And each time I write it always seems to be in a different style with very different characters.
    So the commitment part is gone for me.
    I quit.
    I couldn’t see where I was going, and had no reason to even start.

  26. J Hugh Thomason 20 Jan 2009 at 7:00 pm

    On behalf of all those, like myself, working on a first novel, thank you for a very informative and complete post. I’m linking to your posts in my blog to spread your wisdom around.

  27. zafaron 14 Jul 2009 at 1:06 am

    I have to say that because writing is not structured and many a times the best writing is done without a full outline and goal, these point are good but not necessarily exactly how a best seller is written. I am not trying to ruin your hard work and effort but I must say it does not always come to structure but I find sometime ideas and writing just flows

    Anyways apprecaite the article

    Thanks

  28. Lonnieon 14 Sep 2009 at 12:02 am

    Some fantastic information on here, David, though I don’t know if I agree with just noodling around an idea. Unless it’s done in shorthand and broad strokes. That seems like an awful lot of time to figure out if it’s something worth sticking with. Maybe I’ve just got too much going on right now :)

    There’s a great “checklist” to see how good your idea is in the course at http://zero2novel.com. Granted, it still all comes down to intuition and what “feels right” and excites you. Because, really, if you can’t be bothered to be excited about what your writing (at least most of it..) then how can you expect others to enjoy reading it?

  29. Aida L. Irizarryon 19 Sep 2009 at 7:34 am

    One question, as I don’t find the answer here: do you edit as you write?

    I find that if I do that, I keep on changing the outline. Isn’t it better just to write all the way through and then do an edit?

    Aida

  30. David Louis Edelmanon 20 Sep 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Aida: I find I get the best results if I alternate writing and editing. Write part of a chapter, edit what I’ve written the next day, write the next part, etc.

  31. Ashtonon 13 Sep 2010 at 8:33 am

    Thank you for this. It’s really going to come in handy when I start my first draft. Look out for me in two years! Cries of the Whispered is going to be my first novel! Not a sequel but definetely something to read!

    Justice Marquez (aka Ashton Sharp)

  32. Mekaliaon 10 Feb 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I have one idea I really love but commitment is my problem. I can really only commit to is going on the computer constantly. I set my backround as
    STEP 3
    COMMIT TO YOURSELF AND YOUR NOVEL
    now I’ve written 100 pages

  33. [...] How to Write a Novel (Part 1) - DeepGenre [...]

  34. Markon 15 Nov 2011 at 11:50 am

    I have just finished the first draft of my novel and the last section of your post resonated with me a lot! I’ve definitely been cutting corners and writing a lot more quickly and sloppily just to get the thing finished. Where before I was measured and set myself reasonable daily goals, recently I’ve just been counting down the chapters and doing anything to get them finished!

    But now I’m there I’m looking forward to editing it and actually improving the writing – especially at the end!

  35. Allieon 14 Feb 2012 at 11:22 am

    I just want to thank you. I have been trying to get my ideas onto paper(or computer) and reading this addressed all me fears, concerns and whatever. I am that college student at 2 am :P thank you very much for the tips

  36. David Louis Edelmanon 14 Feb 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Glad the post helped, Allie and Mark. Keep writing! :-)

  37. caydenon 30 Dec 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Im in the prosses of writing my second book. Im 10 almost eleven and I love reading and writting I just finished legend of the ghost dog.By the wat I give it * * * * * ffffFIVE STARS ond more that is how good it is.

  38. caydenon 30 Dec 2012 at 9:24 pm

    im ten i make mystakes cut me some slack

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