How I Write Novels


Readers, have you ever wondered how a novel is developed and written? If you’re a writer, you might be curious about how other writers make their books. Here’s some insight into the process I follow.

Why My Early Attempts at Novel-writing Led Nowhere

When I was a fledgling writer, I would get a wild idea for a story or novel and rush to the keyboard. Excited and inspired, I would sit down and bang it out. Maybe I went on to the next scene, but soon enough, my inspiration fizzled or I didn’t know what was coming next and, unable to see my way, I got confused and quit writing. Then I wondered what was wrong with me.

There was nothing wrong with me as a writer. It was my process—or, rather, lack of one—that was running my efforts aground.

It’s only with my last two novels that I’ve used a new process to ensure that my initial idea becomes a workable story that doesn’t collapse when I go to draft it.

Pre-writing Reveals Characters and Story

CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY by Lee Allen HowardI talk about the idea development process, plotting, and drafting of my forthcoming bizarro psychological thriller in Progress Report on CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY. I did a lot of pre-writing for that book, meaning, beyond preliminary 12-point plot questionnaires and character sketches, I jotted down inspired snippets as they came to me—descriptions, events, scraps of dialogue—mostly written in the voice of my first-person protagonist Russell Pisarek. About 45 pages. I was just writing about the writing.

When I reviewed that information, a story started to emerge. I rearranged those lines and paragraphs of information into a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I filled in events and information I felt were missing.

I used a similar process with novel #6 (working title: DEAD CEMETERY), doing the first 29 days of exercises in Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel.

For each daily writing session, Watt poses six questions of the protagonist and antagonist. Questions such as, “My first love was…,” “The person I hate the most is…,” and “The greatest loss of my life was….” I answered each question in a five-minute segment of free-writing. A month of this grew tedious, but by the time I finished the exercises, I knew my characters, and a story was emerging. I had character backstory; I had motivation.

All in all, I came out with 250 pages of pre-writing for DEAD CEMETERY. (It’s gonna be a big book…) Not 100% of it will end up in the book, but it contains many priceless nuggets that form the core of the story.

During this stage, I also do any necessary research and include my findings in my pre-writing (or Scrivener project file) so that it doesn’t interrupt me unduly during drafting. (Of course, I will still need to check facts when I’m writing.)

Plotting Prevents Stalling During Drafting

Once I had my narrative outlined into three acts, I then used John Truby’s Blockbuster 6 (BB6) to create taglines for each scene in the book. For example in PISS FAIRY, “Russell asks Uma to lunch, but a rabbit ruins his plans.” Just the basic event or revelation.

For DEAD CEMETERY, I used an Excel worksheet to track information and events for five characters through the beginning, middle, and end. Here’s a labeled printout of the 24-page spreadsheet, blurred to prevent spoilers. (Yeah, it’s gonna be a big book.)
Printout of plotting spreadsheet

Plotting Includes Detailed Scene Planning

For CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY, I planned a scene for each one of the tagline events, answering such questions as:

  • My challenge in writing this scene
  • My strategy for writing this scene
  • The scene goal (POV character’s immediate desire)
  • The character’s plan to achieve the goal
  • The opponent in the scene
  • The scene’s conflict
  • Any twist revealed
  • The scene’s moral argument (value A vs. value B)

I copied the pertinent snippets of information from my pre-writing document into each scene’s plan (a document in BB6). What resulted for PISS FAIRY was 60 one- to three-page scene plans. It took me from Christmas last year to Feb. 15 to do all my pre-writing and scene planning for PISS FAIRY—seven weeks.

For DEAD CEMETERY, I’ll review and rearrange the spreadsheet cells into proper story order. (Each cell contains a reference ID to a numbered paragraph in my pre-writing document.) When I get all the storylines as told through the POV characters in proper order, I’ll turn each cell into a tagline for Blockbuster 6, which will yield a list of scenes from the beginning of the novel to the end. (Note: You don’t need BB6 to do this. You could do it in spreadsheet, word processor, or Scrivener.)

Truly, I don’t understand how pantsers do it—sit down and write by the seat of their pants. That approach has almost always led me to stalling during the course of writing. Planning narratives in detail beforehand reveals most story and logic problems before I invest time and effort writing myself into a corner. If the elements work during the scene plan, I’m confident I can write the draft.

Once I have my scene plans written, I don’t have to worry about whether my scene is revealing the right information or whether it has enough conflict. I’ve already determined those things during the planning process.

Drafting Like Gangbusters

Now, with my stack of scene plans, I sit down to write the first draft of the book. During a writing session, I’m not concerned with what happens next—I know what comes next because this work is already done. All I need to do is focus on the material in the plan and write one scene. Just one scene. Two, if I’m on a roll. Three if I’m on a baguette.

I write a scene by copying the tagline from Blockbuster to a file card in Scrivener. Then I open the file and write the scene, making sure I include everything from my scene plan, which contains the pertinent pre-writing snippets. Some of this info I’ll cut and paste.

After all my scenes are written, I print it. As I review, I note any rearrangements that need to be made and indicate where chapter breaks could occur. I do the actual restructuring in Scrivener, and then I’m on my way to a second draft.

My Novel-writing Results and Goals

Following this method, I wrote a 51,000-word draft of CALL OF THE PISS FAIRY between February 15 and April 4. It has only one POV character and is not a big book. (But it packs a severe wallop, I’m told by beta readers.)

Because DEAD CEMETERY is a much bigger book, it’s taking me quite a while longer to do the pre-writing and plotting. I hope to start scene planning September 1 and finish by the end of the year so that I can begin drafting in January. With my stack of scene plans, I’ll write like gangbusters from beginning to end. I’ll probably go on a motel writing binge or three.

My Novel-writing Process Sets Me Free

Some writers may say that all this pre-writing, plotting, and scene planning kill the spontaneity and fun of writing. I’ve found that it sets me free.

I expect to be inspired during pre-writing, and I am. I expect to be inspired when I’m arranging those snippets into a storyline, and I am. I expect to be inspired when I’m doing the hard work of scene planning, ensuring that my character has a goal and there’s conflict over something worthwhile at stake, and I am.

And when I finally sit down to write, all my channels are open, and I’m free to receive my best inspiration to tell the story from my heart to the reader’s. And that’s what I do.

Following this process, I’m able to develop and test my ideas, get to know my characters, discover what’s happening, arrange everything in the right order, plan powerful scenes, and then write without stalling. My first draft of PISS FAIRY was surprisingly clean. I’m hoping the same for DEAD CEMETERY.

Will you still find holes in your story? Probably. But they won’t be big enough to drive a Buick through. And you won’t get snagged by “I don’t know what comes next.” This approach, I’ve found, makes the revision process much easier.

If this article was helpful to you, please let me know in a comment. And feel free to share what process works for you!

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2 Responses to “How I Write Novels”

  1. Norman Crane Says:

    It’s always fascinating to peek inside the organisational mind of a writer. I used to think I could sniff out pantsers or plotters by their writing, but I’ve been wrong so many times I’ve given up on the idea. I’ve tried pantsing and tried using spreadsheets, and I either fizzle out (pantsing works fine until I actually get up from my chair) or get bogged down in details and lose my way. My compromise is a single text file. That’s all I give myself and all my brain can handle. I plan it out in that text file and then get to banging out the first draft.


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