I believe that there are very few rules to writing. No one way to do it. For instance, one of the most common designations of writers is plotter or pantser (i.e., outline or no outline). I am firmly (if not obsessively) in the former category, but for every author it’s different. What works for you, works for you.
Still, I wanted to share how I write a novel. My advice might not be the best to follow. After all, I’ve never published a novel or a novella, despite several submissions. But as a self-taught writer, I’ve learned a lot through trial and error. Enough to have to a process. That said, this is constantly changing. Each book I write is different in its conception. Below is my current method.
Ethereal to Real
I call this the incubation period. It starts with an image, a scene, a character popping into my head at random. Most of these I dismiss after a while or turn into a short story, but if something sticks, I know it has potential.
The important thing is not to force it, but rather allow the subconscious time to do its work. The incubation period can last anywhere from several weeks to six months. During this time, I don’t write notes. Why? As silly as it sounds, it’s superstition. I feel if I write it down too soon, I’ll jinx myself.
Then comes the point when everything fits together. It is an incredible feeling, almost a high. If done right, inspiration and motivation will course through me. It is at this point that I scribble down every idea that comes my way—not worrying about order or even if it makes sense.
After filling half a dozen pages or so of a notebook, I type them up and organize them into three sections:
- Character Notes
- Plot Notes (Chronological)
- Plot Notes (Overall)
There will still be some gaping holes in the above—usually quite a few—but if the general structure is there, it’s fine. At this point, I don’t worry about theme.
Start with Characters
I didn’t always begin with characters. For the longest time, I was a plot-obsessed writer, and it shows. My early work was full of cardboard characters, muddling their way through the novel. It wasn’t until later that I saw what a character-based narrative can do.
Back in the day, my character profiles were full of unnecessary details like “favorite cocktail” or “childhood pets.” This worthless information came from the numerous character questionnaires that litter the Internet. But I left out the most important part: what does this character want?
That is the first thing I decide. I then move onto their personality and their life story. This will occupy a page or two. I do the same thing with every named character. Even if their role lasts only half a chapter, I want them to seem like real people. This has helped me in writing more than anything else.
Now that I have the characters, I can organize the plot. To quote author John Dufresne: “Plot is there to give the characters something to do.” Knowing their wants and motivations, I can now construct the outline around them.
I used to write a bullet point list for each chapter, but over the years, I’ve discovered it’s better to write it out in sentences. I devote a paragraph to a page for each chapter. Still, I avoid putting in too many details. I need some wiggle room. After all, my best writing comes in between the sentences of my outline.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent novella outline (the name in brackets is the POV):
This next step I learned far too late in life. Back in the day, I would glance over my outline a couple times before starting. This led to plot holes and unnecessary scenes. My new method has me edit the outline up to a dozen times, tweaking everything just right. Only when I can find no faults do I move forward.
All the above, I can do anywhere. But when it comes time to write, I barricade myself in my study and tune out the world. Afternoons are my most productive hours and so I work from 1 p.m. until 5. At the end of each day, I record the pages, hours, and word count to inspire me and track my progress.
I can’t give much advice about the actual writing process. It’s just something that happens or doesn’t. I can have hours of productivity or a day spent staring at my email. It is exhausting and rewarding. But when I’m cruising down the inspiration highway, there is no better feeling in the world.
One thing I can share is a pitfall that many authors—including myself—have experienced. Outlines can be helpful, but they can also be a detriment to the process. If you focus too much on connecting the dots, the story doesn’t read like a narrative, rather it becomes a boring recitation of events.
I treat the outline as advice. Most of the time, it will guide me in the right direction. But if something could work better, I alter it, swap it out. I just need to make sure it won’t screw up the rest of the story.
A couple years ago, I wrote an extensive blog post about my editing method, which you can find here. As such, I won’t go through my entire process. Instead, I’ll share some thoughts.
I love editing. Out of everything I’ve talked about above, it’s my favorite part. Which might be the reason why I put so much effort into it. As I said in the post linked above, it can take as many as twenty drafts for me to edit a manuscript.
I’ve heard of authors doing a single copy-edit after their rough draft and submitting it. I envy them to no end. My rough drafts—even with a well-thought-out outline—are big messes. Combine that with a perfectionist outlook and you can see how I obsess over it.
To use Leonardo da Vinci’s overly quoted line, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
I hope the above helped you in some way, even as a “what not to do.” If I had to give one piece of advice, I would say keep trying even if it means failing. I learned all the above by doing so.