The 25 Step Guide to Writing a Novel

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So you’re thinking of writing a novel and don’t find 25 steps intimidating. Good for you. You’re being realistic about the time it will take. What follows are the steps I eventually used while writing my first novel, Homicidal Tendencies.

Most of the steps will require both writing and editing. If you’re new to writing, it can help a lot if you do every step until you get used to the process. You should be certain each step is complete before moving to the next. Edit until you’re sure it’s ready.

On the other hand, you’ll be a faster writer if you don’t get hung up on any one step. Do what you can and move on to the next. One of the secrets to fast writing is learning to get things done fast and sloppy (writing) and then returning later to make it better (editing).

1. The Slug Line

This can be a single sentence describing the book or all the text that would go on the back of a book jacket. I usually keep this at the top of my outline because it’s not big enough to deserve its own file. As you write your book, you will keep improving your slug line.

2. The Synopsis

One to ten pages describing the book with no secrets held back. It doesn’t need to cover every chapter. A novel synopsis should show all major plot threads and turning points. A non-fiction synopsis should show all major topics and the main purpose of the book.

3. The Bullet Outline

Break the book down to one line of text for each chapter. If there’s too much going on in a chapter to cut it to one line, you may have two chapters. The exception is red text you place there temporarily until you can move it to the outline. You will use the bullet outline to find your way around your book when you need to make changes. Proper grammar is not required here or in the outline.

4. The Outline

This needs to match the bullet outline but reveal all of the important characters or points that will be in each chapter. For novels, it should be possible to follow all the important threads. For non-fiction, it should be possible to follow how the topics flow through the book. One paragraph of two to ten lines per chapter should cover it, but go long when you must. Your goal is ten percent of the length of the book, which means about 10,000 words for a novel outline. Before moving on to the next step, make sure you have a full outline. Work it over now. These first four steps are short compared to the first draft. Now is your last chance to make changes before you have a 100,000 word document on your hands.

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Short Stories Can Help Your Novel

 

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Short stories are not as great as novels. No question. Writers who produce great books rarely produce great short stories. The only exceptions to this rule I’ve found are Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, and H.P. Lovecraft. I’m sure there are a few others. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write short stories. Because it’s difficult to write a good one, writing short stories helps you grow as a writer. That’s not the only benefit.

There are many ways short stories can make your novel better. The short stories you write before attempting a novel make you better at writing beginnings and endings. The short stories you write while writing your novel can be used on a short story blog to show samples of your writing and promote your novel. Short stories that are related to your novel have several uses I’ll describe below.

Short Stories as Writing Practice

Read any book or article on how to become a novelist and you will be told to start by writing short stories. The first thing you will notice is that it takes a long time to write just a few thousand words. Writing short stories gives you some time to learn to write faster before attempting a 100,000 word book.

Another advantage of writing short stories is that you will get practice at writing beginnings and endings. A good opening will hook readers into reading more. A good ending will leave them wanting more. The best place to fail on each is in short stories. Master opening hooks and satisfying endings with short stories and you’ve done a lot for your future manuscript writing efforts.

There are other skills you could use practice with too. Writing dialog, description, and narrative are all different challenges. Find a reader who’s willing to review your writing and tell you what they did and didn’t like. You’ll also want to practice editing. After re-writes, the best way to improve your writing is editing. That means cutting what isn’t necessary. It can mean adding, re-writing, and re-arranging too, but cutting is what will give your stories the biggest boost. The rule is: Cut big, then small.

Short Stories as Fiction Samples

Share your short stories by selling them to magazines or post them on a blog. There are several sites that offer free blogs as long as you don’t advertise anything except your own books. I use wordpress.com. Blogger is also popular.

When you put your work out there where people can read it, some are going to be looking for your books.

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Haruki Murakami’s Writing Success Story

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Haruki Murakami is not a prolific author. He is a great author. His books will still be read 100 years from now. While getting tips from prolific authors is great, we want to learn more than how to write a pile of novels. We want to write interesting stories worth reading again and again. Murakami writes those kind of stories.

Haruki Murakami is one of those authors whose writing was a hit from the very first novel. He didn’t write anything until he was 29 and then decided he could write when inspiration hit him at a baseball game.

His books are best sellers and have been translated into 50 languages.

I’ve read most of his novels more than once. They are not copy-pastes of one another. This is not an author who gets the job done by imitating himself. He seems to be trying to give us something about culture and relationships within the context of mystery stories. When I say mystery, you think of a crime story and the search for the culprit. These are not that kind of mystery. You’ll need to read him to find out exactly what I mean, but I’ll try to explain.

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The Journey of 1000 Pages Starts with One Paragraph

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Whether you’re trying to write a collection of articles or a book, some projects are so intimidating you’re tempted to give up. The trick is to break the job down into smaller tasks and just do one of them. Then, do one more and keep going until the day you find your project complete.

Fiction

You have an idea for a novel. Let’s say the idea is that the protagonist has a problem with an adversary and as she tries to overcome it the problem gets worse. The first part of the story will be about finding the people with the skills she needs to beat the problem. The second will be about defining the adversary. Maybe they are hidden because they’re in organized crime or some huge government black ops group gone rogue. The nemesis keeps causing trouble for the protagonist until halfway through the novel when her group understands what they’re dealing with and can counter-attack. In the third part of the novel, they make several unsuccessful attacks on their enemy. In the last fourth of the story, their attacks become more successful as they work their way to the top of the problem organization.

If you start writing your novel with just that paragraph as a guide, you’re looking at a huge job. Not only is it a big project, but even the four parts of the story are huge – 25,000 words each if you’re going for a full length novel. Writing this way, or pantsing, makes your project seem huge and gives you little guidance on the path of the story. It could wander off in any direction. There are so many ways you could become lost and give up. I know. I’ve tried to write a novel with nothing but a rough idea where it was going. It’s frustrating.

To make your project easier to deal with and stay on track, create a chapter outline. I’ve written about chapter outlines and the multiple draft process in the article Preliminary Documents for Planning a Novel if you’d like to look at the big picture. For this post, I’m only going into detail on the outline.
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Nora Roberts’ Prolific Writing Method

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Nora Roberts has written over 200 romance novels, averaging over six books a year. Her novels have spent more than 800 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, including over 150 weeks at number one. She’s prolific and a hit.

Talent

We want to know how she got be prolific, but some insight into her talent would also be nice. Being a hit depends on what you write. A lot of that depends on reading lots of books to know what sells. Roberts has been a life-long reader and comes from a family of readers, so she knows what a good book looks like. But, she didn’t start in childhood like some of the other prolific writers I’ve profiled. (See Isaac Asimov’s Prolific Writing Method and John Creasey’s Prolific Writing Method.)

She didn’t start writing novels until a blizzard snowed her in with her two sons. There was nothing else to do, so she began working on the idea for a novel and found that she loved the writing process. She’d spent lots of time making up stories before, but this was the start of turning her stories into novels.

Productivity

Prolific and proficient writing seemed to come together for Roberts. The blizzard was in 1979 and she got her first novel acceptance in 1981. That’s a fast start. Her open secret is that she writes for eight hours a day, every day. One source claimed she wrote six manuscripts before getting her first acceptance. That would get her past the million word count that’s been estimated as the milestone for proficiency – if she uses multiple drafts. She does.

The usual multiple draft process is to write an outline, work it into a long enough story for a novel, and then write the novel in three drafts. Roberts skips the outline, writes a short first draft with everything she wants in the story, then adds details and characterization in the second draft to make it a full novel. She uses the final draft to polish.

Lessons Learned

What have we learned here? I think there are a few good pointers.

Read a lot to get good examples of how to write.

Write a lot so that you improve fast.

Put lots of time into your writing. Eight hours a day might not be possible if you have a full time job, but how about four hours a day? Keep it up long enough and you may not need the day job.

These seem to be recurring pointers in the “Prolific Writing Method” articles. The only one missing this time is starting to write when you’re young. Nora Roberts has shown that’s not necessary when you’re a reading addict. This is good news for most of us.

Article by Ivan Izo.

Imagination Comes from Within

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Every writer knows they need life experiences to write their stories. You never write a story completely from imagination. For example, consider the story of a squirrel who has an adventure in an abandoned building. You know what a squirrel looks like and have probably watched one or more at some time. You know what an abandoned building looks like because you’ve been in buildings. The story will be a combination of life experience and imagination.

Everything we write is based on life experience plus imagination. Even non-fiction works this way. We learned the subject before writing about it and we make what we write our own through our experiences with it and our imaginations. We write fiction based on our relationships, our work, our education, and our adventures.

We don’t need to have had every experience we put into our fiction. If we’ve worked in one trade, we know how all the trades work. If we can cook our own breakfast, we can write from the perspective of a cook. If we mowed lawns one summer, we understand what a person in a lawn care job does. Education is similar. Get a degree in one liberal art and you understand all liberal arts. Get a degree in one science and you understand all the sciences. Have enough relationships and you can understand what others are talking about when their relationship are going well or bad or weird. That goes into your fiction too. Where am I going with this?

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Write Faster by Telling Me a Story

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I once read a book that said we should write like we talk. It was such a quick easy read that I don’t remember much about it except the main idea and that it was a fast read. It’s point was the idea that you can write faster when you write like you talk.

Since writing like you talk produces a fast forgettable read, there are advantages and disadvantages.

Anything that can be read fast can be written fast. You will never write as fast as you read, but you can write pretty damn fast when you’re writing like you talk. You don’t need to make the conversion from speech to literature. And, yes, I’m including all genres as “literature” here, not just the literature genre. One of the advantages of this method is its use for things that you want to write fast and don’t care what anyone thinks. I mean more than just writing you get sucked into doing for someone else and want to get done fast, but it works for that too.

First Drafts

You don’t care what others think of your first drafts. They’ll never see them. One of the fastest ways to write first drafts is to intentionally make them terrible. Make them terrible by writing like you speak. As each idea comes up, write it like you were telling the idea to a friend. Your going to re-write everything anyway.

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Ursula Bloom’s Prolific Writing Method

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Ursula Bloom wrote 560 books, the first when she was seven years old. We can see already that she had one of the traits of many prolific authors – starting early.

A family friend, who was a well-known author, encouraged her to write more.

For someone who made the Guinness book of world records for her writing output, there’s not a lot of information about her writing method. Maybe that’s because her romantic novels were based on her own life and we can read about her there.

We would not be reading autobiographical material. Instead, we would discover the life she wished she was living. She was disappointed with her social status and fantasized about a more interesting life in a higher station. At least, her novels are about a more interesting life in a higher station. And that seems to be one of the “secrets” to her prolific writing – her imagination. She enjoyed writing about an imaginary life and when you enjoy what you are doing it goes much easier.

Many authors write about an imaginary life that has more excitement than their real world. It’s much safer to write about the life of a detective, street racer, bank robber, or lion hunter than to actually do it. You don’t need to be rich to write about jetting around the world or creating businesses. The space program doesn’t need to take off for you to take off to distant worlds. You don’t need to wait for the future before writing about it. You don’t need to time travel into the past to write historical fantasy. Vampires and Gods don’t need to exist for you to make up stories about them.

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Prolific Writing Starts with Prolific Idea Generation

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I’ve always assumed the only thing standing in the way of most writers becoming prolific was getting their butt into the chair and writing. I was wrong. Many writers have trouble generating ideas. I can think of only one reason not to have new ideas for articles; a belief that you must write about ideas that have never been written about before.

You can spend hours working through different ideas in your head until you find something you don’t believe you’ve seen before, write it up, and publish. This is the long way to write an article. Ideas that come as inspiration will go much faster. But, either method will have the same result. Now that you’ve written the idea, you’ll notice it appear in someone else’s writing. That’s why people sometimes think their idea was plagiarized, sue, and find out the defendant wrote their article, book, or story first. There is nothing new beyond scientific discovery.

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Speedy Writing Using Your Writing Amuse

Speedy Writing Using Your Writing Amuse

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If your muse is the spirit that gives you a perfect story to write, what is it that let’s you crank out a rough first draft quickly?

Is it a pulp fiction muse? No. Pulp fiction stops at the first draft. The rest of us turn our fast, unedited, mixed-quality first drafts into good material by revising.

Your amuse? Maybe.

Asocial is a lack of interest in being social.

Atheist is a lack of interest in theism. (Or at least it should be.)

Amuse is a lack of interest in your muse.

Are you trying to write and your muse isn’t helping? Better get help from your amuse. Your amuse doesn’t care about a perfect story. If it doesn’t know what happens next, it might write “something magical happens” and move on. When your amuse sees too many directions for the story, it may write a paragraph on several of those directions and then keep writing the story that follows. Your amuse doesn’t care how much mess is left behind for the second draft.

The amuse finds it funny to make a mess of things. It would rather make a mess than not move forward. The amuse is amusing.

Of course, the amuse is nothing new. I’m just putting a name on writing with your editor turned off. I once heard a story about a high school English teacher who rarely had a student that was able to finish writing a novel as their term paper. Forgive me if you’ve heard the original and I’ve changed it. It was a long time ago. What I remember well about the story was her experiment to get those term papers done. She changed the assignment. They no longer needed to write a novel. They needed to write a bad novel. The competition was to write the worst novel ever written.

Every student wrote a novel that year. They probably were some of the worst novels ever written, but they gotten written.
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