The 25 Step Guide to Writing a Novel

The 25 Step Guide to Writing a NovelPhoto license

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.

5. The First Draft

You need to write the first draft quickly using the outline as your guide. You’re aiming for about 100,000 words if it’s a novel. Less is okay for non-fiction. Because of the amount of writing, it is not to your benefit to do a careful job here. You’re going to be doing a lot of fixing up on this whether you write well or poorly. Just get it done. If you get stuck, intentionally do a bad job on the part you’re stuck on and keep moving. If you let yourself plan every paragraph, you will make slow progress and be tempted to give up. As you finish each chapter, revise the outline if you’ve made changes.

6. Notes

This is mostly used for novels. You’ll want to be consistent in your descriptions of characters and locations. The first time either appear, it would be nice to give a description that will stick in the readers’ heads. That’s not always possible. It’s better to have a chapter jump into the action than jump into a description. The notes are most useful when you record the chapters that are the source of each piece of description. A word of warning. Don’t try to write the notes while you write the first draft. It will be a huge hold-up. Create the notes after you’ve finished the first draft by searching each character and location name. It’s an easy way to check for inconsistencies.

7. Short Stories or Articles

If you will be doing your own promotion, you will need to develop a platform. Short stories and articles can be used on blogs or published in magazines. While writing the book, you’ll want to be publishing something to get your author name out there. The short stories and articles you write at this stage should be ones that come from your book. These are not book excerpts. For novels, create short stories about the characters in adventures that did not happen during the novel. For non-fiction, create articles on the same subject as the book. Save the items that relate directly to your book for after it’s published, but build your platform with closely related short stories and articles. It’s okay if all you do is create files with the ideas for the short stories or articles. You’re busy writing a book.

8. Revise the Bullet Outline

Update the bullet outline with any changes you made to the outline while writing the first draft. Review the bullet outline for any changes you feel are needed to improve the book. Use red text for these changes and don’t worry about going over one line per chapter. You’ll be taking them out in the next step.

9. Revise the Outline

Use the red text in the bullet outline to update the outline. Review the outline for any problems, fixes, or story improvements and add them now. All this red text will be a guide for your next draft. Finally, cut the bullet outline for each chapter back down to one line.

10. The Second Draft

Save the first draft as a new file with a second draft tag. For example, My Book 2D. Now it’s time to revise using the outline. This time you already have your word count so the goal is to improve the quality of the writing. Look for opportunities to improve description, narration, and dialog. You also want to check that the text has a good logical flow from paragraph to paragraph. Once again, your goal is not to be perfect but you should try to improve every area that stands out as bad writing. If you make any changes to the story, update the outline.

11. Revise the Notes

This time it will be easier to update your notes file. Most of the material is in there already. You will only be updating changes and new information as you search each character and location. Again, this is for novels only.

12. Short Stories or Articles

Create more short story and article ideas. Both kinds again. Some closely related to post while you’re writing and some directly related to post after publication.

13. Revise the Bullet Outline

Update the bullet outline using the outline.

14. Developmental Editing

Review the bullet outline and outline until you are able to see the complete book in your head. Does the story develop in a logical way? Does it start with an intro to the characters or subject that grabs the reader’s interest? Does the tension mount or does the material become more complex? Are there major plot points where the story changes direction or the subject’s major focus jumps ahead a level? Does the entire book seem to come to a logical conclusion that will be satisfying for the reader?

This is the developmental edit. If you are working on a novel, you would be wise to look into any of the following topics you don’t understand: “story arc”, “plot points”, “change-overs”, and “character development”. There are also plenty of minor writing skills you should be learning about as well, but I’m sure you’re reading books and blogs about writing all the time anyway. Put all of the changes you want to make based on the developmental edit into the bullet outline in red text.

15. Revise the Outline

Use the bullet outline to update the outline using red text to show changes to be made to the final draft.

16. The Final Draft

Save the second draft as a new file with a final draft tag. Again, you re-write using the notes in the outline. As the changes are made, remove the red text from the outline. You are seeking perfection more than ever this time but still don’t need to get bogged down with it. There are some smaller edits yet to come.

17. Notes, Short Pieces, and Bullet Outline

It’s the same routine for these again. See above if you need a refresher.

18. Read and Revise the Final Draft

Read your final draft and fix problems. You’re looking for bad writing, bad grammar, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and spelling errors. You’ll want to read and revise it a few times. Don’t keep at it forever. At some point you’ll need to decide it’s done and move to the next step.

You may also want a proofreading step if you can’t combine final editing and proofreading. I can’t. I’m only able to focus on one or the other. After the revisions, I proofread three times. You can decide how much proofreading you need to do based on your efforts before the next step and what you hear back.

19. Reader Reviews

You need to find a reader or two who won’t run off and publish your book themselves and who is willing to give you bad news. Any bad points they don’t mention about your book are points that will come up after it’s published. It’s in your best interests that they be as cruel as possible. Give them a copy of the word processor file with instructions to highlight problems and write their notes in red text.

20. Reader Revision

Review the comments from your reader(s) and make any updates you feel are needed.

21. Cover Photo

Either hire a pro to make the cover photo for your book or make it yourself. If you’re going to do it yourself, some study is highly recommended. Either way, compare any potential book cover to existing covers and make sure you’ve found a professional look. If it doesn’t seem sophisticated enough, look into photo editing programs and study more about making book covers. The GIMP is a free photo editor with tons of advanced features.

22. Create the Ebook

Research this one well. A poorly formatted ebook will fail on some reading devices and you can lose those readers forever. You will need to learn some basic html and css. There are only two formats you will need for all of the sites that sell ebooks, ePUB and MOBI.

23. Publish

More research here will inform you of all the places you can sell your ebook. You want to find as many as possible without including any disreputable sites. Amazon and KOBO seem to be the publishers of choice.

24. Marketing

Now you need to publish those short stories or articles on your platform. I’d say to read about blogging but you’ve been doing that all along, right? Now it’s time to publish those short pieces at a rate of about three a week while spreading the word on social sites. You’ll also write articles specifically promoting your book. Don’t forget to comment while you’re at it. You should only comment when you have something to contribute to the conversation and only on sites that allow you to leave a link back to your blog.

25. The Next Step

Once you’ve got your book marketing figured out, it’s time to begin writing your next book.

I don’t expect you will become an instant believer in all of these steps. You may even think I’m joking. I skipped some of these steps early on while writing Homicidal Tendencies and paid for it in lost time. I’ve also become a believer in the value of the synopsis, outline, and a quick sloppy first draft.

You’ll need to start writing to know what you find useful. If these steps seem too intimidating, maybe you’ll be a pantser, one of those writers who is able to sit down and write their book with no supporting documents at all.

Article by Ivan Izo.


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