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 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.


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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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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On the Nine Self-Publishing Skillsets



I’ve learned a few things about self-publishing while writing Homicidal Tendencies, my first published book. I had to wear many hats to complete the process. Except for writing and editing, many writers recommend hiring other people for each task. I couldn’t afford that. I needed to learn it all myself. This slowed down the work on my first book. Now that I have those skills, I should be able to increase my writing speed for the entire process when I write the next one. I thought I’d share an overview of the process. Deeper articles on some of these steps will follow here later.

It took about three years to write and edit the book. I was studying more about writing and editing while I wrote it. I would learn something new and need to use that in the next revision. There are normally three revisions when writing a book. I had four because I did a developmental edit after the second revision.

If you’re open to learning new things, you can develop any skill. Most of those listed below are related to writing so you already have some skill in those. Formatting and publishing both have low learning curves if you’re good at researching. The only two that may present a big challenge are cover design and marketing. I’ll talk briefly about each of the nine skills.

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Don’t Forget the Subplots

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I tried to make a list of all the books I’d read once. It was over 2000 titles long when I realized there was a problem. There were some authors where I’d read dozens of their books and didn’t recognize a single summary when I looked them up. For other authors, I remembered every single book. What’s the difference between the two? That’s hard to say given I don’t remember one type, but I’ll make a guess.

There are some authors whose books you can read very fast because the story is simple. We follow one character or group pursuing a single goal. All the story complications have to do with that single goal. You can zip through the story quickly and forget it just as quick. Nothing wrong with that. Some authors build successful careers on that writing style. I’m not even suggesting you shouldn’t use that style.

There are other authors whose books you can’t read fast. The people in their stories have their own motivations and don’t cooperate with the central story. In other words, the novels have subplots. These are the 2000 plus books I remembered well. Sub-plots make a story unique and more realistic.

Nobody has a favorite book that has no sub-plots unless it’s a favorite book from childhood. Adult novels that are simple quick reads are too much like other books in their genre. They are forgettable.

As an example, I’d like to talk about the plots of a few favorite books. Recent research has found that knowing the plot of a story doesn’t ruin a story. Even knowing the ending won’t stop you from enjoying a book. Still, I will hold back the endings.

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Managing Action in Your Fiction

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When you deal with the big problems successfully, you have the resources you need to deal with the small problems. It works like this in both real life and fiction. The resolution of the main story problem, the engine of the story, should also wipe out the smaller problems.

How do you make sure the smaller problems are tied in to the bigger ones? You write the big problems first. The multiple draft process follows below. If you’re a seat-of-your-pants writer, you can write the prep docs in your imagination.


The synopsis starts with your big story problem, the idea you want to turn into a story. What starts the problem? How are you going to open the novel with action? Who are the important characters? What attempts will they make to solve the problem without success? How do they change at the halfway point from investigating the problem to being on top of it and actively working for a solution? How will you create major changes in the story at the one third and two third points? How do they resolve the problem at the end?
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Keep It Stupid Simple – Counter-intuitive Character Behaviors

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A character makes a quick run to the corner store and decides not to bother locking the door. One more speeding ticket and your character will lose their license but they keep on speeding. Cheating, crime, and the Darwin Effect are all good examples of character stupidity and irrationality. This is the stuff that makes characters real.

A character who always does the right thing doesn’t sound like a real person.

Real people don’t always make the right decisions. Even the most rational among us know what they should do but let their emotions dictate their action. You shouldn’t visit because you have work to do, but you want to have a laugh. You should end a relationship with a cheating partner, but you’re still in love. You should ignore bad behavior from a casual friend, but you want revenge.

We also do the wrong thing because we’re distracted. We daydream. We focus on what’s most important instead of what’s most urgent. Opportunities get missed. The wrong opportunities are taken.

We do the wrong thing because we are lazy. Someone else will catch that problem. Maybe nobody will notice if it’s not done. Maybe a repetitive task can be done less often. Then, even less. Then, not at all. Now the character has become fetid bachelor frog.

An offshoot of laziness is stupidity. We are stupid about things we are too lazy to learn because we don’t really care about knowing them. If you’re not into computers, you don’t study how to keep your internet connection up. Instead, when it goes down, you call tech support and they tell you how to fix it. Characters will also be stupid about anything they have no interest in. If you give a character skills that don’t relate to their job or hobbies, where did they get the knowledge?

How about misunderstandings between characters? For example, the hotel clerk who regrets that the customers credit card didn’t work and the customer who thinks the clerk is being sarcastic and rude. People choose their interpretation of what’s going on. Some expect to be attacked socially. Some deliberately find fault, even if they need to make it up. Others expect they will get their way every time on certain things.

Even the most rational person will make the wrong choice if it supports what they believe. Career. Corporate loyalty. Religion. Politics. These are the enemies of rationality and they’re here to stay.

When your characters are in a role that’s important to them, it makes sense that they will have a level of expertise. When they step out of their comfort zone, make them simple and stupid.

This is just one more of the many ways you can make your characters stand out as real people and help to make them different from the other people in your novel.

If you’d like more ideas on developing unique characters, check out these other Writer on Fire articles:

Keep Your Characters in Character

38 Character Personality Types

13 Character Archetypes

17 Ways to Make Your Characters Sound Different

Do Your Characters Need to Get a Life?

Character Change – What Makes a Character Three Dimensional?

Character Change With Heart

Article by Ivan Izo.

On Using Trademarked Names in Your Novel

On Using Trademarked Names in Your Novel

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I said I wouldn’t write more “Novel Report” posts. If you’re writing a first novel, the story of my progress is probably interesting enough that I should write something about it. If not, you can skip past the italic text to the main article.

My final revision (a fourth revision) took less than a month. I moved on to a proofreading review and found a fair number of spelling errors, missing and extra words, and unclear sentences to re-write. My manuscript then went out to three early readers for their review. I’ve considered their recommendations and made changes where it seemed apt. What still remains to be done is the book cover, the e-book formatting, and short stories for promotion.

I included my second try at a book cover with the review copies. My first reader liked the cover. I do not. I’m working on a third.

The e-book formatting appears fairly easy. I already format my word processor documents without white space because I learned technical writing for my job. I learned html and css before I started blogging as part of my computer studies. The guides I’ve found have been all over the place. I’ve been doing lots of trial and error and creating my own process.

The short stories are not zipping along as quickly as I’d like. I have 20 in the works. Four of them now have the outline ready to go, so those will be written and posted on my Killer Stories blog shortly. I could write them faster if I’d use a plot formula, but where’s the fun in that?

I now return you to your irregularly scheduled blog post.

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