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.
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.
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.
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?
I’m back in the writing groove and working on the final revision of Homicidal Tendencies. When I finished the third draft, I had the impression there was a lot of revision to be done and it put me off getting to the final draft. After a break, I’ve reviewed the outline and solved all the remaining problems with very few changes. I’m halfway through the revision after less than two weeks.
When I write these editorials, I prefer not to just talk about my projects. On the other hand, talking about what I’m doing now is talking about what you will be doing when you finish your own novel. What’s coming up now that the manuscript is almost ready?
As any writer knows, it’s possible to revise forever. At some point you need to decide it’s done and move on to another project.
Two years ago, I found myself endlessly revising blog articles. The following two paragraphs outline my dilemma and solution.
I revise my writing too much. I know this because I find myself getting bored of endlessly revising articles. It seems like I’m going around and around the same group of 50 or 60 articles eternally. An article idea must have a couple of hundred words before I promote it to a first draft. The first draft must be worked on until it’s long enough and has all the components that make an article. Then, I have four revisions before I’m willing to call it finished. Even when I go through the finished articles, I won’t release them as blog posts until I’m certain they are good enough.
The endless revisions must end. But, I don’t want to stop writing. What to do? A different kind of writing is the answer. A different subject. A switch between fiction and non-fiction. A switch between articles and a book.
As you know from reading the blog, I’m all about learning to write faster. One way to accomplish that is avoiding re-writes. My current novel is at about 107,000 words instead of falling short like earlier ones. I give all the credit to writing an outline first. The recommended outline length is one tenth the length of your novel. The original outline for “Book 5” came to about eight thousand words, so the novel was a little short in the early revisions. What have I learned about planning a novel? What’s my plan for the next novel?
When you set out to write a book, it starts with an idea. It bounces around in your head for minutes, days, or months as it becomes a story. When you’ve thought the idea through to your satisfaction, you write a synopsis of one or more pages. You then expand that synopsis into a chapter by chapter outline. That can be all you need to write your book. But, you shouldn’t stop there. Break each chapter down into scenes.
Why would you want to plan your outline down to the scene level?
By writing the scenes for your chapters you will accomplish four things.
1. You limit how far your first draft moves away from the outline.
2. You will have an easy way to check that each chapter advances the story.
3. You give yourself a way to check that each chapter has tension.
4. You give yourself an easy way to revise the novel before you write it.
What am I talking about here? Maybe you write your outline as scenes anyway. If so, you already write a good outline. The longer your outline, the stronger it will be. A weak outline is short because the scenes aren’t written.
How about an example?
Isaac Asimov wrote over 400 books. He wrote non-fiction because that’s what he liked to write the most. He wrote science fiction and other genres of novels because that’s what his fans liked most and it paid better.
If you’ve never heard of Asimov, welcome to Earth. But seriously, maybe you don’t read science fiction. His best work was the Foundation series, but if you’d like a stand alone book, my recommendation would be Nemesis. His writing was very down to earth and easy to relate to considering how many of the stories happened on other planets. In interviews, he said that he always wrote what he knew. Thus, there are very few aliens in his stories and the cultures are similar to America, especially New York.
We’ve got the first tip from him right there. He wrote what he knew. It’s another planet, 500 years in the future, with robot servants, and the culture is the same as his own. That would sure make the writing go faster.
What else might have made Asimov so prolific?
Since 2010, I’ve written many writing tips. These are the ten best.
How to Take a Break While Writing is about writing more by using two writing projects as breaks from each other.
Write More By Reading Yourself is about how pieces you have written in the past can be written again if you’ve continued learning your subject.
Cut More and Improve Your Writing emphasizes the importance of cutting your writing to improve it.
What Are Your Writing Limits? is about pushing your limits by exploring different writing types and working on your skills in the various writing tasks.
Write What You Know discusses the full implications of this concept.
Are You Using Swipe Files? is about using examples of good writing to improve your work.
Create Tension in Your Writing discusses the importance of tension in fiction and suggests some ways to build it.
Fiction Genres looks at 14 movie genres to give you an idea of the many possibilities for a novel.
Great Start – Better Start Over is about recovering from a stalled writing project.
Stages of the Writing Process outlines the full 11 steps that can be used to complete a piece of writing.
These articles cover a variety of writing types. You’ll have to forgive me if fiction writing seems to predominate. It’s my favorite type of writing. I hope this helps.
Article by Ivan Izo.