Some time ago I had the pleasure of organizing a workshop for high school kids entitled “How To Write a Novel.” This came at the invitation of our local library staff, whom I work with on literary events. I have to say that I was a little afraid of giving the presentation. I’m not a very good speaker (and I sometimes think that I’m not a very good writer either). Young people are a very demanding audience, too, so I had to develop something that would be interesting, fun, and easy to understand. Not because kids aren’t smart, but because whenever I try to explain what I do to any non-writer, they seem overwhelmed and confused—as if I was talking nonsense.
I know pretty well how to write a novel—or at least I know how I do it. I also know a few things about what not to do—I’ve been through three or four major failures, where I used some crazy procedure that didn’t end up working. So I summarized my “dos” and “don’ts,” and concluded that writing a novel requires seven main steps. I think seven is a very reasonable number that helps you to feel like the task is doable—if there were twenty steps then the kids would probably run out of the room.
If you want to write a book, or a short story or anything else, these steps will always apply. So here they are. I hope my Twitter followers like this post—I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the art of writing recently. I’m very thankful for the trust you’ve all shown in me, and I’ve done everything I can to make this outline a practical tool for you to use.
STEP 1. PREPARE MENTALLY
It’s really important to get into the right frame of mind before you get down to writing. There are endless articles and memes claiming that writing is a real pain in the ass. Not true—it doesn’t actually hurt (much). When you’re getting ready to start work on your project, don’t anticipate a painful experience. Imagine yourself sitting at your desk, with a window that faces a wood or a beach, writing sentence after sentence—they come so easily and effortlessly. Think about the fame, the paparazzi, and the interviews. Savor the beautiful moment to come when you’re recognized, appreciated, and proud of yourself. It’s in this state of mind that you make the decision to write a book. You can drink some alcohol if you like—I don’t, but if you think it might help then feel free to enjoy a glass of wine.
You’ll wake up the next morning thinking that trying to write a book is actually a very bad idea after all. It’s okay to be scared, as long as you do the job despite the fear. It’s okay if you sometimes feel like giving up—as long as you don’t give up. The only escape from writing that you’re allowed is procrastination (in reasonable doses). But always, always, keep in mind that you made a decision, a commitment, and you’re going to stick to it no matter how hard it sometimes gets.
If reminding yourself of this doesn’t work, post the line “Am working on a novel” on Twitter—that way your friends won’t let you back out.
STEP 2. FIND AN IDEA
Yes, this comes after the decision, because the idea without the commitment is worthless. There are three signs that an idea is good:
- You’re enthusiastic about it.
If you’re not, you’ll commit suicide before you finish the first chapter. You have to be 100% sure that the idea is interesting FOR YOU, not FOR THE READERS. It may sound like I’m ignoring the readers, but I’m not. I respect them, and because of this I always write about what touches me, what turns me on emotionally, what I feel deep inside. This guarantees that the book will be perfect, and for me perfection is a must. So if you’re thinking something like “well, I see that crime stories with alcoholic policemen sell well—I’ll write something like that”, then don’t even start. You’re going to fail. And I don’t want you to fail—if you’re reading this article then I’m confident that you have enough talent and perseverance to write a novel.
- You’re honest about the idea.
If you lie in your fiction then you’re going to run into a clash between who you really are, on the one hand, and your work, on the other. For example, let’s say that you don’t think romantic love is possible, but you decide to write a romance nonetheless (despite your outlook, all the sex scenes and other juicy bits have evoked some genuine enthusiasm in you). So you get down to writing, laboriously piecing together your fictional romantic love, but something inside your head keeps screaming “this is bullshit.” You may finish the book, but you’re going to feel sick about it, and your readers will feel every single lie you tell.
- Be yourself.
The work you’re creating is you, and you are your writing. Stick to this idea—it’ll guarantee that your writing’s fresh, even if you’re covering ground that someone else has written about before. It will still be something new, because it’s that topic as interpreted by you. Write about what you want to write, what you feel, what you know—or even about something you don’t know, but that you want to research and learn about.
Put your idea down in five or ten sentences, a little blurb. Print it and hang it above your computer screen. Look at it every time you start to lose your way.
STEP 3. WRITE THE BEGINNING AND THE ENDING
Write the first chapter (let’s call it “A”) and the last chapter (let’s call it “B”). Don’t worry about whether the text is perfect or not. Just write—sit there and write until it’s done. You’ll rewrite it later it anyway.
Now you have two main sections, and your goal is to get from the starting line (A) to the finish line (B), bringing your characters from A to B along with you (or killing some of them along the way, depending on what you’re writing).
Write “the end” at the bottom. It’ll help motivate you.
STEP 4. OUTLINE THE PLAN AND CHARACTERS
You probably already have your characters in mind since they’re closely linked to the story idea. And maybe even you have a rough plan for what will happen to them. Now it’s time to develop it.
Think about it like this: what needs to happen to take my characters from the first chapter to the last chapter? What will they experience along the way? What obstacles will they face?
Between the first chapter and the last chapter, create a heading for each additional chapter that you need to get the characters to go from A to B in a way a reader will understand and believe. No shortcuts allowed—the reader must always know what’s going on and why. But don’t make the common mistake of making it too simple for your characters to make that journey. Make your people suffer! Make them really work to get to B. Make them give up and then start again. To be believable, a character has to struggle to get from A to B, just like in real life.
Under each chapter heading, put a short description of what that chapter will contain. Here’s an example. This is a chapter description from the new book I’m working on, I Can Hear You. From this short note I’ll produce about ten pages, but don’t stick to my numbers—find your own:
Sara as a kid at the first visit to the psychologist
Sara is 12. Must go to psychologist due to some school problems. Her mother doesn’t care about the issues—describe the mother. The father is also here. He’s having an argument with the mother—show family problems. Show that Sara is, indeed, pretty strange. Show her compulsive behavior.
As you can see, in this chapter we have four characters: Sara, mother, father, psychologist. Now put these characters into an Excel spreadsheet (or whatever format document you prefer) and describe each one a little. The description doesn’t have to be too extensive since you’ll probably change details in it later anyway—all you need is something to remind you who’s who in your book. Keep the information simple and accessible—you’re not going to want to search a huge, longwinded document just to remind yourself of the name of Sara’s psychologist, who only appears in two scenes.
Personally, I don’t use detailed character description forms—I find that I don’t need to. I see the people, I know them, I feel them. But if you feel like you need more, do whatever you think will work for you. Some writers have long and interesting conversations with their guys. If you like to talk to imaginary friends, and if it helps your writing, feel free.
When you’re done with this step, you should have something like this (this is a screenshot from I Can Hear You, a thriller about a woman who can hear other peoples’ thoughts, or who may just be crazy—now’s not the time to tell which):
Check if your plan seems to make sense, if it’s more or less coherent and logical. But don’t worry too much—you’ll rewrite it later anyway, because writing includes a lot of rewriting.
STEP 5. WRITE FIRST DRAFT
Now just start to write your damn book! Here are the rules:
- Start from chapter 1 and proceed.
- NEVER read what you’ve already written, and NEVER even touch the previous chapters.
- If you feel like adding something to chapters you’ve finished, just insert a note. I use this kind of notation:
XXXXX Add something about Sara’s appearance XXXX
Why did I put “XXXXX”? Because later I can find my notes easily by using the search function. And “XXXXX” is never part of an actual word, so the search takes me to my notes and nothing else.
- Move on QUICKLY—forget about the quality of the writing. Just move on, move on.
- NEVER count words—it can drain your energy. Just write—no making statistics.
- Finish and then put it down IMMEDIATELLY.
Now you can take a rest. Leave the text for a week or two and don’t think about it. Don’t even open the file to add a small notation. If you need to, make notes on pieces of paper, but don’t touch the computer file.
STEP 6. READ AND CORRECT FIRST DRAFT
After the waiting period, you can open your draft again. Read it and see if it makes sense. It probably doesn’t, but you’re going to know what’s wrong and how to fix it. That’s the point of the waiting period: to let you catch your breath and get to a place where you can see the flaws and their solutions. Make notes. Plan what you need to do to make the book perfect. If you have a writing friend, ask for advice.
Delete anything you’re not happy with. Delete without mercy! Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the passages you aren’t sure of can be fixed—they can’t. Don’t think about all the effort you put into writing them—DELETE! Never, ever leave anything in the book that you’re not 100% sure about. It will haunt you. Get rid of everything you don’t like. What you want is PERFECTION, no matter what it takes.
STEP 7. WRITE THE FINAL VERSION
Now you’re almost done—all you need to do is write the final version of the book. So again, from chapter to chapter, you move on and write. Just write—you’ll edit later. Writing is iterative: you write and you edit, until you get it. Just do your job. Don’t set too many goals, and don’t compare yourself to others. Just write. And edit. And write. And edit. And again. That’s the job, and if you’ve put yourself into the right frame of mind from the start, you’ll be able to do it. I believe in you!
Have you survived the process? Yes? So now the real fun begins—you have to find a publisher. If you want to know how, let me know. I’ll be glad to share my experience.