How to Write a Novel in Seven Easy Steps

courtesy Paramount Pictures

Full disclosure: I realize the Internet is suffocating with similar step-by-step listicles about how to write a book, but this is my version. As I wrote last week, my blog, my rules.

1. Come Up With an Idea

This step may seem obvious to most, but when I was a kid, I would usually just start writing a story without having any semblance of what it would be about. This type of free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness writing can be interesting if you’re a well-practiced writer but not so much when you’re 10 years old. As I wrote in a previous blog, it helps to “tap into the Source” to glean ideas, but truthfully, ideas can come from anywhere: movies or T.V. shows you’ve watched, conversations you’ve had with friends, or even other books you’ve read. As for me, the basic kernel of the idea for Danger Peak came from a videogame I played when I was a kid, the old-school, 8-bit Nintendo game “ExciteBike.” In the game, you can create any kind of course you want (this was one of the esteemed “programmable” games for the original NES), including building large jumps and ramps. I tried creating one ramp that went all the way to the sky, like a mountain, and I wondered what would be at the top of such a strange, mysterious mountain. Voila. The idea for Danger Peak came to me.

2. Outline the Plot

Despite my teachers’ protestations, I hated writing outlines to my stories in grade school and usually avoided them altogether. Big mistake. It’s incredibly difficult writing a solid story from beginning to end without any basic plot outline. Again, if you’re an experienced writer and want to surprise yourself, this may be the way to go, but for the majority of us, most readers will likely be bored if they don’t know where you’re taking them. Even after all these years, I tried writing the full-length novel version of Danger Peak without a beat-for-beat breakdown of the story structure but quickly abandoned this task when I got stuck. Having the list of chapters and short summaries at my side made the writing so much easier; I always knew where I was in the story and mostly where I wanted to go. (Picture a filmmaker with Post-It notes on his wall scrambling the scenes around trying to piece his movie together.) Even if you don’t know precisely where the story is heading (again, you might want to surprise yourself), it greatly helps to have a general idea of what your endgame is. As many writers attest, the ending is everything. You can have lackluster writing but a killer ending, and you will still have a very decent story worth reading again and again.

3. Create a Character Sheet

After the plot outline, it helps to know the people you’re going to populate it with. Luckily for me, I only have about seven main characters in my book. (I’ll never be one of those genius writers who will pen a War and Peace-sized masterpiece with over a thousand characters.) Give your characters quirks and personality traits. For example, Dr. Howard, the eccentric technology teacher in my book who unintentionally helps my teen heroes build their super-powered motorbike, gets upset whenever someone calls him “Mister” instead of “Doctor.” This is based on a real teacher I had in high school, and you can and should mine your own life for character inspirations as well. The world is full of crazy characters out there, and it’s better to have interesting people to play with in your novels than your average, run-of-the-mill guy next door. After all, you don’t want to bore your readers. To paraphrase the late, great David Foster Wallace, “If you want your characters to be funny and interesting, have them say and do funny and interesting things.” One final note: Make sure your characters are different enough from each other, so try to fill in their backstories and personality traits as much as reasonably possible (without distracting too much from the main plot). You don’t want readers to have trouble telling your characters apart.

4. Start Writing!

This goes without saying, but now that you have the great idea, the basic plot outline, and your characters, get to writing! Probably the best advice I received from one of my writing teachers in college is to not edit yourself when you write your first draft. There’ll be plenty of time later to don your editing cap, but for now, just write without restrictions or fear. If you happen to suffer from writer’s block, don’t panic. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch a movie. Listen to a CD. (Do people still do that?) Whatever works for you and gets your creative juices flowing is the correct method. And remember, if you get stuck, you can always rely on your outline. (You didn’t skip step 2, right?)

5. Take a Break and Then Read What You Wrote

It’s tempting after writing your magnum opus to want to quickly enjoy the fruits of your labor and turn (or scroll) all the way back to page 1, but you’re still too close to your baby. Get some breathing room first for at least a few days to a week, maybe even more. Then, when your mind is settled, and you’ve almost forgotten exactly what you’ve written, you can immerse yourself back into the fantasy world you created with fresh eyes and an even fresher perspective. You won’t be totally objective (it is your book, after all), but you won’t be as defensive to leave in dreary writing, place or character descriptions that don’t really do the job, or irrelevant passages that don’t add anything to the story. Edit with precision and extreme prejudice!

6. “Beta Readers” Aren’t Members of a Greek Fraternity Book Club

This is another mistake I originally made. I started submitting my book to agents and publishing houses before anyone besides myself read it. Oops. Don’t mimic my error and do this yourself. I’ll repeat for emphasis: Do not do this! Grab a circle of friends you trust to tell you the truth to review your work and give feedback. Hopefully, they’ll give constructive criticism and not simply, “This sucks!” but if it’s the latter, you’ll at least know who your true friends are. This step in the process was real eye-opening for me. They pointed out plot holes I missed, which is understandable because I was too close to the material, as almost all writers are. The little world I created was all in my head, but it wasn’t necessarily on the page. (I won’t claim it’s all there now, but it’s a lot closer than it originally was.) One brief example is that I thought it was obvious that there was something supernatural waiting for my main character at the top of Danger Peak since I mentioned several times that the mountain is magical, but one reader felt it wasn’t stressed enough, so I went back to the Prologue to write a few paragraphs to let the readers know that yes, something spectacular is at the top of the mountain, and that increased the urgency of the story and suspense/excitement of the reader.

7. Incorporate Feedback and Read What You Wrote Again

Once you gather the feedback (again, constructive feedback!), you can incorporate what you think makes sense into the body of your story (and toss the rest). Then read it all over again from start to finish and make further edits. (You’ll notice you’ll need to read your book many, many times throughout this process.) One trick I learned from Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing is to eliminate as many adverbs as you can, since they don’t really add much to the description of a scene. King suggests writers replace the combo of an adverb and weak verb with simply a strong verb, so, for example, in my book, I replaced “forcibly remove the blanket” to “whisk the blanket.” Finally, if you think your manuscript is up to snuff, now’s the time to start sending it out to agents and prospective publishers or self-publish it if that’s your thing.

That’s all, folks! Enjoy your writing journey, and once you’re done, you can do it all over again following these seven “easy” steps.


P.S.: If you enjoyed this blog, please sign up for blog updates to get a free book! Enter your email address and click “Sign Up” in the opt-in box at the bottom of the Blog/FREE Book page, and once you confirm your email address in an automatically generated email, you’ll be sent a free PDF copy of Lists, Life, and Other Unimportant Details, an over 270-paged collection of my best blogs and published articles of the past 25 years.

P.P.S.: I’m taking a break next week for my birthday, so I’ll be back in 2 weeks with My Publishing Journey in Miniature

3 responses to “How to Write a Novel in Seven Easy Steps”

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