I can't tell you how often I'm asked the same question: How do I write a novel?
I can't tell you, because it's really only been asked once. A few nights ago. By a friend of mine.
But, for the sake of this particular post, let's imagine this is a world where I am asked fairly often. Aggressively often, actually. So much so that it warrants an entire article.
So, how do I do it? And how can you? Well, it's super simple.
Read books. A lot of books. More books than you read right now, and that could already be seriously disturbing number. My dear friend Neelima reads about sixty books a week (possibly an understatement). If she asked me how to write a novel, my advice would be the same.
You need to know the format. You need to understand the difference between a third-person limited POV and an omnipresent POV. You need to know grammar, and wield it like a deadly weapon. You need to understand your characters' motivations better than you know your own.
And that's just how to start. Actually writing?
Well, let's look at the planning stages. Unlike some forms of writing, I strongly recommend against free-writing the entire story. It may work with a short or a script, but making things up as you go along tends to leave a lot of threads unfulfilled. Take a look at one of my favorite competitions: NaNoWriMo. It's actually where I wrote Brassworks, which I am releasing for free on Wattpad this year (shameless plug). Most writers at least have an idea of their story in their heads before they dive into the program. And of those that cast caution to the wind, most of their stories require heavy edits or even complete rewrites to find a more suitable voice.
So how are you supposed to plan? Let's break it down into 4 easy steps:
1) The Idea
This is the BEST PART! Without any extra effort, you come up with an idea. I would recommend you keep a journal handy at all times, lest an idea be lost while you handle personal business (Pooping. I am referring to pooping).
Once you have that idea in hand, it's time to run it past friends, family, and strangers. I honestly recommend you pitch your idea to a complete stranger at least once. Do it at a Starbucks and no one will blink. Just ask the next person in line for a favor, and say this:
"I'm sorry, would you please do me a favor? I'm a writer and I'm developing my next project. Can I read you my pitch and you let me know if it sounds intriguing?"
Some people will say no, and you should not press further. NO MEANS NO. But many will respond positively. Pitch away, and find out then and there if your idea has legs.
Cool idea, bro/sis/?, but now what?
You need to write out the synopsis. What does the beginning, middle, and end of your story look like? Don't worry so much about character arcs, set pieces, or any of that fun stuff. Just try to determine where this book begins, what are the main challenges, and how does it end?
Don't worry if you change the ending later. That's totally cool. In fact, I push you to let your stories remain somewhat organic, up until you publish.
So, at this point, you should have about a page's worth of writing on this story. Now, let's make it sing.
A lot of people confuse the Outline with the Synopsis. They are silly people, and you shouldn't associate with them anymore.
Your outline begins as a simple paragraph: The Synopsis. You've summarized the story in a single page, and now you're going to expand it out.
First, determine the key events of the story. These should manifest as three to five MAJOR actions that shift the direction of the narrative. Examples include:
- The Fellowship of the Ring choosing Moria instead of the dangerous path over the Misty Mountains.
- Terrorists assaulting Nakatomi Plaza.
- Anything bad happening to John Wick.
Lay out the events chronologically, and group those that fall into the same thread structure. Grouping should feel organic. A good method is to ask if the event causes a major change in the character's perspective, trajectory, or ability. If you have a major battle, there may be several large events rolled up inside.
Your Groups represent the Acts of your story. You should be left with 3-5, and they should be powerful. If, at any point, you think one act is weighted more than the other, ask yourself this: Is more information necessary to understand what is happening? If not, don't add anything else.
Your Act Outline allows you to visualize the path of the narrative. Now you need to identify your characters and their place in the story. On a separate piece of paper, write out the character arcs for your main players. Now lay those arcs over the outline. Where do they intersect? Where do they diverge? More importantly, WHY?
Leviathan Wakes, the phenomenal book that became The Expanse, demonstrates narrative weaving very well. Various threads and characters run on their own paths for most of the novel. Then, toward the end, the threads tighten and converge. Characters run into each other in the middle of major events. It's fantastic.
At this point, you've got a decent handle on your characters, you know the trajectory of the story, and you know your acts. It's time for the Beat Outline. This is the monster.
4) Beat Outline
A beat outline is a scene-by-scene breakdown. Every location change, every major event, every paragraph (nearly) is represented. At the end, you should have a 15-30 page document that details the entirety of your story. If this were a script, you'd only need to add the dialogue.
With each "beat," you need to know the 5 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.
- Who is involved in the scene?
- What are they doing (Physically, but also what are their goals for the scene? What do they want to accomplish?)
- Where is the scene occurring?
- When is this scene occurring in the timeline (more important if you have a nonlinear narrative)?
- Why is this scene in your story?
The last point is especially important. You are going to write prose that dances on the page. Hell, you're going to impress your own dang self with your writing. But just because the scene is awesome and exciting and hilariously funny, that doesn't mean it deserves to be in the final draft.
In every scene, ask yourself a few questions about your characters. What do they hope to gain by the end of the scene? What are their obstacles? What is affecting their thoughts and actions?
Try to identify the real weaknesses of your characters, and then throw them into those situations again and again. Why is The Dark Knight so damn good? Because Batman has to face a villain he can't punch away.
At the end of this (highly infuriating) process, you will have a Beat Outline. You will have spent weeks, maybe months developing your novel before you even start the prologue. You have identified the paths for your character, laid down obstacles, and invented the ending. Now it's time to write.
And maybe, if you're really lucky, you'll only have to do ten rewrites when you're done. But that's a subject for another day.