So, you kind of like writing, right? You do it in your free time, love to read, and you may have even gotten a useless degree in English. Not to mention you have this awesome, unique idea for a novel. So awesome, in fact, you bring it up whenever someone asks what you’re doing with your life, much to their amusement.
“I’ve been trying to write a novel for thirty years,” they may tell you, laughing in your face. “That’s cool and all, but it’s so hard to write a book.” Nobody actually believes in you, and that sucks. But never fear – this guide is here to help you prove them all wrong.
The Brain Dump
You have that awesome idea, and that’s great! But that’s all it is – an idea. It takes a lot more to write a novel, and that’s part of why it’s so dang hard. You need a setting, characters, conflict…sometimes you need a whole new world with different customs and languages. You have the idea, but to prove your great aunt at that Christmas party in 2007 wrong, you need to take that idea to the next level. You need to do a brain dump.
To do this, you need to sit down with paper and a pen (or pencil, of course), and nothing else. No distractions. The best way to do this is for it to be stream of consciousness, so that you don’t lose any ideas you may have. Start by writing down your original idea, then write down anything you can think of in relation to it. This can be anything, in any order: character names, hobbies, personality traits; setting ideas; plot point ideas; or major conflicts that could occur. Write down anything and everything, even if it’s stupid. It’s not like this is what might get published.
Pants or Plan?
There’s two ways it can go from here: you can either write an outline based off of the brain dump, or write ‘by the seat of your pants,’ as they say. Personally, I like to write without an outline; ideas typically flow naturally for me as the story progresses, and I include my brain dump ideas where they seem to fit best as I go along. But others recommend outlining ahead of time, which can also be valuable.
At minimum, your outline should include the beginning scene, climax, and resolution, along with all major plot points you see occurring in the story. You can also outline characters ahead of time, using character charts, to map out their name, age, physical and behavioral characteristics, and likes and dislikes.
With an outline, you can plan the perfect plot without putting in as much effort as it would take to write it all without a plan and then make the proper adjustments. Outlining can help you see on a single page how the story will progress and how your characters will develop throughout. When you’re finished with it, almost half of the work will be done (just kidding).
The Bulk of It
It’s finally time to do the very thing that sets your heart aflame: write. The temptation to just take the idea and run with it was real during steps 1 and 2, but you’ve stuck it out and now it’s time to write the next Great American (or Canadian or Brazilian) Novel. Or at least the first draft of it.
Most people trying to write a novel know what to do for this step, or at least I hope they do. Yet this is where people tend to get stuck. They start fully confident, but quickly begin to second guess their plot decisions or get bored with the spot they’re at, and give up before they even finish. There are two ways to solve this dilemma, depending on the cause of it.
To keep from second guessing yourself, write without looking back. Update the outline as you go along if need be, but never look at a previous scene and wonder if it should be there. Just roll with it. If you’re bored with what you’re currently writing, skip to a scene that excites you more or, if it’s not 100 percent necessary, cut the boring scene out of your plans. If you’re bored with it, there’s a good chance your readers will be too.
The most important part about this step is simply to finish your first draft from beginning to end, no matter how imperfect. Fixing the imperfections are what steps 4 and 5 are for.
Killing, and Reviving, Your Darlings
So you’ve finished your first draft, and honey, you’ve got a big storm coming. Writing the first draft is hard, but revising it is even harder. If you didn’t get stuck on the previous step, you may get stuck on this one. This is where you allow yourself to second-guess what you’ve written, and to change what needs to be changed. And if you’re like me, you’re going to change absolutely everything.
Time has passed since you started the first draft, and you have better, fresher ideas. You develop your characters to make them more realistic, and in turn must make the way they react and interact suit them better. This involves deleting scenes you may love – like that cute one where the almost-lovers sleep in the same bed – because it just doesn’t fit anymore.
That’s the bad news, but the good news is that you are going to write in scenes that you love even more and add in characters that could be your best friend. Then, you might delete those, but the process will always continue until you have scenes and characters that you are absolutely happy with.
The Tedious Part
Phew, you’ve made it to the final, most tedious step: proofreading! This is where you run spell-check and read through your novel for any grammatical, syntax, or verb tense errors. If you changed character’s names (or pronouns) along the way, you should check to make sure all of those are right as well. Tip: when you did “find and replace all,” you probably forgot to replace their nicknames.
You might consider delegating this step to someone else, like a professional editor, because you’ve just done steps 1 through 4 and, I mean, you’re probably really tired.
Once you finish the tedious part, though, you’ve done it. You’ve written a novel. It may not be any good, and it may never get printed by even the smallest of publishers, but you’ve done it. You’ve put in the work, and you can self-publish and print your own copies to hand out to anyone who has ever doubted you.