Twelve Easy Steps Make a Novel

So, you’ve always wanted to write a novel.  Or maybe you’ve got to write a novel fast to meet a deadline.  Novice or beginner, you are faced with where, how?  The following steps are a guideline.

  1. Set aside a time and place to write.  If possible, the same number of hours and the same time every day, so that writing becomes a habit.

  2. Gathering.  Choose a story idea that will allow you to do the following:
    1. Write what you know and who you are.
    2. Harvest your life.  Write the kind of story can you tell best.  What do you have to say?  What issues do you feel passionate about?
    3. Carry index cards.  When an idea pops into your mind, write it down.
    4. Journal or write morning pages.  I sometimes get up and write three or four pages in the morning on whatever I feel like with the purpose of directing my thoughts toward my work in progress.  Usually, I get something about my present story that is pretty good and pretty deep that way.

  3. Research.

  4. Organize index cards and the good stuff from those handwritten pages.
    1. Get a three-ring binder notebook, dividers, and plastic sheet protectors that can hold weird-sized scraps of paper or index cards.
    2. Cut out the parts from morning pages that have to do with your story and put them into your notebook where they belong.  Put anything that seems relevant into the appropriate sections of this notebook.  I organize my notebook in the order closest to the story’s actual shape.  My dividers are labeled premise, proposal, research, setting, character, and plot.  I divide the plot section into beginning/inciting incident, act one, act two, act three, or first big moment, second big moment etc., black moment, crisis, resolution.  I stick a lot of my research into this notebook.  That way I have my book in one place, and I can carry it around if I wish.  Usually, my notebooks get so fat, I end up with more notebooks.  I am extremely disorganized when I create.  This system organizes me.

  5. Define premise.  Refine your ideas into one single, controlling idea.  Express it in a single sentence that contains a compelling dramatic question.

  6. Develop characters.
    1. Hero and heroine should have good hearts.  They should not be perfect.
    2. Think about archetypes
    3. Backstory
    4. Break in Character-- Who does this character think he is?  Who does his family think he is?  Who does the world think he is?  What are his dreams? His beliefs? Vulnerabilities? Ideas in conflict.  Complex characters aren’t who they seem to be, want to be, or pretend to be.  This is where internal conflict is born.  Your story must force your characters to grow or gain insight.
    5. Give your main characters three or four strong traits or beliefs that control his behavior, one of which can change.  The trait that changes can be a flaw that changes because of what your character learns in your story.  Scenes should slam this particular trait, forcing him to grow.
    6. Think about casting.  Throw conflicted characters into complex, conflicting relationships with other powerful characters who are not like them, who react differently and, therefore, maddeningly to the same stimuli.

  7. Give your main characters clear, vital, deep-rooted conflicting goals.  The characters do not have to know what their real need or goal is or approve of it.  But your character must need something so desperately that if he doesn’t get it, he can’t be whole.  Goals must come out of who the characters are and must be well motivated.  Think about several types of goals for your people—the main goal that spans entire novel as well as temporary or immediate scene goals.  Usually my characters don’t know what they’re about.  Usually, their major flaw blocks necessary self-knowledge.  They may not admit they are unhappy, but if they weren’t lucky enough to fall into my story, they would have stayed messed up forever.  Plot events should force them to discover who they are and what they want.  In the beginning they may fight their true goal or dramatic need.

  8. Plot.  At this point, I take a look at a book map of The Screenwriters Workbook by Syd Field.
    1. study the paradigm for screenplays set out in that book.
    2. I get out a large poster board, a dry erase board, or sometimes even a scroll of Christmas wrapping paper.  Sometimes I use the white or back side of the wrapping paper because it is more portable than a poster.
    3. Then I take out index cards and post-it notes.  I list things that can happen to characters, things that need to happen to them.  Think about romantic conflict and external conflict.  The romantic conflict comes from deep within the personalities of these two characters—why don’t they believe their relationship could work?  How do they have to change or grow to resolve their relationship?
    4. Think up scenes that slam them and dramatize the characters’ internal growth and their romantic bonding.
    5. Test their love. Test leads to black moment, crisis, epiphany,  character growth, and resolution.
    6. In plotting, remember, events that happen in your story are best if they spring from actions your characters take to solve problems.  Such events should set off a chain reaction of dramatic, interesting emotional reactions and actions that keep your story moving.  Your characters’ emotions are always more important than the actions.
    7. Think up worst-case scenarios for your particular characters and worst-case but highly-attractive love interests for them.  Dramatize conflicts on index cards or post-it notes.  Cards should contain scene ideas.   Think about these questions when thinking about scenes: what has to happen?  Where?  What is argument?  What is point of scene?  Then how should conflict be revealed in scene—through dialogue, thoughts, or action? Whose viewpoint?
    8. Arrange these scenes in most dramatic order.
    9. Stick post-it notes on poster in best order.  Keep in mind that even if you don’t write the book exactly as you are planning it, planning it forces you to think about it, which is how you get the good stuff that seems accidental.

  9. Write.
    1. If I am having a hard time with a scene, I pull out every note, scrap of paper that has dialogue a character description etc, and all the research I need for this section of the book.  I put these materials into a single manila file folder or sheet protector.
    2. Organize these bits of paper into a stack that is in chronological or in scene order.
    3. Get them into computer in the order you believe they should be.  Usually, the work will starts getting easier.
    4. No matter how negative or blocked you feel, write.  Write something, every day.
    5. If you are extremely negative, give El Negativo or La Negativa a notebook of his/ hers and let him/her write.  When he/she is done, get back to your real work.  Set writing goals and commit blocks of time toward this project.
    6. Write.  Let yourself write badly.  After about a hundred pages, I usually find my characters and book.  Sometimes great scenes spring into my mind that have very little to do with all the plotting and planning I did in the beginning.
    7. Usually, I replot my synopsis after I’ve written the first fifty pages.

  10. Endings.  About three-fourths of the way through a book, I usually reread and redesign the book again to try to figure out the very best ending for my story.  I usually write the last two or three chapters in a day or two after it comes to me.

  11. Revision.  I keep printed pages in a three-ring binder.  When I have revision ideas, I write them on post-it notes and stick them on the pages to be revised or stick them into a sheet-protector that contains all revision notes for that chapter.  Try to avoid constant revision when writing. When story sags, remember that conflict is the gasoline that drives your story and that must drive every scene.  Ask yourself what is the conflict? What is your character doing to resolve the conflict? Tip: wherever possible, cut.

  12. Tips I’ve learned through the years.  How to use how-to-write books.  Depression.  Rumors about the writing business.  Happiness. Writer’s block.  Burn-out.  Jealousy.  Speed.  Silent retreats.

  13. Books and workshops
    1. The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field and anything by Dwight Swain
    2. Maximum Achievement by Brian Tracy
    3. I think Laura Baker’s and Robin L. Perini’s workshop on Story Magic would be great.  I enjoyed Robert McKee’s workshop on Structure and David Freeman’s workshop on Beyond Structure.