How to write a novel*

Ever wanted to write a novel but had no clue how? Having just finished my fifth novel, I am now ready to pass on my accummulated novel-writing wisdom to those what have never writ one but wants to.

Here is the complete, full and unexpurgated guide:

First of all you need a computer. (Yeah, yeah, I know in the olden days they made do with quill, ink and paper, and typewriters—aargh! don’t get me started on how creepy and scary typewriters are—plus, whatever, this is not the olden days.)

On that computer you need a word processing program. If you want to be compatible with the publishing industry it should be microsoft word. If you want a program that doesn’t make you froth with rage it should be anything other than microsoft word. (Sadly, I have gone with the rage-frothing option.) You’ll also need some kind of spreadsheet program which needn’t be compatible with anything else—it is for your eyes only.

If you want to write your novel relatively quickly and productively, it should have no access to the interweb thingy, also no games, or anything other than the two aforementioned programs. If you can’t write without easy access to endless forms of procrastination, sorry, I mean, research tools, then by all means be connected to that gateway to hell the intramanet.

Once you have your equipment set up in a suitably ergonomic way (that’s right, I’m with Scalzi on the efficacy of coffee shops—that way lies bad backs, soul-destroying one-night stands, and caffeine-stained teeth) open up your wp program and type in the title of your novel.

Do not spend a lot of time on this. The novel I am about to be currently working on is called The Fairy Novel which is shorthand for The Great Australian Feminist Monkey Knife-Fighting Cricket Elvis Mangosteen Young Adult Fairy Novel. It’s a working title, which means the crappy title I came up with while waiting for my agent, editor, or marketing, or someone, to come up with something better. Untitled is another excellent working title (Sean P. Fodera explains in the comments why Untitled is actually a terrible working title). Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi! has also worked well for me. Maybe Go! Little Novelist, Go! might work for you.

Sometimes working titles wind up being the actual title (Snakes on a Plane, anyone? Or how about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?) but mostly not. The title at the top of the page is purely there for psychological reasons. So that even before you’ve written the first sentence you’ve still got something, and not just a little something, but the title! The beating heart of your novel!

Make sure you make it a bigger and fancier font than your novel proper, underline it, too. Making it red or blue or some other colour can also be very motivating. You could even create a funky animated title so that Untitled bops across the top of the page and waves at you. Though that might be a little distracting.

Once you have your title, in a font you like, at the top of the page, a choice lies before you:

    Do you just start the novel or do you outline?

Hang on, what am I saying? This is your first novel! Under no circumstances should you outline first. Outlining is something you’ll figure out whether you need later on, after you’ve written a few novels. First novels should be written by the seat-of-the-pants method: make it up as you go along.

If you have no particular story to tell, then borrow one from someone else. This has worked pretty well for Shakespeare and pretty much every other great writer. The bible is good for plots, as are myths, fairy tales, legends, ballads, pop songs, and crappy movies that didn’t quite work (rewrite them so they do).

If you’re worried about your plot being a bit too recognisable, set it somewhere completely different, and change the sex, age, race, ethnicity and religion of all the characters. You can further cunningly disguise it by mashing two or three plots together. It’s about time someone wrote Romeo & Juliet plus The Hustler plus The Ramayana.

I’m not going to tell you what your novel should be about except to say that it must not be about a first-time novelist working in a coffee shop. Also stay away from unicorns, dragons, butterflies and washed-up alcoholic salesman (though possibly combining all four might work).

Whether you write your novel in first, second, or third person is also up to you. Just know that currently third is considered the most invisible, and second the least. Just muck around until you find which one suits you (or this particular novel) best.

The first sentence should begin with “The” or “Once upon a time”. You can change it later, but those are the sure-fire sentence starters that’ll get the novel up and running lickety split.

You may get stuck along the way, and have no idea what your characters should do next. Raymond Chandler says that’s when it’s time to send someone in brandishing a gun. Sending in a vampire also works. Or you can set something on fire, have a long lost relative or best friend show up, have your protag lose all their worldly goods, or discover that the lovers are actually siblings (ewww!). I.e. if you get stuck, throw something into the mix and see what happens. The more stuff you have in your pot the less likely you are to run out of momentum and things to write about.

Once you’ve written the first 20 thousand words it’s time to crack open your spreadsheet program and start mapping your novel. This is a handy trick taught me by the old man. Here’s what my very first spreadsheet (ss) looks like:

At a glance I can see which pov was telling what chapter, what day it was, where they were, and who was getting the lion share of the novel. You can also have a content column that lets you know whether it’s a sitting-around-talking chapter (“) or a sitting-around-and-thinking (‘) or an action-packed chapter (!) or somewhere in between (^) or one with sex (*).

If your content column (cc) looks like this

!
!
!
!
!
!
!

then you might decide that after all that running/shooting/jumping/giving birth, it may be time for a wee spot of (“) or (‘) or (*) or (@), so as not to exhaust your reader. Mix ‘em up. See what happens.

If you’re worried that your protag has a tendency to be a tourist, you can also have a column for whether they’ve done anything. Put an x if they have, and nothing if they haven’t. It’ll soon be clear whether you have sleeping-beauty issues or not.

The full utility of the ss does not reveal itself until you’ve finished the first draft and are ready to start rewriting. Then the ss functions as a mini-map, instead of scrolling back and forth frantically trying to find who done what where, you can have a squiz at your ss.

You may be tempted to start shifting chapters around and inserting extra (!) or (“) before you’ve completed your novel—resist that temptation! I have a friend who has been rewriting and rearranging their brilliant-but-unfinished novel for many, many, years now and they’re still no closer to finishing it. That way lies madness. (Or, you know, a novel that takes ages to finish.)

Which doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it along the way. Why not reward yourself at the end of each chapter by adding it to the spreadsheet? You can even invent new symbols to describe its content. Or find some other thing that must be mapped. See? Procrastination is yours even without the intramaweb thingie.

The really hard work of novel writing begins after you complete the first draft. Then, and only then, can you start figuring out how to make that which is broken way less broken. In order to do that you should give yourself at least a week off after completing said first draft. Walk away, go play, dance, juggle. Sleep for a week. But do not so much as think about your novel during your time off.

When you’re ready to get back to work sit down and read it from start to finish. Most people find it easiest to do this by printing out the ms. and scribbling comments in the margins. Try not to get bogged down by proof reading, keep your eye out for the big stuff: Mark the boring bits, the confusing bits, the incomprehensible bits. Think about how to fix ‘em. Scribble your ideas down.

When you’ve gone through the whole ms. it’s time to implement all your changes. Each change will spark a whole bunch of others. Keep at it until you think your novel’s in pretty good shape. Don’t forget to keep track with your ss to see how the balance of (!) and (“) and (*) and (‘) is going. Make adjustments accordingly.

When you truly think you’re done it’s time to send it out to first readers.

Who should your first readers be? you ask. Who do you know who reads a lot, and talks about what they’ve read in smart and interesting ways? Do you know any other writers?

Send it out to everyone who agrees to read and comment on your work of genius. The more people you send it to the greater your odds of getting feedback. I promise to read books for friends all the time and frequently fail to keep my promise. (Sorry, everyone! I am a bad friend.) I send my first drafts out to ten or more people; I rarely get more than five responses.

When you get the feedback rewrite accordingly. Once you’ve done so to your satisfaction then congratulations! You’ve written a novel! It is now time to begin your second novel.

To sum up:

  • computer
  • title
  • borrow plot
  • type
  • spreadsheet
  • rewrite
  • first readers

And that’s all there is to it. Good luck! It’s as easy as falling off a log and into a secret hidden portal into John Malkovich’s brain. Or something like that.

*This guide was written to supplement Maureen Johnson‘s genius post about writers and deadlines.

NOTE: The above is not a description of how I write novels.

47 comments

  1. jessica on #

    What a great post!

    Love the spreadsheet idea. I think i might adopt that.

    ‘Go! Little Novelist, Go!’ – I feel surprisingly inspired just by looking at that.

  2. Vernieda on #

    I love the spreadsheet suggestion. I’ve heard of all sorts of spreadsheets novelists use but I like the suggestion of marking content with the different symbols since that’s the sort of thing I’ve always struggled with. I think I might steal it for my own nefarious purposes.

  3. ethereal_lad on #

    This is great advice! My working title is not family-safe, though.

  4. Darice Moore on #

    Hurrah for your advice! I am definitely in the “write by the seat of your pants” crowd. I’m always amazed at how my characters pick up and run with the story.

    However, I’m just going to stand up here and say that writing in coffee shops is the bomb, and here is why:

    1. I won’t pay for the wireless intarweb, and I make sure to go to a place that doesn’t give it to me for free — ergo, no online distractions.

    2. Me and caffeine are made for each other in a very codependent kind of way. Sweet, sweet caffeine. I think I’ll have some now.

    3. I have a three-year-old at home, which means that my writing/working time can be (and is) interrupted at any moment. But if I go to the coffee shop, my daughter is safely home with Daddy while I get time and space to focus. (Sadly, closing the door to my office doesn’t work.)

    Ergo, coffee shops!

  5. bea on #

    i read about this entry at scalzi’s aol journal… so I came to check it out. amusing and practical all at once. i especially love what you have written without attending to some of the conventions of writing. love the spreadsheet idea. the intramowebby thing has taken over my hands these days. i may lose weight as a result!

  6. sara z on #

    And don’t forget about STUFF GOES HERE. Very handy for those little sections of 2000, 4000, or 15000 words that you haven’t yet figured out how to write…

  7. claire on #

    oh. my. god. … spread. sheet. why the @#$%^&*(#$%^& didn’t i think of that?

    thanks for the tip.

  8. Jason Erik Lundberg on #

    Excellent advice, Justine. I’m at the 19,500-word mark of my own novel, so this comes at a good time for me.

  9. pt Sefton on #

    I have a geek-oriented post about how one might create a tool for this without having to resort to a spreadsheet. Imagine a tool that supplemented your word processor and provided the kind of functionality Justine describes here

    http://ptsefton.com/blog/2006/09/07/novel_ice

  10. Chris Barnes on #

    Excellent advice! Starting out on a novel can be kinda scary… this info goes a long way to demystifying the process.

  11. Andrew Macrae on #

    Thanks for this solid gold advice, Justine.

    I totally agree with you about the typewriters. They ARE creepy and scary.

    Plus, you know those wankers who take their portable typewriters down to the cafe and set themselves up with a stack of clean copy paper on the left-hand-side and a latte on the right?

    Yeah.

    Wankers.

  12. Diana on #

    I love the idea of the scene-descriptor symbols on the spreadsheet. I have a spreadsheet, but I never thought of adding that! ah, the things you can add…

    great post!

  13. Catherynne M. Valente on #

    I might try that spreadsheet idea. I don’t know, part of me is horrified by it, but part of me thinks it might help, as the current project is slowly getting to big for my one brain.

  14. David Moles on #

    I can testify that the other word processors will also make you froth with rage. Rage seems to be part of the deal.

  15. Simon on #

    And if, when re-reading your work, you can’t see past the grammar and mistakes what do you do? Pack it all in and become an editor?

  16. SCG on #

    “And if, when re-reading your work, you can’t see past the grammar and mistakes what do you do? Pack it all in and become an editor?”

    Correcting them all so you can get on with the more important stuff would be a good start, I imagine. ;)

  17. xterminal on #

    If I may make a humble suggestion–

    you can avoid the rage-frothing option with OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org), which will (almost, almost, almost) seamlessly save in Word format; I’ve asked some folks, and they say they have no idea that I didn’t create my resume natively in Word. And resumes have more sick, stupid formatting than any novel should ever have, don’t they?

    (No, I don’t work for the company. I’m not even sure there IS a company, since it’s open source and community-built.)

    The spreadsheet thing is sheer twisted genius.

  18. Justine on #

    Wow. Wasn’t quite expecting this level of response! I’m pleased it seems to be of use. Fun to watch the spreadsheet fever spread. Me old man is dead proud.

    pt & xterminal: Thanks for the software suggestion. I confess that the thought of learning new software does make me want to cry. And yet word just gets worser and worser . .

    Darice: Excuses! Excuses! You’re just hellbent on destroying your back and flirting with the other “writers” at the coffee shoppe. I am not fooled! Also coffee is satan’s drop. I command you to give it up immediately.

    Sara Z: Ah, yes, the good old placeholder: [insert something explodey here] [they resolve their issues] [war is averted]

    Andrew: That wanker with the typewriter, wouldn’t be you, would it? You know that bringing those two grevious sins together: coffee shop + tyepwriter could actually cause the world to fall off its axis. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    Catherynne: I too was deeply sceptical about the ss—I mean, spreadsheets! they’re all businessy and stuff, erk—but then I saw the endless futzing and procrastinating possibilities and fell in love.

    David Moles: That is deeply depressing.

    Simon: That’s what first readers are for. If you can’t spot what’s wrong—with luck they will. But you have pointed to one of the biggest probs for most beginning writers (and some who are well advanced in their careers) and inability to self-edit. Sadly, it’s something you learn with practice. Lots and lots of practice. But it’s not something you can learn alone which is why having other people read and critique you is so vital.

  19. Sean P. Fodera on #

    Excellent post. Informative and entertaining all at once.

    One note from a practical standpoint: always give your novel a title. Speaking as a contracts manager for a major publishing house, we do hundreds of contracts every year, and 50% of them are UNTITLED or UNTITLED NOVEL or UNTITLED YA NOVEL. Just this morning, we discovered that two UNTITLED PARANORMAL ANTHOLOGIES had been acquired by two different editors, and they ended up being mashed together in our system. In nearly 20 years at five major publishing houses, I have been a proponent of the idea that every manuscript entering the system should have a uniquely identifiable title.

    Naming your novel (even if you only call it BOB) sets your book apart from the rest. You will do your editor and yourself a terrific service by making your book readily identifiable at every step in the publishing process. This begins, in my opinion, with the first draft. While you may still come up with the same title as someone else, you are much less likely to do so with a real title, even if it does not end up as the final title.

  20. Jay Lake on #

    Wow. All I can say is that you are the anti-me. Or I am the anti-Justine. I’m impressed, but I think I’d have a nervous breakdown if I tried to manage a novel that way.

  21. Liset on #

    aw,
    i like unicorns
    *cries in a corner clutching a unicorn beanie baby*

  22. andrew macrae on #

    hehe just pushin yer buttons. i’ve never written so much as a note on a napkin in a cafe.

  23. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    Perfect example of the everything-works-for-somebody! I think a book of anecdotal evidence like this would be very valuable, broken into chapters like Outlining.

    Myself, I write longhand so the computer cannot distract me with its games and IM and email. I couldn’t use a spreadsheet like that–it’d be as bad as outlining for me. But I do outline after I’ve done the rough draft. To look for plot holes and character holes and whatnot.

    JeffV

  24. Gwenda on #

    I haven’t resorted to the spreadsheet yet (though I might), but certainly have done a messier version of it with notecards and with a neverending document including notes and chapter cheatsheets. (I find it immensely helpful before starting a rewrite to write a couple of lines saying what actually happens in each chapter; reveals something similar to the symbols, but also helps with rearranging and discovering things you forgot even happened(!).)

    On this point, yes:

    Simon: That’s what first readers are for. If you can’t spot what’s wrong—with luck they will. But you have pointed to one of the biggest probs for most beginning writers (and some who are well advanced in their careers) and inability to self-edit. Sadly, it’s something you learn with practice. Lots and lots of practice. But it’s not something you can learn alone which is why having other people read and critique you is so vital.

    True, true, true. When I finished the first draft of the first book (that is currently resting) I did at least two revisions without knowing what I was doing that were line edits instead of the needed major surgery. I think I’m only now getting better at this and, to be honest, what did it was getting a SERIOUS red-line edit from Ms. Link. Seeing a really skillful edit, then going through and making every change just to see what would happen was a f-ing revelation. A tremendous gift. I instantly learned how to pull back and be more savage and generally how to edit my own work. Editing other people’s work helps, too.

    I also suggest marrying or setting up house with another writer—that way you have at least one person who has to read your stuff and help edit it. No matter how short the turnaround!

    Great post, Justine.

  25. Justine on #

    Sean P. Fodera: Excellent point. When I get a mo will add a link to your comment.

    Liset: You are free to love unicorns, often and long. Just no sticking them in novels.

    Andrew: I notice you don’t deny using a foule and evil typewriter . . .

    JeffV: You, sir, are mad! Mad, mad, mad!

    Gwenda: Absolutely! I feel a whole new post coming on to reiterate the point. In the meantime I’ll add an extra “rewrite” after first readers in the summary.

    Jay Lake: Excellent! [Rubs hand together] Just as long as you all recognise that mine is the one true way and you are all heretics.

  26. Emmaco on #

    I was inspired to pull together some word documents and scrappy pieces of paper and put my thesis outline into excel this morning. I hadn’t properly realised how much I’ve done, and the amount left looks manageable! Thanks for the nudge!

  27. Loej on #

    Being John Malkovich is an AwEsOMe movie, although a bit of a mind twist.

  28. Mark Teppo on #

    The spreadsheet thing may indeed save my life. I’m going to have to give that a try on the next book.

    The only thing I’ve got to add to all this is that I sometimes do up a movie style trailer to pull all the bits together in the beginning.

  29. Jeannie on #

    Hi Justine –

    am I the friend you mention who’s been rearranging their novel? Just curious. I’ll send you a proper e-mail soon. Have to go and rearrange some more chapters

    Jeannie

  30. Sean P. Fodera on #

    You inspired me to expand on my points about titles. The new post is at http://delkytlar.livejournal.com/16579.html

    I think jay is correct, you are creating memes all over the place.

    (P.S. You reversed the “o” and “e” in my last name. A common error.)

  31. Elf M. Sternberg on #

    I was having trouble with my current novel when I decided to try the spreadsheet idea. Then I went one step further and, for the first five chapters (which is what I’ve got so far) I put the information in the spreadsheet into each chapter as metadata. At the push of a button the book generates the spreadsheet for me now, and I can not only see my progress but chapter re-arrangements are automagical.

  32. beth on #

    lovely blog piece, thank you!

    i have a spreadsheet method sans computer i’d like to share:

    i write my outline and chapters on recipe cards. then i can add, scribble and shuffle as much as i like, thus avoiding the temptation of turning on my beastly (but expensive and shiny!)computer and playing chess (or a million games of solitare) instead of organising my outline.

    plus, i like the idea of writing out a ‘recipe’ for a book since I’ve always found writing and reading to be so nourishing.

  33. Rebecca on #

    Whoaaaaaaa. Sweet. Spreadsheet. Nice. Totally doing that. Thanks.

    And also, thanks for linking to Diana Peterfreund’s blog entry, b/c the whole tourist thing is exactly what I couldn’t figure out was wrong with my story. I had inkling, but until I read that post, I hadn’t really been able to pin it down.

  34. Sheta on #

    I was attemtping to add your rss feed to LJ to add you to my flist, but the rss link you show is not working at all. Is there a feed link that you know is a working link?

    Great post. I bookmarked it. :)

  35. Rebecca on #

    “Rebecca: Diana will be so pleased to hear that!”

    I told her about it on her blog. :D And speaking of which, her book and Scott’s arrived in the mail yesterday. Yay!!

  36. Sheta on #

    Thank you!

  37. daryl on #

    but i’ve already made an outline! and i’m already habitually addicted to my internet cafe!

    what can i do to fix myself of ruinous traits!!??^^**#@!?

    creating a spreadsheet? gads! just something else to distract me from writing… *sigh*

  38. Justine on #

    Sheta: You’re welcome!

    Daryl: I suspect ritual suicide is your only hope . . .

  39. alau on #

    Oh this post was great! Very inspiring. I’m stuck in the middle of my novel, and I think I’ll take your advice and toss in a vampire or something :)

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