Recently a friend of mine sent me an email. She told me how much she used to enjoy writing, but over the years she had let her passion fall away. She told me that the release of my novel rekindled her desire to write, but was unsure how to start. She wondered if I could help. I wasn’t sure if I could, as I have absolutely no idea whether my method of writing could be of any use to anyone other than myself. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, so I sent her a breakdown of the process I use in constructing a novel. There are no big secrets here, so if anyone else is interested in how I write, this is it. I must make it clear that different writers, have different methods, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. This is just the process I use when writing.
Please forgive the informal and personal tone of this post, remember, it was written in the form of a letter originally.
Thomas M D Brooke
Stage 1. Story and plot.
Firstly, you need your story. What’s the story you’re going to tell? This is possibly the most important part of this process, but unfortunately it is also the part where I can help you the least. Often the idea behind a book or story will come from just one idea or moment of inspiration. Sometimes, a simple conversation, or an article you read, will trigger something in your mind which you can develop into a story. And it might not necessarily be a pleasant event or thought that gives you the idea. For example, for my novel Roman Mask, the idea came about after I was mugged on my way home one night!
Quite possibly you already know the story you want to tell, and have been thinking about it for quite some time. If so, great! That’s given you a lot of time to think your story-line through.
Always write about what you love, don’t get hung up on what you think will be successful or sell well in the marketplace. If you’re going to write a good novel, it is going to be a long project and fill your thoughts for large amounts of that time – this is much easier if the subject you write about is one you love. Sometimes I hear of authors who choose a period of history or subject because they thought no one else had written about it before. That’s all very well, but it’s not even a criteria I consider. The best way to make your novel unique is through its characters, the emotions you explore, and the story’s plot – the period you set it in is immaterial.
Stage 2. Research
The next stage is the research you will need to put in before you start writing. The amount will depend drastically upon genre you choose, but some amount of research will always be necessary. I write historical novels, so before I can even think about writing a word, I need to read several (Non-Fiction!) books on the subject. I normally spend an entire summer reading up on a subject before I start writing in the autumn, but others will have different ideas on this. For me, historical research is something I really enjoy, so it is no hardship. Think about taking a holiday to where you novel is set, this can help you later when you start picturing scenes. If you hate the idea of studying history, possibly this genre isn’t for you.
For fantasy novels, you may think you have the easier ride, but you’ll be wrong. You’ll need to develop your world, its races, religions, and at least some of its history before you start. For more modern fiction writers, you’ll have an easier job, but you still want to make sure you have researched the town or city you are setting your book. The key for whichever genre you choose, is that your writing comes across as authentic and believable. If this slips in any way, the reader’s immersion in the story will be shattered.
You don’t have to know everything at this stage, but you want to have a thoroughly strong and clear understanding of your subject matter. Along the road, you will be doing research to make sure you have every aspect correct in your novel. If you don’t know something, don’t guess. We are lucky enough to live in an age where information is easily accessible and research has never been easier. There are no excuses not to research your subject properly.
If you are worried about grammar, punctuation, etc. there are plenty of short books which explain the basics. Don’t be proud. You can use a small pocket version and refer to it as you go along if you like. It will be a lot easier getting the grammar right at the beginning rather than at the end – that part is hard enough as it is.
Stage 3 Characters
This part is the most undervalued aspect of writing, but for me personally is the MOST important part. On my blog, I have a post which explains the process I go through creating my characters. https://thomasmdbrooke.com/2015/09/02/process-of-building-a-character-books-writingtips/
I don’t want to repeat everything, but in essence you want the following characteristics for your characters: Appearance, traits and oddities (if any), strengths and weaknesses, back story, and overall impression.
Please don’t ignore this part of the process, your characters are the most important part of your story. By the end of your novel you want to know them as well as you know yourself or any of your friends and family. That is not possible this early in the process, but the more time you spend now imagining their personalities the more real they will be able to become later.
Stage 4. Rough outline
Next, I break down my story into (very) rough chapters. With about a sentence or two explaining each chapter. For example.
Chapter 1. Meet main character. Dramatic scene with him saving child from passing card to catch reader’s attention.
Chapter 2. Meets best friend down the pub, tells his friend what happened that day.
Chapter 18 Main character cannot hold back feelings any more, he kisses girl.
Chapter 19 Girl has row with him about toying with her feelings.
Okay, now don’t worry about putting too much detail into this framework. These chapters will change as you go along, you will add in new ones, take out stupid ones, etc. It is just a framework to get you started, so you know where you are going (otherwise you can drift aimlessly which must be avoided at all costs).
Now we have a good grip on the story we want to tell, the characters we want to use to tell this story, and the basic framework for the novel. We can start thinking about writing the first chapter.
But again, we need to break this down a bit further first. Make a few notes on the scenes you want to set, the conversations you need to happen, any dramatic ending to the chapter. This section can be quite detailed, but don’t go overboard – I find it important to still keep this a rough outline, so my writing has a free rein. You don’t want to stifle your creative spirit by being too much of a control freak.
- Main character is walking down the main high street of his town.
- He is complaining to himself, shivering from the cold.
- Description of the weather that day, and the dark clouds that are beginning to threaten rain.
- Chat with local store owner. Show character’s grumpy nature.
- Store owner tells character about circus coming to town soon (something very important later in story).
- ‘Did you return the shovel you borrowed last winter to my friend Bill’
- ‘No, because Bill owes me $100’
- ‘That was for a bet that he said he never made.’
- ‘Well he’s a liar!’
- Character leaves store. Grumbling as he leaves.
- Hears a car coming, turns to see it is a hot-rod sports car.
- Spots child slipping out of mother’s grasp.
- Child runs into road, character doesn’t have time to think. Runs into road saving child. He gets clipped by car himself.
- Chapter ends
Okay, so now you start writing, right? Well no. Or at least I don’t. Now I go for a walk.
Most people think of writing as spending hours upon hours in front of a screen. Well, I’m sure lots of people write that way, but I don’t. When I think of writing, I think of the endless walks I used to do with my dog Fergus, thinking through every aspect of the chapter I was writing. My office became Richmond Park, or the Northumbrian hills I used to go to write. I know it is difficult to find the time, especially if you also work full time (I know, I do too) but you can find ways of incorporating it into your normal daily routine. I started walking to work each morning rather than driving. It gave me over an hour each morning to think through every part of my latest chapter, running through conversations in my head, picturing certain scenes, drawing inspiration from the world around me. By the time I sat down to write, I knew what I wanted to say.
Okay, now you’re back from your walk, you can start writing. Whoop!
Don’t worry if your writing isn’t fluid to start off with, it will get easier. I normally struggle to find a rhythm at first, but the more I write, the easier it gets. Chances are you will later go back and rewrite chapters 1 – 3 (I always do) so don’t worry overly if it doesn’t come out how you’d like it at first.
From your framework, just concentrate on one chapter at a time. You are not writing the entire book in one session, you are just trying to get from one point to the next in your framework. Each chapter will be around 4000 -5000 words, so for me that is 4 writing sessions, but each writer is different. Just think of the 4000 words of a chapter like a project or essay at collage\university. Then it is a case of one step or project at a time. I think of each chapter as getting from one point to another, a bit like joining the dots together.
As you develop your story, you will start getting new ideas to develop your characters, new roads you can take them down etc. It really is fun. Have somebody you really trust (I used my sister for my first book) to read your work after you have written the first 4 or 5 chapters. They might be able to suggest new ideas, or highlight things your book is missing. You don’t want someone who will be unnecessarily harsh at this stage (like my dad) he comes in later. You want somebody who is 100% behind the project.
Try and work on your novel every week. If you need to stop and do some research, do so. I periodically have to stop writing to research a topic I need more information on. That’s okay, because you’re still working on the book. What you want to avoid, is letting it slip altogether. If you stop for a few weeks, its very hard to get back your initial enthusiasm and drive. I’m not saying its impossible, but its very hard and this is the reason why most books are never completed.
When your book is coming along well, maybe when you are over half-way, then you can start opening it up to other people to get their feedback. Possibly somebody who will be a harsher critic. As this is your first book, I’d wait until you are well into the book before you do this – it is so easy for self-doubt to creep in, so you don’t want negative people putting you off.
Okay, that should get you going. Finalising the book, editing etc. will still need to be done, but let’s get to that later. You need to write your first draft first…
Looks like horse-sense to me Tom. We all have our own way of doing the same thing, it’s whatever gets us through, isn’t it. My own method is not a million miles away, it’s only detail differences after all. I’ve started book seven in my series. Getting going is the toughie, that’s all. Getting going….
Always fun to have an insight into an author’s thought process, so thanks for this post.
The Walk, is vital. (caps intended!)
I can become horribly blocked by the opening lines of a chapter. But now try to take the advice of another author: “Tell, don’t Show”. Just get those first lines down anyhow you can – dive in and allow natural style to kick in before returning to flesh out the bones.
Thanks for the insight Julia. However, don’t you mean “Show, don’t tell”?
Showing the story via actions, thoughts, senses, rather than via summary, and description?