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The process of writing a novel

It's time to take a peek at that scary diagram again...

Writing fiction is really not much different from travel writing. In travel writing you go off to a place and spend X number of months/years there and take notes on what you see and who you meet and then distil all this into a book.

In fiction writing you do exactly the same. The only difference is that the places and people don't exist. You create an entire world in your head and spend X number of months there and then you write about it.

That's not to say you won't travel to real places and meet real people in order to help make your fictional world real. At the end of the writing process, when you have a completed manuscript, it should feel like you were actually there. It should be the case that you can turn to people who read about your world and say to them, "there's so much more I could tell you.'

We've already looked at how there's no single starting point to a novel. However, after the idea takes root and starts to grow, there are three sections that will begin to take shape. Usually you will end up with an initial notes document that has the early stages of these upon it:

A few basic thoughts about the main characters, names, relationship to each other, age, gender, nationality etc.

Key scenes/dialogue
Often a particular key scene, event or significant piece of dialogue will come into being at the very earliest stages.

A basic overview of what might happen in the novel should also start to take shape.

This is our start. By taking it slowly and walking logically through the process, you will calmly and comfortably amass a lot of material and suddenly find a novel falls out the end of it.

As soon as anything pops into your head, research it. You want to write a scene set in a market? Walk round a dozen markets. Find out about the rules and regulations, observe, sketch, photograph. Take in the noise and smells that hit you. Become an expert in markets.

You'll notice from the diagram that the research pile of papers looks bigger than the novel itself. That's how it should be. Your manuscript is the water balloon, the research is the water. If your manuscript expands too much without enough research then it's just hot air. A water bomb with only a little water in it that is mainly just hot air doesn't make much of a splash.

Everything in your novel should come from four sources:

Something you just happen to know -- it might come from a film or documentary you once saw or just from talking with friends. But, how well do you know it? If it's hazy then research it.

Something that happened to you that you can draw on. But you could still research and find out other people's experiences of the same thing if it's a major plot element.

Something you know little or nothing about and so you look it up or consult an expert.

Original concept
Something that no one has written about or ever dreamed up so it's up to you to chart unknown territory. However, you need to thoroughly check this out and research anything similar to help guide you. Only something completely original should come off the top of your head -- everything else should be researched thoroughly.

Once you start to grow this list beyond the most basic "stars' of the book then it's best to strip this list out as a separate document. For each character write as much info as possible.

You should also have a lot of back history written that won't necessarily go into the novel but ensures you know them inside out. Write a small biography of them, write about their personality and characteristics, their likes and dislikes. Are there any key phrases that they say a lot?

This is where your scenes will happen. Whatever type of location you choose for each scene, research it thoroughly. Visit as many examples of these types of locations as you can. Even if it's an environment that you are familiar with, revisit it time and time again and switch on all your senses, absorb even the most trivial of details. Keep a list of your fictional locations with details of what happens there. Each location might have it's own timeline of events that happen there. From your locations list, start to draw up maps and diagrams. Don't just set a scene in a generic "office.' Is it an old office? A new office? Tidy? Cluttered? Noisy? Quiet? What's on the walls? Draw a diagram of the seating layout and the doors windows etc. This will stop you writing illogical scenes further down the line. It will also cause you to think about your characters interacting in this environment and help prevent your scenes growing stale.

Novel/Chronological timeline
This is the sequence of events in order. Even if your plot is going to flow through in natural chronological order there should still be 2 timelines. Your chronological timeline will include all the events from your book in time order plus some additional events that occur during your plot that you may not write about but need to be considered. The Novel timeline will be a list of events in the order the novel will present them to the reader, so it might well jump about in time. At some point, when this list is complete, you can start separating out and/or grouping these events until a very rough guide to the chapters begins to take shape.

Keep it going...

Now we can attempt to put together the basic skeleton of the manuscript. Take your Novel timeline and save it as a separate document (You need to keep the original basic list to refer back to as an overview). Call this new document draft_01. Hit a load of returns between all the points to separate out your chapters. Now take any key scenes and bits of dialogue and paste them in where they need to go (they can always be moved later). Any new scenes or dialogue you think up you can write directly into the manuscript. With Nix Ex Machina, the novel became so big that the spelling/grammar underlines failed due to memory issues. For this reason I split the chapters into separate word documents, but early on it's good to have the whole thing in one place so you can leap around the plot.

It's tempting now to think that you're away -- that you can just keep the research up, keep adding characters and expand the text in your manuscript according to the timeline points until you have a finished first draft.

You could do that. But in order to add a bit more depth to it, there are four more documents we need to start building up as we write the novel:

Character psychoses
How do the events affect our characters. Who they start off as at the beginning will probably have changed by the end. For each character, map a timeline of their emotions and motivations, how these change and what effect other characters have on them and how they in turn affect others.

Location themes
So you've invented a dusty warehouse where some gangsters hang out... create a list of metaphors that help lift the location above the mundane and give it that edge of realism. These metaphorical themes will help you write consistently about the places. Example: An old office where there are a lot of empty desks. It is a ghost ship, not much moves but shadows seem to twitch through doorways, people talk here in whispers and the light here is dim, even on a sunny day. The predominant colours are black and grey with the odd hint of metal blue or faded brown. This place feels like a museum that you have broken into out of hours. You never feel comfortable here. The air is heavy and you breathe dust. Your footsteps echo down the corridors. There is always noise here, but it always seems to be in another room or on another floor, muffled in the distance like you are hearing voices from the past. See? With that metaphorical description of the office, each time you come to write a scene there a powerful image is in your head that will steer the atmosphere, rather than just writing another scene in "the empty old office.'

This refers to those small issues that arise as you write the novel that you never bargained for but need to be dealt with. If some emotional event happens in one chapter than there will be a natural follow-through process needed to make sure this event causes the ripples it would in later parts of the book. Put very simply, there's no point writing about someone's partner dying and then starting the next chapter "John woke up feeling happy with a good feeling inside." Keep a track of what baggage each character is carrying. We'll cover this in greater depth in the section 'The self-writing novel.'

Running themes
This is similar to the character psychoses and the location themes but covers recurring plot themes that are not character or place dependent. These are metaphorical themes that run throughout your novel and add another artistic layer to your text.

They fall into two categories:

Natural themes
These are themes that you notice have occurred in your novel naturally as you have written it.

Engineered themes
These are themes that you consciously decide to insert into your novel.

We will look at example of these in depth at a later stage.

First draft
Once you follow this process through, you will end up with your first draft. There might be a lot of depth missing and the twists and turns won't be quite in place as they should be, but that's fine. This will be a slightly shallower version of your final novel.

The idea with complex twists is that you build this up in layers, adding more with each draft. That way it is easier to keep track of all the logic and not get lost. By the end, the twists will be so intricate and clever that people will wonder how you worked all this out in advance... you didn't, but they won't realise that.

Your first draft now goes off to a circle of trusted people who check for spelling errors and any holes in your logic. These should be people who are very good friends. You don't want people who will turn round and just say "it was nice.' You need people who care enough to give you blunt feedback that will help you craft the novel to be as good as it can be.

Here's a list of issues I usually ask people to look out for:

Spelling, grammar, punctuation corrections.
Goes without saying.

If there's a paragraph that is pure waffle, just say so

Can't quite picture what I'm getting at? Let me know.

If you feel something just would not happen (yes, apart from the entire premise of the plot) then say so.

Out of character
If someone does and says something that you feel they wouldn't do, say so

Over-laboured joke.
Flag up any flogging a dead horse scenarios

Just plain offensive
If you feel anything is offensive and should be reconsidered, let me know.

If something is interesting and I haven't put enough info and you wanted to know more

Unnecessary description
Opposite of the above

Tension killer
If I build up a load of suspense and then kill it with an ill timed crass joke then point it out. Even if you think I have done it for comic effect, consider whether or not you think it works

Needless Repetition
Basically, this is that basic of errors whereby I have basically overused some basic word that basically becomes a bit repetitive... that's it, basically.