Writing a book is an art form, and that means there’s no one right way to do it: it’s going to look different for everyone, and as long as someone’s method works for them, that’s fine.
That said, if you’re a new writer looking for advice, this can make a project as big as a novel feel daunting. How do you start to tackle a project that might be a few hundred thousand words long before you’re done?
If you are a painter, you need to learn about different methods and techniques and try each one out to see which one resonates with you; you learn how people have been doing it, because that gives you an information base to work with. With that foundation, you’ll eventually gain the experience to use what works for you and leave the rest behind.
It is the same with writing. While you will eventually get to a point where you have a book writing process that works for you, you may need to try a few different methods before you strike gold. In this article, I have five methods for you to add to your toolkit; feel free to play around with them as you need to to make them effective for your project needs.
For each process, I’ll talk about how it works, who it might be useful for, and what kind of tweaks you could make to give you an idea of how to customize these processes. But before I get into that, I want to talk about brainstorming and outlining.
Brainstorming and Outlining
Before you start writing your book, you’ll want to have an idea of what the book is about. You probably need to know:
– who are the characters
– where are the characters
– what the characters want (at least at first)
and what the book is about (what big themes or ideas are you trying to explore).
Some writers have this more or less in their heads before they sit down to write, but I recommend writing it down. Here are some ways you can brainstorm before you start getting into the nitty-gritty of your novel:
1. Mind Map
Write a word in the center of a piece of paper related to your novel; it could be the name of a character, the setting, an idea, a theme, whatever. Separate two lines from that word and write the first related thing that comes to mind, and do this until the page is full of characters, plots, settings, phrases, etc., that correspond to your novel.
2. Stream of Consciousness
Set a timer of two, five, or ten minutes (whatever works for you) and literally write whatever comes to mind. If you’re writing ‘I don’t know what to write and I think this brainstorming idea is terrible’, that’s fine. Continue until you have enough to work with.
How do you know you have enough to work with?
There’s no hard and fast rule, but basically, you have enough to work with when you feel like the brainstorming process is over. You feel ready to start writing. You may need to revisit the brainstorming process as you write to iron out plot holes or sticky points, and that’s okay! This is just to help you get started on a solid foundation.
And once you have that foundation, you’re ready to write your book, and that’s where these five processes come into play.
The snowflake method
by Randy Ingermanson snowflake method it is based on the idea that “good fiction doesn’t just happen, it’s designed.” The snowflake method forces you to start small and expand until you have a complete novel. This process is described in detail on the Ingermanson website, but we’ll briefly summarize it here.
Steps 1-7: Synopsis and description of characters
You start with an elevator pitch for your novel. If you’re not sure how to write one, look up one-sentence novel descriptions to get an idea of what they should look like; they are basically a summary intended to convince the listener of the story.
Steps 8-9: Outline
Here, Ingermanson instructs you to use a spreadsheet to outline your novel. You will use one line for each scene. Then take this information and write a narrative description; basically, he’s turning the spreadsheet into a Word document and writing how the book unfolds. He says that this step is optional.
If you’re using software like Scrivener, there might be a built-in feature for you to list your scenes. Otherwise, Google Sheets is free.
Step 10: Writing
Sketch the novel! You may need to take breaks to edit the design documents you’ve been creating as things change, and that’s okay. Ingermanson explains that these design documents will need to be edited if you’re doing it right; As his ideas develop and change, he should reflect those changes in tone, character synopsis, and plot summary.
The snowflake method is great because it provides structure for the process without imposing structure on the book itself. You can use this process with any plot structure you want, and in the end, you have the documentation you’ll need to sell this book to publishers or market it yourself as a freelance author.
If you’re going to modify this method, modify the time frames: Ingermanson lists how long each step should take (which is very helpful for keeping the creative momentum), but whether you need to take more or less time on a given step or need to take breaks between steps, no one will stop you.
A discovery draft is what many writers refer to as a “gasp.” For this, you may or may not have much of an idea of what you are going to write; if you have something written, it’s probably just a premise or starting point: a character in an interesting setting, a specific fight, whatever.
The idea of a discovery draft is that you sit down and draft the novel as quickly as possible, figuring out details about the characters, the plot, and whatnot as you go. Some discovery writers will edit as they go; I recommend that you don’t, but take notes or keep a separate document with the changes that come to mind as you work.
This allows for a huge creative boost, because you just figure out the story as you go along, it’s exciting. The downside is that because you may not know where you are going, you may get stuck. If this happens, I recommend you write a note saying “I GOT STUCK HERE” and skip to the next scene. If you don’t know what the next scene will be, that’s okay too. You can either pause and brainstorm to figure out what will happen next, or just decide what would be the worst possible (and realistic) thing that could happen to these characters right now and go with it.
You will end up with a first draft that is also a schematic and also a character sheet. Once you have finished this draft, review and identify the character arcs and plot arcs and determine how to refine them. Almost nothing from your discovery draft is likely to end up in the finished product, but that’s true of any first draft.
A bullet scheme is a great option if you’re looking for something super flexible, and it’s the foundation for many other methods you’ll see. Basically, this is the spreadsheet step in the Snowflake Method.
On a piece of paper, in a Word document or in a spreadsheet, it doesn’t matter, you will dedicate a line to each plot point.
If you want a super detailed outline, you can write each beat as its own line. If you do this, I recommend organizing your outline so that each chapter has its own heading, just to keep everything simplified and easy to refer to. You can use different colored highlighters or fonts to color-code based on character, subplot, or whatever you want.
If you don’t want to get into so much detail, you can just write down the main plot points of your novel and forget about the rest.
As long as you have enough information to feel comfortable writing, you’re good to go. A detailed outline can help save time in the writing process, but a loose outline can make you feel a little more free to change things as you write; if you get lost along the way, skip to the next beat and find out how to close that gap when you check out.
start at the end
Have you heard of the Middle Fall Syndrome? Describe the phenomenon in which you quickly go through the setup of your novel, then get stuck in the middle: Around the middle of the second act, it becomes impossible to reach the climax. The characters hang out in unrelated mischief until the climax comes to rescue them (and the reader).
This is a pretty natural thing to happen, especially in a first draft. If this is a particularly difficult fight for you, try starting your novel at the end. Where do your characters end up? Who wins and what happens as a result of that? Knowing how the story ends makes it easier to figure out how to get there.
Another variant of this method is to start with the climax. If you’re the type of author who has an idea for a really great climax before thinking of anything else, just write that climax. Yes, it will probably change drastically as you rework it, this is unavoidable.
After you’ve written the ending or the climax or whatever scene you’ve decided to start with, ask yourself the following questions:
– Who are these characters?
– How did they get here?
– Who ultimately wins in this confrontation?
You can continue working backwards, or you can pause and switch to a bulleted scheme, whatever works for you.
If you’re a visual learner, this might be your ticket.
Storyboards are commonly used for visual media like comics, television, or movies, but you can use them for novels as well. Use index cards to draw the scenes you want to happen in your novel and tape them to poster board, the floor, the refrigerator, or your bedroom wall. Instead of drawing the scenes, you can also write them using short sentences or descriptions.
Again, if you want to use color coding or some other unique marker to select characters and subplots, go for it! If not, great. This method is great because it allows you to literally see the missing points in your plot and allows you to literally pick and move scenes and see how they would look in other parts of the story.
Some writers like Scrivener have features that allow you to do this, so if you’re looking for a space-saving way to do this, you might find it useful.
When you have everything lined up the way you want it, take that information and put it into a Word document. This will serve as a basic first draft, which you can start reviewing right away!