When I sat down to write my first novel, I realized one thing very quickly. I had NO idea how to write a novel. The accepted school, I would suppose, according to my high school English classes, would be to do the following: Establish your concept, prepare a preliminary outline, do some research, refine and finalize the outline, write, edit, re-write, final edit, hand in. I mean, it works with research papers, right? I wrote dozens of them throughout my scholastic career and used this model successfully for all of them. The problem is, writing fiction isn't writing a scholastic work. There are dozens of ways to produce a manuscript according to what I've read. When Tolkien sat down to write Lord Of The Rings, it's well-known that it took him 12 years to finish because he simply began to write, and wrote and wrote flow of conscious until he got stuck, then scrapped the whole thing and started over, repeating the process until it was finished, then threatened the Wrath of Eru on anyone who tried to edit it. I follow Brandon Sanderson on Twitter and he gives updates on his novel progress as xxxx/xxxxx words completed, indicating that he's pre-planned his novels down to the letter and deviates from it very little if at all. George RR Martin? Who knows. Stephen King, I swear, that man can think up, write and publish a novel in one bathroom trip.
As for me, when I write - being firmly entrenched in the TV generation - I picture the scene as though I'm watching it play out in crime procedural on television and then simply write down what I see in my mind. (After all, we all fantasize about our work being picked up by Netflix or Amazon Prime and optioned for media rights. It's natural). I began Unholy Shepherd as a series of tent pole scenes that I knew needed to happen in the confines of the story and I wrote those. They were in no particular order, though I had a general idea of where they needed to happen. The climax is always easy to set in stone and I wrote it early on. Knowing who did it and why and how they are brought down, at least in my mind, makes creating the rest of the narrative leading up to the final pages much easier. Once I had those pages (some 50 to 70 manuscript pages worth) nailed down, I actually went back to my initial concept and fleshed out a beefed up version of what might look like the back cover summary of the novel as a whole. I went through and named the important characters and jotted down important character details, some lines of dialogue that I knew I wanted to use somewhere in the book but just didn't have a place for yet, and outlined a rough chronology of events. Then I put it aside for a few days because each time I tried to force words from my brain into my fingertips poised over the keyboard, nothing seemed to flow.
I've never had any problem coming up with ideas. Each time I had one, I'd excitedly run to my computer, open up my outline document and type it in below the last one (or punch it into my phone's notes app). So somewhere in that jumbled mess of notes and sentence fragments, I had a story. Not only that, I found I had begun to think beyond the first novel, and this was the time I began thinking about where the series as a whole would go, developed a story concept for each subsequent novel, and began to write in plot points and concepts into Shepherd that I wanted to pay off in the future. But I was still stagnant on the actual novel.
And so I made the decision to show a couple of the early chapters to some of my friends and family. When they read it and excitedly told me they were dying to know what was going to happen, it gave me the boost I needed to buckle down. It took me 13 months total to write Shepherd (which most writing advice blogs and online articles will tell you is WAY too long for a 100,000 word book, but, f- 'em, right?), but at least 3/4 of it was written between Christmas of 2018 and the end of March 2019. I credit the rush of positive reinforcement, but also the impending birth of my son, as motivation. During this time, as I got more and more chapters hammered out, the final picture of the work finally emerged and I went back to my outline document and finally charted what each chapter would be, whose POV it would be from, etc. In this way, I was finally able to stitch the book together in a cohesive narrative.
When I wrote my second book, A Perfect Victim (look for it around Halloween this year! Buy it! Buy all my books! Send my kid to college!), I made the conscious decision to learn from what I believed were "deficiencies" in my work flow. Believing I was taking the advice of my editor (i.e. "show don't tell", watch your stupendously long sentence structure, etc.) I made the fateful decision to self edit as I wrote, trying to curb my flowery use of descriptive words and phrases that led to my editor editing out nearly 20,000 words of my original manuscript for Shepherd. And I tried to write the book in order. It took me 11 months to finish. The result was a 95,000 word manuscript for Victim where very little was cut out, but it took a massive re-write after the first edit to actually knock it into a logical, readable manuscript and I actually ended up disliking it for a long time until my publisher informed me that they liked it.
The lesson in all of this: There's no "right" way to write a novel. There's what works for you and what doesn't. For me it's simply writing the parts that are most clear in my mind at the beginning. And I do this, weirdly enough, mainly on my morning and evening walks with my dog. In that silent time, when I'm not chasing around a toddler, cooking for the family, or running errands, I retreat into my imagination and "watch" the television show in my mind that is the next book. As I repeat this over several days, the tent pole scenes solidify in my mind and are ready to put to paper. Then I do my research on the certain details that are important to the plot and ensure that my suppositions of how they work in real life are appropriately represented. Then I sketch out the full plot line and the I repeat my visualizing/writing/research process until I have a full book. When I hit a wall with a certain scene, I either just leave a couple of spaces on the page and go on to the next part that is more clear in my mind, or move on to another part of the book that I have an idea for. If I get stuck there, I go back or start another chapter. I'm 30,000 words into my third novel, Tag, and I have some dozen chapters, not all of which are fully complete, but I'm less stressed than before and the ideas are flowing much freer. I'm excited to finish and have it out next year.
So, there you go. My "Process". It's not exactly a study in efficiency, but it is my own. I don't think I could learn to do it any other way, nor do I recommend any other writers to do what I do. Whenever someone asks me how to write a book, I just say, "Just write it." In my experience, everything else involved in creating a book takes care of itself once you get the damn thing on paper.
But, hey, that's just me. What do you think? Would you use my method to write your own book? Do I just make it sound like I'm just a dog chasing a car with no real plan? Comment below.
I don't just write novels. I just like to write. This blog will not be polished, it won't be edited closely. There will be spelling and grammar errors and it might drag on in places. But it will be fun, off the cuff, genuine, and hopefully interesting to read!