Writing Advice

Help for Authors and Writers

The Craft of Writing: How do you Write a Novel?

You have a book you want to write. Now what? Do you come up with the beginning and end first? Do you make an outline first? Do you write in order? Do you skip around?

The answer is yes. That is, yes, different writers write just about any way you can imagine: with an outline, without an outline, from a beginning and end, from just a beginning, from the middle outwards, in order, out of order. There’s no set way to write a novel; the “right” way to do it is whatever works for you.

Generally speaking, when I come up with a story, I start with a scene.

I don’t make up that scene. It falls into my head from…somewhere else, some vast abstract space where stories live. It feels a lot like the scene just drops out of that abstract space into my brain as if it is searching for a host open to it. Once it lands, I have no choice but to write it.

For example, I was coming back from dinner at a restaurant when a scene fell into my head: a man in formal attire, top hat and all, doing a Peter Pan out of the back of a steampunk airship with a folding hang glider. He plummeted through a rainy nighttime sky over Victorian London, hit the roof of a building, slid to an alley in a spray of broken clay tiles, picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked away as a gigantic coal-powered machine dragged a heavy cart down the alley.

I couldn’t go to bed until I sat down and hammered that scene out on my laptop. It became the opening of the novel Black Iron.

In another example, I had a scene fall into my head of a young woman standing in a transparent balcony atop a kilometer-tall building of black obsidian, looking out over a city in the evening as the sun set and the lights came up, talking to a drone that has been her friend for her entire life but that she will soon never see again.

That scene became the opening of the fifth Passionate Pantheon novel, still in progress.

In very few cases do I know where the novel is going. Often I don’t even know who the characters are. That’s part of the joy of writing—letting them tell me. I ask “what happens next?” and learn where the story goes.

That’s not always the case, though. For the novel I’m writing with my Talespinner, we came up with two characters first, the protagonist and a character who’s…um, not really a protagonist, but not really an antagonist either. We learned who they are, created the world they live in, and let the antagonist—a powerful religious figure and head of the Inquisition—emerge from that.

From there, we wrote a detailed 27-page outline that describes all the major events of the story from beginning to end, and we’re writing the book, the first draft of which is currently about a quarter of the way done, from that outline.

Point is, the answer to your question is “yes.” Yes, some writers make it up as they go. Some writers create the beginning and end, then fill in the rest as they go. Some writers work from a complete roadmap. Most writers do some combination of all of these, to a greater or lesser extent, in different books.