A question we often get asked at writing clubs or workshops is how do you write a book? Often someone will have a good idea for a story, and possibly some characters developing but are unsure where to go from there. It’s an intriguing question and one I personally love to talk about so we figured it would make an interesting blog post. It’s different for everyone and if you research how to write a novel you will find a mountain of advice, tips and strategies to use online. Not every approach will work for you. Part of the fun of writing is working out what suits you and your idea. So this is mine. This is how I write a book.
- Start with an idea – This is the most important ingredient. You need a solid idea OR a character. For some people the plot comes first and then they have to create and develop characters to go with it, and for others, it’s the characters they think up first. Either is fine and you might find it works differently each time. For me personally it is usually the characters that come first. They will start to develop in my mind and as their personality comes alive, they will start to suggest their back story and their main story and the plot will start to grow from that. Sometimes it works the other way around and I will get an idea for a story first and then have to devise the characters to fit it.
- Let it grow – To start with, I let the idea percolate in my mind for a bit. I write down anything I don’t want to forget, but most of it stays in my head. It will swirl around in there for a while, popping up when I least expect it, developing and swelling and growing tendrils! I think it’s important to let this process take its course. I don’t want to force anything. Usually I will already be working on another project so there is no hurry to jump to this new idea. I leave it be and let it grow naturally.
- Get a notebook – Now, when the real ideas start to flow, and by this I mean characters, personalities, back stories and possible plots and storylines, it becomes too much to contain in my head. I must start writing things down or something will get lost. I might start off tapping a few thoughts into my phone but eventually I get a new notebook and dedicate it solely to this idea. I start off writing down any notes I already have and everything else that has been growing in my head. Character bios, dialogue, action scenes, possible titles, character arcs, possible endings and so on. It won’t be a full plot yet and the characters will not be fully alive either, but I am paying attention to this idea now. It has its very own notebook.
- Work on characters – For me, the characters are always the most important aspect of books I read and books I write. It’s different for everyone, but I want to love the characters, feel fully engaged by them, root for them and care for them. I can’t enjoy a book if I don’t care about the characters and equally I can’t write a book if I am not fully in love with these people I am creating. So, I will start to write detailed character bios into the notebook. They might start with the basics: name, age, physical appearance, occupation, home, family etc and then they will get more complex. What do they want? Who do they love? Have they been hurt? What are their regrets? What are their flaws? I want to get under their skin and know them inside out. This will be a long process and I won’t fully know them until maybe draft three, but I want to put the work in now.
- Write a basic plot outline – This will start as a kind of mind-map of possible ideas. Ideas tend to spark of other ideas or questions, so I will note this all down. It all goes in the notebook. It’ll be messy and chaotic but it is all safely in one place. I’ll also bullet point what I consider to be the main storyline and jot down any ideas for sub-plots and character development. Most of my books are quite character driven so developing the characters alongside the plot is important to me.
- Write basic chapter outlines – I won’t usually know everything that is going to happen but I will outline as many chapters as I can in the notebook so that I have a starting point and something to refer back to. Inevitably, extra, unexpected chapters and scenes will work their way in between what I initially lay out and once I get past a certain point I will probably then know the next few chapters. I then work a few chapters ahead, so I will usually always know what I want to happen in the next few chapters at least.
- Start writing! – The fun bit. Also the scary bit! But by now I will be desperate to get going. If I have been working on another book, this idea may have had to wait for a while so by the time I get to it, I am very keen and excited to get started. I won’t know exactly where I am going and I don’t plan or plot every detail. I like to see what happens to a certain extent.
- Write a chapter a night – Obviously, life gets in the way sometimes and sometimes the writing just doesn’t flow but my goal is always a chapter a night. That’s roughly 2-3 pages of a Word document. I treat it like work, like a commitment and push through the tough bits and the bits that don’t flow too well and I just keep going. I don’t mind how messy or awkward the first draft is, I just aim to get the gist of it, the basics of it done. This usually takes three months.
- Second draft – I read it through, reminding myself of what I have done. I amend glaring typos but I don’t really edit much on a second draft, it’s more of a read through to see what I have got.
- Third draft – a more serious read through and edit. I add bits, delete bits, amend typos and errors. I will know the characters better by now so might add bits to them, their speech, their back story and so on.
- Fourth draft – I keep a list as I read through and edit and make notes of bigger things to fix like plot holes or inconsistencies in character or storyline. Whenever I go over another draft I check off these things on the list until there is nothing left.
- Fifth draft Kindle read – by now I feel like I can’t do much more, so I send it to my Kindle and read it on there. It’s amazing how many typos and errors are picked up when you read your book on an ereader! You feel a bit less connected to it and can tackle it in a different way. I keep the notebook handy as I read and write down notes for each chapter in turn, typos, grammatical errors, plot holes, questions, anything.
- Sixth draft – back to the laptop to amend the edits picked up on the kindle read
- Beta readers – I am very lucky that I have some fantastic people available to read my work at this stage and tell me what they think. I might want specific feedback ie is it fast paced enough, is this character interesting enough etc, or I might just hand it over and say very little.
- Seventh draft – editing based on beta reader feedback
- Send to editor/proofreader
- Eight draft/final – amend anything they picked up and that’s it. Done!
The amount of drafts will very much depend on the type of story, the length of the book and the feedback from beta readers. Sometimes my first draft attempt will evolve into something very, very different and sometimes it basically stays the same!
Feel free to add your thoughts on how to write a book. Everyone has a different process and there is no correct way to do it.