Today, I'm sharing how I develop and write my novels. I have a unique process that's helped me write the first draft of novels in less than 9 months and complete novellas as fast as two weeks. This article covers the steps I take in writing a novel from start to finish. In my next post, I will post the Cover 2 Cover radio show interview where I talk in greater depth about my techniques for writing a novel. So be sure to listen to the radio show.
Now, here's how I begin writing a novel:
Step 1: Come up with an Idea
First, I'll come up with an idea that fascinates me enough that I want to write about it. Often, I get my ideas from reading articles or non-fiction books. Inspiration can also happen while watching something strange that's reported on the news or hearing someone tell an old family story. For you, maybe it's about an experience that you had or your grandmother or grandfather's incredible life. Whatever the inspiration, before you take on the long journey of writing a novel (9 months to 2 years), you must first have an idea that your passionate about.
Example: for my novel Dead of Winter, I had read a history book about monsters in ancient tribal cultures and discovered that the Algonquin Indians up in the Great Lakes region of Canada all feared a legendary winter creature and believed that it existed, so much so that the tribes migrated south every winter. This fear spread to the British and French Canadian fur traders who lived in the isolated forts set deep in the wilderness. Even the Jesuit priests who lived among the tribes wrote journal entries about the evils that lived in the woods and scared the natives. Did the evil spirit really exist or was it mass hysteria? I found the legend and true historical events so compelling that I decided to research it more and write a novel about it set in 1870. That's just an example of how I can come up with an idea.
Step 2: Brainstorm Session
After I have a general idea of what I'd like to write about, I next do a creative brainstorm session. I usually do this with a blank page on my computer or a notepad, or just sit and daydream. I'll write my rough ideas on a page I call "Brainstorming Notes." I'll play around with titles until I come up with one that lights my fire. A powerful title can make you curious and fuel your passion about an idea at the same time. I'll also sketch out my characters--my hero or heroine (the protagonist) and my villain (antagonist). Since I write horror thrillers, I'll often come up with a monster or supernatural element, like an evil spirit or a curse that my hero or heroine must face.
As I brainstorm, I play around with a plot idea that can go with the title. I also think of my characters and the main conflict and setting. Is it a thriller set during WWII? A Gothic love story set during the 19th Century or a modern day novel? What does my hero most want to achieve? And why does the villain want to stop my hero from reaching his or her goal? Is there a love story between a hero and heroine? What are the conflicts that keep them from being happy together? What's the mystery that needs to be solved? It’s all daydreaming at first. During the brainstorming process, I have fun playing with different scenarios and characters until an idea for a plot forms.
Step 3: Write a Logline (Premise)
Next, I'll write what Hollywood screenwriters calls a "logline." Another word for this is the story's premise. This is a short 1-3 sentence summary of what the story is about. It's similar to a brief description you would read about a movie in a magazine or TV guide. This short summary helps me form the core idea of the story before I tackle writing the full-length novel. It's the backbone of your story. Loglines and premises are always written in present tense. They usually include the main character + main conflict + hints at the protagonist's goal or resolution.
Examples of some loglines/premises for my books:
Dead of Winter – Canadian frontier, 1870: After locking away Montreal’s most notorious serial killer—the Cannery Cannibal—a British detective hunts for another killer at a remote wilderness fort. The Ojibwa Indians believe the killer is not a man, but an ancient winter beast from native lore. A French priest—an exorcist with a holy vendetta—holds the key to a two-hundred-year-old Jesuit conspiracy. Together the detective and priest must face their tragic pasts as they battle an unholy plague that is turning the fort colonists into demon-possessed cannibals.
Shadows in the Mist – World War II, the German border, 1944. A disillusioned platoon leader, determined to get his last six men out of combat, volunteers them for a top-secret mission behind enemy lines. But lurking in the foggy woods is an unspeakable horror unleashed by Occult-obsessed Nazis.
The Devil’s Woods – At a haunted Cree Indian reservation in British Columbia, Canada, an archaeologist and his film crew disappear while on a top-secret expedition. Weeks later, three siblings go to the reservation in search of their missing father, only to discover something evil in the woods has been abducting people for over a century.
The Girl from the Blood Coven – In this short prequel to The Witching House, Sheriff Travis Keagan is enjoying a beer at the local roadhouse, when a naked, blood-soaked girl enters the bar. Terrified and trembling, Abigail Blackwood claims all her friends were massacred at the Old Blevins House: an abandoned house in the woods that has a long history of bloodshed. When Sheriff Keagan and his deputies investigate, they discover Abigail may not be telling the full story.
The Witching House – Two young couples go urban exploring in a mysterious abandoned house set deep in the East Texas woods. Forty years ago a coven of witches had been massacred inside the house and it's rumored to be haunted. The adventurous double-date turns to terror, when the exploring couples discover something is living down in the cellar. And it hungers for human flesh.
Writing the logline gives me a starting point and a sense of who the characters are and what their motivations are. I can develop an idea, write my brainstorm session notes, sketch out the main characters, and then write my logline in about 3-4 hours and have a solid story idea by lunchtime.
Step 4: Write a Treatment (Short Outline)
Next, I write a 1-3 page "Treatment" -- another Hollywood term -- which is basically a short outline of what I think will happen in the story. This is where I begin to build my fictional world with events and supporting characters. I play with character names, settings, and imagine scenes of events that could happen. I decide my beginning (prologue), middle, key plot turning points, and the ending (grand finale/climax and resolution). Much of what I write in the initial treatment will change (including the title and character names) once I write the book, but this process gives me a starting point. Treatments are always written in present tense.
My treatment acts as my road map that guides me along the timeline of the story from beginning to middle to end. It's important to know where you're headed with your story or the plot will branch off all over the place. The treatment keeps me focused on my main plot. My characters usually have a few subplots--like a love story between my hero and heroine, or a troubled relationship between a parent and child--but those are secondary to the main plot (the mystery my hero is trying to solve, or the creature they are trying to defeat) and I make sure all subplots get tied up prior to or at the conclusion.
I will spend anywhere from a few hours to a full day writing a treatment, depending on how detailed I want to get with it. It's just a loose outline, but by the end of the process I have my entire novel concept summarized into 1-3 pages. And I have a much clearer idea of what will happen in the story before I've sat down to write it.
Step 5: Research (Optional)
Much of what I write is either historical--based on true events--or about places I've never been to or subject matter I know very little about. I'll read non-fiction books on the subjects, Google for articles, rent documentaries and movies, or watch YouTube videos. I'll research settings, time periods, occupations (if my main character is a detective, I'll research police procedures), types of weapons used, etc. If my character shoots a certain gun, I'll research about that specific gun. If I read something off a website like Wikipedia, I always cross-check other sources to make sure the info I'm getting is accurate. I learn just enough to have a general understanding of what I'm writing about and then dive into writing. Sometimes I'll write a scene first and then do research to insert some details to make the scene more accurate. I typically do research through every stage of writing a novel as I need to gather information or add details to my story.
Examples of doing research: For my thriller Shadows in the Mist, I had to learn more about World War II. I had set my story in Germany's Hürtgen Forest, so I read every history book I could find on the battles that took place in the Hürtgen. I even traveled to Germany and walked those battlefields and interviewed veteran soldiers and historians. I also studied the Occult divisions of the Nazis and read about their expeditions and their philosophies. I did over 2 years of research so that when I built my fictional world in 1944 Germany, everything in it would be historically accurate.
For Dead of Winter, I studied the Canadian fur trade of the late 1800s. I read numerous history books about the French Canadian and British fur traders, the Ojibway tribes, and the Jesuits. Since one of my main characters, Father Xavier, is an exorcist, I had to learn about the ritual of performing exorcisms. When doing research I'll read several books and watch any documentaries I can find on the subject. I believe the more truth and accuracy you can put into a story, the more valid and real it will seem for readers.
Step 6: Write the First 100 Pages
Now it's time to have fun and start writing the story. Some writers start with a full, detailed 20-50 page outline before they start writing. For me, the 3-page treatment is enough to get started. I definitely do my best writing through organic, stream-of-consciousness writing. This is where I connect emotionally with the characters and theme and add details that I didn't think of while writing the treatment.
I start my story writing the prologue and first few chapters in order. My chapters are scene-driven, much like scenes in a movie. I'll write a brief description establishing the setting and mood and then get right into characters having dialogues with one another and taking actions. My brainstorming session, 3-page outline, and research have given me a strong feeling about my characters' personality, motivations, and what's at stake for them. It's only through throwing them into situations of conflict with other characters that I really learn who they are and what they are made of.
When writing organically I "see" everything happening in my mind's eye. Since I'm visual, I tend to picture movie scenes in my head. I also hear their voices as they talk and hear the sounds of the environment that they are in. When I'm actually writing the scene, I imagine I've teleported into my main character's body and I'm actually in their world seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting everything that they are. That's also my goal for readers, to feel like they are completely in the experience of what's happening to my characters.
While the treatment gives my story some structure and a sense of where the story is headed, it is through organic writing where I come up with my most creative ideas. I’m always discovering new details about the characters as I journey along with them from scene to scene. Sometimes I steer the story, but mostly I allow my characters to take over and see where they take the story. If you have written strong, complex characters with emotionally driven motivations, they will take over the story. There are often plot twists that completely surprise me. I'll write about 100 pages of the story (about 30K words) and then stop to take a broader look at what I've written. Depending on your schedule and writing skill level, this stage can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months.
Step 7: Write a Synopsis (Long Outline)
I used to write my entire first drafts organically, but I'd always get stuck about three quarters into the book and find that my plot got so off course that I had a confusing mess to sort out. I would generally find that about 100 pages into the story I veered off on some tangent that threw my story out of whack or I had written way too many subplots.
To prevent getting stuck late in the story, I've begun a process where I only write the first 100 pages organically and then switch to outlining the rest of my story in a 40-50 page synopsis. The structure is quite simple: every chapter is summarized down to a single paragraph. If my book is 30 chapters, my synopsis will be 30 paragraphs and will read just like a novel. It's written in present tense and there's no dialogue.
Example of a few pages from the synopsis from Shadows in the Mist:
Shadows in the Mist is a World War II supernatural thriller infused with the Nazi proclivity for the occult. The story begins with a circle of Nazi officers gathered inside their legendary Wewelsburg Castle lair. The historically renowned SS leader Heinrich Himmler discusses a top-secret project to crush the allies. Codename: Operation Eisen Sarg. The targeted area to implement their new secret weapon: Germany’s Hürtgen Forest.
Two months later the Allied troops breach the German borders inside the Hürtgen Forest. Lt. Jack Chambers leads his platoon through a war-battered town. An unstoppable German army annihilates the platoon, leaving Jack Chambers as the sole survivor. Or so he believes. Shadow soldiers chase him through the forest to a mist-enshrouded church graveyard. Lt. Chambers can hear the cries of his men, but can’t see them. Suddenly rotting corpses of GI soldiers rise from the graves. The horde attacks Chambers, dragging him down into the mud. He nearly escapes, when German shadows surround him. One massive Nazi with a shadowy face draws a saber and drives it through Lieutenant Jack Chambers’ heart.
Awakening from this nightmare is Colonel Jack Chambers, an elderly man years after the war. He suffers a heart attack. The near-death experience propels Colonel Chambers to fix and close a dark chapter in his life. A very secret one.
Colonel Chambers calls for his grandson, Sean, a young hotshot Air Force captain. When Sean arrives, he reconnects with his grandfather before being charged with a mission of military importance—deliver a diary and map to General Briggs at a U.S. base in Germany. The map points to the graves of Jack’s platoon that vanished in WWII.
You can read the first 3 chapters of Shadows in the Mist here.
The above synopsis goes on for 10 pages until the final paragraph represents the ending of the book. The synopsis of some of my other books have been as many as 50 pages. With the synopsis I can have a bird’s-eye view of the story and keep track of where it’s going. This is especially important if you are writing a book with lots of characters, subplots, or twists. The second act of a novel can go way off course if a writer doesn’t widen the lens every now and then and look at the big picture.
Seeing my whole book in 1-paragraph summaries allows me to observe the flow of the scenes and adjust them for pace and emotional impact. In the synopsis, it's quite simple to change the order of the story by moving paragraphs around. This is especially helpful if you are jumping back and forth between multiple character points-of-view and subplots.
With multiple character subplots happening at the same time, like Deadof Winter for instance, I’m constantly changing the sequence of the scenes so that they build to a climax. I think of my subplots as if they are trains moving down a track toward a catastrophic collision. Outlining helps me get the pace and timing down just right. The synopsis also helps me work out issues in the storyline and smooth out my twists and turns. This method has saved me months of writing and lots of headaches trying to unravel tangled plots. I will spend anywhere from 2-3 days writing the synopsis.
At this point, between 1 month to 3 months have passed since I started coming up with the idea for my novel. Now that I've written my logline, 3-page treatment, first 100 manuscript pages, and a detailed synopsis (10-40 pages), I know my characters well, have mapped out all the key plot points, and have a solid beginning, middle, and end. My synopsis helped me work out the plot issues, the tempo and pacing, and keep track of the subplots and tie up all the loose ends by the story's conclusion.
Step 8: Finish Writing the First Draft
Now, it's time to get back to writing the rest of the manuscript. Again, I return to organic, stream-of-consciousness writing, getting inside my character's point of view and allowing my imagination to guide my prose and dialogue.
Here's trick I learned to write my novel faster:
For the remaining chapters of the book, I place the paragraphs I had written in the synopsis at the top of the first page of every chapter. As I get to each chapter, I'll read the paragraph that summarizes what happens in this particular scene and then I'll flesh it out, adding dialogue and more detailed descriptions. I've written chapters within an hour or two using this method.
Here's another trick to writing faster:
If I'm racing a deadline or just want to complete my first draft faster, for one day I'll play a game I call "speed writing." I'll set a timer for 20 minutes. Then I'll start writing a chapter as fast as I can type. When the timer bell rings, I'll jump to the next chapter (even though the previous one is unfinished) and I'll write for another 20 minutes. Every hour I write 3 partial chapters. By the end of the day, I have partially written 10-15 chapters. Then I go back to the first half-written chapter where I had started and finish it. Then I will finish each chapter that follows.
This exercise allows to write much faster. Now, instead of starting with a blank page for every new chapter, I already have something written, an emotional connection of what's happening in this scene. Also, when I write these chapters a second time, it happens much faster, because I know where the story is going.
Have you ever had a section of the book you really wanted to write, but you were weeks away from reaching it? Speed writing helps you to get to the chapters you really want to write sooner. The cool thing is you can always go back and finish the partially-written chapters later, and when you do you'll be surprised how quickly you write them.
As I write the remainder of the manuscript, I continually go back and forth between organically writing a scene and then reviewing my synopsis for tempo and pacing. I'm constantly tweaking the synopsis, rearranging the order. Sometimes I'll add more scenes or cut scenes. Nothing is set in stone. I will work this way until I reach the ending of a complete first draft. Depending on my schedule, I can write a "rough first draft" in 6-9 months.
Then I stop working on this project. I'll put the novel in a drawer for 4-6 weeks and work on something else. I'll map out my next novel or write some short stories or a novella. I think it's important to step away from your novel for a few weeks so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. If you are a professional novelist, this also good way to always have the next book ready in the production line.
Step 9: Revisions
After 6 weeks, it's time to get back to writing on my novel. Now the truly fun part begins, because I know my characters and what happens in the story from start to finish. But the first draft of the manuscript is still rough. There are spots where the prose and dialogue could be tighter, more polished. Some plot issues need to be worked out. Some subplots need to be resolved. And frankly, I just come up with better ideas for every scene when I read through the book several more times.
I’ll revise the book for months, adding more details to scenes, fleshing out my characters, punching up the dialogue, and tightening the action so that the scenes are taut. I also get a lot of new ideas on how to best unfold the mystery. Then I go back to scenes and add in details that set up a revelation or plot twist that happens later on. I’m also a perfectionist when I write. When a character says something or does something, I constantly ask myself, does this ring true? Would my character really go into that dark house where the killer is hiding? Would she run from the beast or would she hunker down and fight it? If she walks into the killer’s lair because she hears a noise and is curious, it won’t ring true for me. If the heroine’s a cop and the killer has her child captive in the house, the scene is more believable to me if she enters the house to save her child. The reason any character does something that will put their life in jeopardy must make sense.
I'm always challenging myself to improve the story, the characters, my writing. During the revision stage, I easily go through 25 or more drafts before I feel like the novel is ready for an audience. I'll also continue to do research along the way. Each time I decide to add something to the story I don't know much about, I take a writing break for a few hours and surf the Internet for information on the subject I'd like to learn more about. Often, through research I'll come upon something that is so fascinating that I have to include it in my story. Depending on my schedule (I still work a day job), the revision stage can take me anywhere from 3 to 6 months.
Step 10: Edit and Polish
So anywhere between 9 months to year from when I started, I now have a full-length novel that's gone through many drafts and is pretty well-formed. There's a solid story here with three-dimensional characters who go on some kind of journey or face some kind of evil that's arrived at their hometown. I've put my hero and supporting characters through the ringer, taken them to hell and back, maybe even killed off a few, and by the story's end my hero has grown, faced and conquered his demons, and resolved some personal issues he was experiencing at the beginning of the story. Is the book ready to be published? Not yet. Now it needs to be edited and polished.
Next, I'll convert the Word doc of my manuscript into a PDF or print it out. Then I'll read the whole book, start to finish. Now, I'm reading the book with the eyes of an editor. I'm correcting grammar, catching typos and misspellings. I see places I can tighten my writing even more. I also catch story details that are inconsistent, like I described a character with blue eyes in Chapter 1 and then in Chapter 10 I mistakenly described her with green eyes. Or maybe I raised a question in Chapter 5 that I never answered.
Reading the book from start to finish in one sitting also allows me to get a sense of the overall flow of the story and feel how the emotionally-driven scenes build to the climax. If my heart's not racing by the climax, then I go back and search for the place where the story lost momentum. Sometimes it's just a matter of cutting a scene or pulling out a couple paragraphs where I had spent too long on the description which caused the pace to drag. I'll also tweak the ending until the story leaves me with the satisfied feeling I want the reader to have.
Step 11: Get Feedback
There is a point when the manuscript is as polished and tight as I can get it. I've put my heart and soul into the story and it feels complete. Now, it's time to find out how the story impacts readers. Did I write what I saw in my head in a way that readers will get it? Are my characters' actions believable? How does the story make readers feel by the end? The only way to find out is to have people read your manuscript and give you feedback.
I send the manuscript to a couple of friends and family members whose opinions I trust. These are people who read and understand my genre, and they'll give me honest feedback. I'm also part of a writer's group. We meet twice a month and read a chapter or two out loud and give each other feedback. Some of my readers are skilled editors and will point out grammar mistakes or suggest I cut some sentences. Others are better at looking at the big picture and point out where the story's pace lagged or where a character's behavior wasn't believable enough. Mostly I get a strong idea how the story lands emotionally for people. If five people don't identify with my main character or they don't like the ending, I'll go back to the revision stage and do some rewriting based on these insights. Sometimes we writers have blind spots and it takes readers to point them out.
Getting proper feedback can take a few months before I hear back from all my readers. Once I start receiving feedback, then I go through the manuscript and make changes. This can be as minor as cutting a sentence here and there to rewriting an entire chapter or inserting a new scene somewhere in the story where the reader felt like there was a hole. I can typically make these minor revisions in a couple hours or a couple days.
Getting feedback from others can be very insightful. To me, it is a crucial stage of the writing process, and it's the difference between writing an OK book and writing one that a large audience of readers will enjoy.
Step 12: Final Polish
The novel is written. It's been edited and revisions have been made based on feedback. I've worked out all the kinks, solved all the plot issues, and made my characters as believable and lifelike as I can. Next, I'll print out the manuscript again or convert my Word doc to a PDF. Then I will read it all the way through as if I'm a reader enjoying a book. I usually catch a typo or two or trim a sentence, but for the most part the story zips along. By the end I get the sense that it is the best I can make it on my own. Now the polished manuscript is ready to submit to a literary agent or editor. It doesn't have to be 100% perfect. But it needs to be a solid, good read that hooks a reader from the beginning and holds their interest all the way to a satisfying ending.
The agent and editor will still suggest ways to improve the novel. If this is your first novel, they may suggest some major rewrites. If you're a seasoned novelist, the changes will most likely be minor. Even after I've sold my book to a publisher, and the book enters the editing stage with my editors, I've still made changes all the way up until months before the book's release.
That, my friends, is the journey of writing a novel.
Here's a recap:
Step 1: Come up with an Idea
Step 2: Brainstorm Session
Step 3: Write a Logline
Step 4: Write a Treament (1-3 Page Outline)
Step 5: Research (Optional)
Step 6: Write the First 100 Pages
Step 7: Write a Synopsis (Long Outline)
Step 8: Finish Writing the First Draft
Step 9: Revisions
Step 10: Edit and Polish
Step 11: Get Feedback
Step 12: Final Polish
Brian Moreland writes novels and short stories of horror and supernatural suspense. His first two novels, Dead of Winter and Shadows in the Mist, are now available. He has recently published a free short story eBook The Girl from the Blood Coven and a novella that goes with it, The Witching House. Brian's latest novel The Devil’s Woods will release December 2013. He loves hiking, kayaking, horseback riding, watching sports, and traveling the world. Brian lives in Dallas, Texas where he is joyfully writing his next horror novel. You can communicate with him online at http://www.brianmoreland.com/
Twitter: @BrianMoreland https://twitter.com/BrianMoreland
Horror Blog: http://www.BrianMoreland.blogspot.com