How do you write a novel?


One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with is what process writers go through to churn out a novel. I’ve heard various methods. Some writers, like John Buchan for example, prefer to have the entire story straight in their minds before they set pen to paper. Others start writing without knowing what’s coming next and have the bizarre, but very common, experience of having the characters take over the telling of the story, with the author as spectator. Other authors meticulously chart out the action in detailed synopses and timelines. I think I’ve tried most of these methods. But in the end, I settled on what seems to work for me.

There is no magic way of writing a novel that works for everyone. The first novel I wrote, “Lab Rat”, an urban fantasy about a dystopian city from which technology has been banned, started off quite casually. In the job I was doing, I was allowed one hour for lunch. So my daily routine was to gobble down a sandwich and then write for 50 minutes. This meant that I got through an average of about 500 words per weekday. Okay I also ended up with chronic indigestion, but that’s beside the point. It was amazing how quickly the volume of verbiage built up. Eventually I ended up with a gargantuan novel that was about 105,000 words long. When I’d got about halfway through, I realized that I had to start planning the second half of the novel. At that point I wrote out a synopsis charting the story so far and what direction I wanted it to go for the remainder. Of course, when I came to revise the book I ended up chopping out about 25k words, killing off 30+ minor characters and eliminating brilliant scenes that I thought worked well but were completely irrelevant to the main story.

My second novel, “Four Degrees”, about a clinically depressed forensic accountant who discovers a fraud being perpetrated by his psychiatrist, was similar except that I had more of an idea of where the story was going before I stopped halfway through to write the synopsis. It was shorter too, which shows that either I was more in control. Either that or that I was a lazy slob.

My third, “Muscle for Hire”, about a gap year student from Scotland who ends up embroiled in the criminal underbelly (which sounds kind of gross, actually) of gangland St. Paul, Minnesota, was different. I already knew something about the story and it had been rattling around in my head for over a year. So all I needed to do was write a few trial chapters and then sit down and plan out the rest of the book.

My fourth was the most elaborate and planned yet. Called “The Blood Menagerie” it tells a number of interwoven stories, but the main one is about two friends who discover a corpse in the trunk of their car during a road trip to Rockford, Illinois. Because I had to make sure the individual stories connected properly, not only did I write out a synopsis but also drew up a flowchart detailing the actions of each of the main characters. In fact, it was all I could do to tear myself away from the intricate plot turns, to actually write the damn thing. Again, I started off with a few trial scenes and very quickly got down to writing out the synopsis.

So I think my answer to the question ‘how do you write a novel’ would have to be a rather nebulous and non-committal, ‘it all depends.’