A method to the madness: how I construct a novel


They say there are two types of writers: "discovery" and "outliner". I am definitely an outliner/planner - this is especially needed because I write genre fiction and there is an essential equation that must be met in each novel.

In my line of work and in most novels, there are numerous plot points which must be met (exposition, rising action, conflict, climax, falling action, and resolution). Start thinking early about where you want to start, end, and what part of your novel should grip the reader hardest. Once you've got that, you're ready to outline.

Anyway, here are the steps I usually take (more like a long series of lists and outlines):

1. Start with drawing a timeline on a piece of paper. Fill in the plot points as mentioned above first, which will give you a "skeleton" on which to build the body of your story. About ten bad puns come to mind here, but I'll hold off for the sake of the craft.

2. Once you've got those basic points, it's probably time for thinking about subplots. For me, this is a bit harder than the rest.

In order to choose a great subplot, I come up with a list of twenty potential subplots. Then I start crossing off the ones that are boring, or too contrived, or unwriteable. Once I've got it down to 3-4 I set it aside until after Step 4.

3. Emotional resonance! The whole point of a novel is to make the reader FEEL something; the way that's done is by writing sympathetic characters and letting them grow emotionally. But before I can do that, I try to get to know my character by building their back story and writing down their issues.

Here is an (extremely edited) example of what I used to frame Tessa's story from my novel Shifter In Ascent.

Tessa's Background: Orphaned at sixteen with her younger sister Camilla, inherits a fortune. Left in the hands of a greedy, lustful guardian. Once she and the sister finally break away from that life, she's sucked into the Legion's evil plot and just as bad off as before.

Tessa's Internal Conflict: Lacks confidence in her decisions and in her judgement of others. Lack of trust, fear of physical intimacy.

Tessa's External Conflict: Blackmailed into betrayal by bad guys

What she will have to change: She'll have to own and defend her decisions not just to others, but to herself.

4.  I find that the best way to ensure that there is a full narrative arc to support this growth is by planning the novel's plot around the emotions. Once I have done Step 3 for the main characters, I break down each character's issues into a series of plot points that illuminates the emotional growth. I use the same plot points as I mentioned earlier, which doubles in purpose because it also gives me a rough idea of where these points should be placed on the timeline.

Let's take Tessa's lack of confidence in her own judgement.

Exposition: Show WHY she has reason to lack her own judgement. (In her case, it's because she's been taken advantage of by several men she should have been able to trust.)

Rising Action: Show HOW it is currently affecting her situation. (She's unable to trust the one person she really can rely on.)

Conflict: Show WHAT she has to fear from fighting against her issue. (If she does trust, and does tell anyone the complete truth, she will be scorned or worse by the only people that have ever accepted her.)

Climax: Show WHEN she must act or lose everything. (The people she has come to care for are placed under imminent threat of death, and only telling the whole truth can save them.)

Falling Action: (She comes up with a plan to save the day, and defends it to a large group of people.)

Resolution: (She admits to herself that she has changed and  feels more confident in her decisions.)

5. Now that I've got that all down on paper, I go back to my list of subplots. After all this work on my characters and their emotions, I've come to know them much better. Now it should be easy to choose and tweak one of the subplots I have to make them fit my characters. If none of them are right, it's easy to repeat the process of making a long list and then narrowing it down... but this time to one!

6. Now back to that timeline I drew. I fill in all the stuff I've written down so far... the emotional twists and turns, the subplot's points, and anything else that's occurred to me while brainstorming. Usually I end up with three or four messy timeline drafts, which I then compile into a master document in Microsoft Word or Scrivener.

7. Now convert the major and minor plot points into scenes. I sit down and make a point by point list of exactly what happens in each scene before writing it. If there is a lot of dialogue (and there usually is in my writing) I will jot down the conversation in shorthand. This helps me come up with great lines but also helps me have a consistent tone from the beginning to the end of the scene. Once I've outlined it briefly, I sit down and write the scene itself. Yes, there is actual writing done in this process! I don't sketch out every scene and then go back and write it all, because that bores me.

8. Now details. Since I am writing a series all based in the same world, I need to check in on the most important minor characters at some point. I want to make sure that all the physical descriptions are consistent, that each character's dialogue is consistent in tone. Make sure there are no loose ends I've forgotten, no plots or mysteries unresolved.

9. When I've got a good first draft, I hand it all over to a beta-reader... either a friend or a redditor will do. Just someone who can tell me if it's making sense and point out grammatical errors.

10. Revise, revise, revise... the most reviled stage of novel writing.

And there you have it! This is essentially my method, and it works like a charm. It took me an entire year to write my first novel and to develop this method, but now I can knock out 5000+ words in one sitting without  taking huge brainstorming breaks. It's very efficient!