How I Wrote a Novel: Part 1 – Idea, Planning, Outline

I self-published my first novel this December. Most of my friend’s and family’s reaction to me writing a book was some version of, “I can’t believe you wrote an entire book.” Before I wrote one, I had a hard time conceptualizing how people did it too. I’m doing this series about my novel writing process for three reasons:

  1. To review the process so that I can improve it in the future.
  2. For anyone who is fascinated by other writer’s processes like I am.
  3. For anyone who wants to write a novel but doesn’t know where to start.

When I first decided I wanted to write this series, I thought this first post would be about the first draft. After jogging my memory on the series of events writing my first book, and what I did recently to start my second book, I realized I needed to devote an entire post to “pre-first draft stuff”. Let’s start at the beginning.

Step one: The Idea

I’ve made at least four half-assed attempts at writing books during the past eight years, never getting close to finishing. When I had my lightbulb moment about wanting to be a writer, I wanted to start with a fresh idea—this would be the book I had to finish. I came up with the idea for Dark House pacing in the basement of a hospital (I was working, I swear). I wrote a post about how to get story ideas, if you want more information about that. The most important thing at this stage is finding an idea that excites you enough to write 50,000+ words.

Step two: Brainstorming

Before I write anything, I have a conversation with myself about the story—mostly in my head. This usually involves more pacing. I work out the plot of the story very loosely, enough that I know what I want to write in the next step. I think this is why I rarely have writer’s block, I don’t try to write until I’ve done a lot of thinking about the project.

Step three: The Dump – Freewriting

I start all of my books, even the ones I never finish, with what I call “dumps”, which is just a stupid name for freewriting. Because dumps are not technically part of the book, or even the outline, I feel no pressure to write well or make much sense. The dump consists of two kinds of writing:

  1. Scenes: I usually start a dump with a scene that I imagine will be somewhere in the book. The kind of scenes that popped into my mind when I first came up with the idea. Whatever seems like the most fun to write.
  2. Commentary and brainstorming: I’ll make notes about the scene I wrote, which usually turn into written brainstorming sessions—writing about what will happen before and after that scene/alternative plot lines.

I don’t just write dumps before the first draft—I’ll write them during as well. Sometimes I’ll be inspired to write a conversation between two characters or a scene that doesn’t necessarily have a place in the book. Sometimes it makes it into the draft, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s a good way to explore my characters further.

Step Four: The Outline

I wrote the first chapter of Dark House without an outline, but past that I needed to organize the story in order to keep going. In my limited experience I do think outlines are necessary—how can you get to a destination without a route? My outlines are rambling messes filled with jokes, phonetic spelling, and dumb nicknames for characters in place of their yet-to-be-decided names—a brainstorm with a loose structure. I don’t edit or revise them. Any further changes to the story happen in the first draft.

After all of this stream of consciousness writing and talking to myself, I’m finally ready to start the first draft, with all of its magic and despair.

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash