Monday, February 01, 2010

How to write a novel - from start to finish.

I got a great – if slightly overwhelming – question this weekend about writing process. I’m sure a lot of you will be able to relate to Stuart Hughes' honesty. As I look to my next project (that would be after the two I’m currently finishing) I feel exactly the same way:

"What process do you follow (from initial idea, to final draft) when writing a novel?

If I’m honest, writing 80,000 – 120,000 words that connect together and keep the reader interested seems like a mammoth slog right now. Any advice you can give me, to make the exciting prospect seem less daunting, would be gratefully appreciated."

Well, isn’t that the ten million dollar question? (And don't you just love a British accent?)

And yet, the idea of trying to answer that as a fairly coherent, step-by-step process is an interesting challenge that I might actually be up for, especially because I’ve written about a lot of it before, it’s just a question of putting answers in a different kind of order and filling in some gaps.

And it’s still technically a New Year, not a bad time to do some massive, constructive organization of this blog.

(It also helps to know that I already have written my definitive answer, here☺

                   Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

So let’s do it. From getting an idea, to picking the right idea, to getting a publishing deal. In order, in detail, and together. I need it just as much as anyone, right now.

And we'll start at the very beginning, with generating that perfect idea - because this is a part of the writing process that people rarely spend enough time on, and is CRUCIAL if you want to develop a riveting book, even more crucial if you have any hope of being paid to write. You are going to spend TWO YEARS of your life, minimum, on this book (and that's truly a minimum). Don't you think you better be sure this is the right book to write before you start?

And, oh yeah - the same process is going to apply to scripts, too, and I'll make sure to differentiate when it's important.


First, you need an idea.

When people ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?”, authors tend to clam up or worse, get sarcastic - because the only real answer to that is, “Where DON’T I get ideas?” or even more to the point, “How do I turn these ideas OFF?”

The thing is, “Where do you get your ideas?” is not the real question these people are asking. The real question is “How do you go from an idea to a coherent story line that holds up – and holds a reader’s interest - for 400 pages of a book?”

Or more concisely: “How do you come up with your PREMISES?”

Look, we all have story ideas all the time. Even non-writers, and non-aspiring writers – I truly mean, EVERYONE, has story ideas all the time. Those story ideas are called daydreams, or fantasies, or often “Porn starring me and Edward Cullen, or me and Stringer Bell,” (or maybe both. Wrap your mind around that one for a second…)

But you see what I mean.

We all create stories in our own heads all the time, minimal as some of our plot lines may be.

So I bet you have dozens of ideas, hundreds. A better question is “What’s a good story idea?”

I see two essential ingredients:

a) What idea gets you excited enough to spend a year (or most likely more) of your life completely immersed in it –


b) Gets other people excited enough about it to buy it and read it and even maybe possibly make it into a movie or TV series with an amusement park ride spinoff and a Guess clothing line based on the story?

a) is good if you just want to write for yourself.

But b) is essential if you want to be a professional writer.

As many of you know, I’m all about learning by making lists. Because let’s face it – we have to trick ourselves into writing, every single day, and what could be simpler and more non-threatening than making a list? Anything to avoid the actual rest of it!

So here are two lists to do to get those ideas flowing, and then we can start to narrow it all down to the best one.

List # 1: Make a list of all your story ideas.

Yes, you read that right. ALL of them.

This is a great exercise because it gets your subconscious churning and invites it to choose what it truly wants to be working on. Your subconscious knows WAY more than you do about writing. None of us can do the kind of deep work that writing is all on our own. And with a little help from the Universe you could find yourself writing the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Also this exercise gives you an overall idea of what your THEMES are as a writer (and very likely the themes you have as a person). I absolutely believe that writers only have about six or seven themes that they’re dealing with over and over and over again. It’s my experience that your writing improves exponentially when you become more aware of the themes that you’re working with.

You may be amazed, looking over this list that you’ve generated, how much overlap there is in theme (and in central characters, hero/ines and villains, and dynamics between characters, and tone of endings).

You may even find that two of your story ideas, or a premise line plus a character from a totally different premise line, might combine to form a bigger, more exciting idea.

But in any case, you should have a much better idea at the end of the exercise of what turns you on as a writer, and what would sustain you emotionally over the long process of writing a novel.

Then just let that percolate for a while. Give yourself a little time for the right idea to take hold of you. You’ll know what that feels like – it’s a little like falling in love. (We’ll go more into this in the next few days.)

List # 2: The Master List

The other list I always encourage my students to do is a list of your ten favorite movies and books in the genre that you’re writing, or if you don’t have a premise yet, ten movies and books that you WISH you had written.

It’s good to compare and contrast your idea list with this IDEAL list.

This list of ten (or more, if you want – ten is just a minimum!) – is going to be enormously helpful to you in structuring and outlining your own novel.

Now, the novelists who have just found this blog recently may be wondering why I’m asking you to list movies as well as books. Good question.

The thing is, for the purposes of structural analysis, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X-ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.

It’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel, which makes looking at films that are similar to your own novel story a great way to jump start your novel outline.

And just practically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of classic and blockbuster films and the film techniques that got them that status can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.

And even beyond that – studying movies is fun, and fun is something writers just don’t let themselves have enough of. If you train yourself to view movies looking for for some of these structural elements I’m going to be talking about, then every time you go to the movies or watch something on television, you’re actually honing your craft (even on a date or while spending quality time with your loved ones!), and after a while you won’t even notice you’re doing it.

When the work is play, you’ve got the best of all possible worlds.

So go make your lists, and I will, too, and let’s talk about some of your results this week.

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

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This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

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Tina said...

Alexandra, this is a really good and helpful idea! I've written my first novel and am dithering about my second one. I look forward to this series of posts very much! (Querying agents for the first novel at the moment)
Thank you!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I want to lay down and rest just thinking about the MAMMOTH job you're about to do. I've been asked a few times myself, and managed a coherent "Huh?" And to think, I've written six and have number seven percolating in my head. Kudos to you, Alex. It's a noble and inspiring thing you do, and I'm telling anyone who'll listen.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Always helpful stuff Alex. BTW, the workbook has been very helpful to me. But the one thing I've learned from reading your blog as well as other ones on the craft at writing is that there really isn't one absolute definitive process to writing a novel (or screenplay or play).

And I guess that's true of anything really. I don't think there's a definitive way of doing anything. There are guides to help along the way, but eventually it's all up to the individual on how they want to get their end result.

Wendy Wagner; said...

Reading the words "two years of your life MINIMUM"--no matter how true I know them to be, makes me want to go back to my short stories and NEVER leave.

Then I remember that there is coffee and friends and really supportive blogs (like yours!) and feel like I can get back to work. Thank you.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Tina, good luck with the queries!

It can be hard to pick a new project, but it's really important to make sure you take the time to make sure it's the right one. Kind of like with love...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Joylene, maybe it's mammoth, but I have to blog about something, right?

Why not something useful?

Maybe I'm just stir crazy. This snow thing is surreal.

I didn't know you'd written SIX - good for you!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

RJ, you're too right - I should have started with my oft-repeated caveat:



But for anyone who might be floundering, maybe this will help.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wendy, yes, I know, daunting.

This is where that AA/Alanon saying proves to cover all things in life:

One Day At A Time.

Like today. All I have to do is write 5 pages. They don't even have to be good. I just have to write them.

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John said...

Just wanted to chime in and let you know that I found your blog about a month ago and it has been extremely beneficial to the graphic novel project I am currently working on (collaborating with an artist friend). So, thank you for all of the effort you have put into your blog. Consider me a regular from here on out.

While piecing together the structure for my current project, my active brain started spitting out unrelated idea fragments that, until now, didn’t have a home. So your post is very timely (in my case anyway). So, I’ll start my list, although it may only be a list of 1 or 2 ideas at the moment.

Looking forward to future mammoth blog posts, haha.


G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

You sum it all up so concisely, as always. I wish my own working processes were as orderly. I'm all fragments, bits'n'pieces and bad comparisons whenever someone asks me about my way of doing things.

Anyway, habitual self-deprecation aside, I've been through the slog five times now.


I'm now researching for numbers six, seven and eight. To anyone feeling daunted, I'd say we all feel like that every single time we're starting anew. Awooga-awooga! Abandon ship! The engines, they cannae take the strain, cap'n!

It's always this big and this scary a prospect to sit down, write and write and write that little bit more even though it's 3am and the sun is coming up outside.

The reason to stick it out is the ideas, the bits of dialogue and, in my case, the stomach-churning imagery. Whatever refuses to finish the drinks and leave quietly out the back. The stuff that's too good to lose.

It never gets easier but, once you're done, the sense of satisfaction you feel is immeasurable.

Then you just need to sit right back down and start the next one.

British accent: optional.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, thanks for letting me know, John - I'm so glad it's been helpful! Good to have another graphic novel writer in the mix. Sometime I think I should be blogging more about those...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, I just love your writing style - always makes me laugh.

And you couldn't be more right about everything. It's always terrifying. It's always painful. It's always worth it.

Just that little bit at a time...

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Anonymous said...


I want to say I have found your blog one of the most helpful ones out there. Your ideas and steps are so easy to understand and follow.

I look forward to following this series of posts.

Unknown said...

Excellent and very informative, Alexandra. I'm starting my lists now.

V. L. Smith said...

This is going to be fun! I want to test my ideas against your advice to see if I am on the right track with my new book. It feels right, but I can't say I absolutely know what I'm doing, so more information and strategies will be welcome.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thank YOU, Stuart! See what you started? Oh, the power...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

V.L., feeling right is the most important thing. A teacher of mine is always saying "Follow your first thought."

The problem is, most of us have that brilliant first thought and then immediately lose it in the flurry of garbage and self-doubt that follows.

Or maybe that's just me. ;)

Anonymous said...

You truely are amazing - teaching an on-line course, writing two books, creating and monitoring these posts. Congrats: Do you have a 24h day? :)
You've mentioned Dorothy's character arc in previous posts and I'm glad you've expanded it. It helps me see that my character's story arc is not at all similar. Maybe she's more like Jake in China Town.
So I'm curious, how do I figure out what genre I've written to do my movie/book breakdown list. The book doesn't fit anywhere (genre wise) but I think it makes sense. I created and analyzed my books I'd like to write and fate seems to be a common theme, although in my MS it's coupled with ambivalence. I also have a 'save the cat' beginning to my MS.
I think I like dark, tragic storylines.
1. Wuthering Heights, 2. Les Miserables, 3. Gone With The Wind, 4. Perfume, 5. Sense and Sensability, 6. Flowers In The Attic?
I just read on Wikipedia that Snyder passed away last year. This is wrong on so many levels. I prefer tragedy on the page/screen. :(

popularculture - Totally PC said...

I just loved this. Thank you!

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Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debbie, you definitely need to know what genre you're working in. Very few people just make a whole new genre up.

I was thinking, reading your post, that I would have to break down and do a blog on genre, but the truth is there is so much material out there you can read on it right now that will be a lot more encompassing than what I can do at the moment, given my book deadline.

Start with

and write down EVERY genre they talk about in film and literature that you think applies to the story you're writing. (Don't forget to make a donation to Wikipedia.)

Then revise your list of movies and books to include stories in that genre and let me know what you come up with.

Also ask yourself - "What am I trying to make my reader FEEL?" Horror? Thrills? The glow of romance? The adrenaline and exhilaration of adventure?

That's sometimes the biggest clue to what genre you're in.

But you MUST understand what genre you're writing. And you MUST deliver on the implicit promise that genre makes to the reader or audience.

Omari Jackson said...

When are we going to have the ebook edition of "Screenwriting Tricks For Authors?"
--Omari J