Introduction: Writing a Novel: the Breakdown

About: TechShop Employee, current writer and world explorer.

Writing a novel or short story is totally do-able. However, sitting down before a blank piece of paper or word document can be overwhelming and discouraging. How does one make an idea become a 80-120k (or more)  word book? Your English teacher had it mostly correct: outlines.

There are two ways you can do this:

One way is to buy a super fancy writing software that breaks down bits for you.

The other way is my way. You will need blank index cards, post-it notes, or envelopes. I used envelopes in this instructable. I like envelopes because you can use them to hold the parts of your novel associated with the envelope. I like to break it down into tangible, movable pieces. It makes the task less daunting and your progress more visible, increasing the odds you will finish.

Step 1: Characters and Word Count

Naming your characters and giving them some "life" is the first step for me. I find that the more I flesh out my characters at the beginning, the easier it is to write them in a consistent manner through out the novel. So do the basics first in that old "AOL" chatroom style we know and love :A/S/L. Age, sex, location. Physical descriptions. Any flaws they may have, make a note. That means if your character has a scar on the left cheek, you can always refer to his card/envelope and remember "left." For the photo I combined my protagonists, but for your own work keep one card for each, because it will become full of notes and changes you make later.

Ask yourself: what is their back story? How do they react in tough situations? That sort of thing. It is ok to think in general terms--characters tend to morph and change as you write them, developing their own voice. Just pull out your card for them, make a note and keep going!

Do it for your villains, too, if you have them. Any character you think will have repeated scenes. I like to do these first because I find as I create characters my story begins to formulate more in my mind.

Then do a card with a couple of places that may come up frequently and describe them. Again, continuity. In the photo I combined antagonist and scene--don't do that. Yes, it is a large number of cards to keep up with, but you can quickly file through them and find what you want.

Also, set a goal word count. I find 80-100k words is good to shoot for. The key is to keep your writing from being aimless--you want to write with a purpose, and goals make this feel attainable and exciting. 100k is nice, too, because it makes percents easier. So if you have 20k words written, you are 20% done. It gives small feelings of accomplishment as your fingers hammer out your tale.

Step 2: Research

This isn't really a step so much as an ongoing process. If you are setting your book in a medieval setting, then you should do research on that. Clothes worn, food, political structures, etc. Even if you are making up an entire world, try to research some base information, like building a foundation for your world in things that your audience might be familiar with.

As I write I commonly want to start an idea and realize I need to research it a bit. Make a note in your text AND on your research card, so you can do it when you are cleaning up a chapter or a final product.

This is where using envelopes is nice. You can write research on whatever you have--paper, napkins, post-its, whatever--and keep it in the envelope to pull out what you need. Sweet.

I feel this is where the most effort and time goes. A well-researched novel can be the difference in how well it is received.

Step 3: Act and Chapter Cards

Ok, how much you break this down is up to you. You may go chapter by chapter on single cards/envelopes. Or you might do what I've done and put several rough chapter outlines on a single envelope. Once you have your outline divided appropriately, you are ready to begin writing.

Stick with writing tiny outlines that are a part of a greater whole. It is easier

After I finish the part I'm working on (Say, Act one, Chapter one) I like to print it out and save it. This does several things:

1. It makes you feel good to see what you've done, motivating you to keep going.
2. It gives you a hard copy of what you were working on. This is nice because sometimes computers go boom and we realize after that we forgot to save on an external hard drive or cloud and not that I know from experience (WINK) but there can be a bunch of heartache and tears over lost work.
3. Later, when it is time to edit, you can take everything out and put together. Editing on paper, I find, is more efficient than on a computer because I am "seeing" my work.
4. It is so, so nice to be able to go back and reference things you've written while keeping what your working on pulled up on screen.

Step 4: Conclusion

Writing the conclusion will be either the easiest part or the most difficult, depending on how burnt out you are by the time you write it. Either way, though--you are almost done. The important thing to remember is this is no longer your high school English class. You don't need to re-hash old issues--that should mostly be taken care of. Instead, choose whether you want a resolved novel --your reader feeling some sense of satisfaction in knowing everything will be ok...or an unresolved ending that leaves a reader feeling very "WTF!?"

This can rely heavily on the genre you choose. For example, romance novels need to ALWAYS be resolved. Mysteries, too. But science fiction or post-modern (what does THAT mean anymore?) can be whatever you want them to be.

There is no advice beyond make a simple, concise outline for your conclusion and finish, finish, finish.

Step 5: Editing

I like to edit in 4 steps.

1. I edit myself--I catch all my glaring mistakes-spelling, grammar, etc. I go through and change it all in my manuscript.
2. I let at least two friends edit my revised manuscript. Trust me, they'll find stuff you missed. They will also be able to help you with things that don't make sense.
3. Go through and change the spelling and grammar problems they found. Now comes the hard question: What can I cut out? This can be a painful but necessary process. I'm not joking--plan on losing about 3-7k words in editing. There are simply things you do not need, even if you love the sentiment. A good story is a clean story. If it gets too bogged down with extraneous paragraphs and descriptions, it becomes a poor story.
4. Cut the parts you can. Add only a little if you need to in order to protect continuity. Ok, put it down and walk away for at least a week.

A side note:

I recommend NOT going back and editing while still writing. Not even a little. It is too easy to get stuck in the same place and lose the momentum to go forward. Also, all that precious time and effort you spent editing before you finished may end up on the editing room floor later. Save yourself some time and grief. Just write--you'll clean it all up later.


Come back and read your finished project--you wrote that. Its yours.

That's it, really. If you've written to a specific audience or to publish, that is its own adventure. But maybe, like my first few stories, you did this just for you--that's awesome. It is a pretty good feeling to be able to tell someone you've written some short stories or a novel, even if they aren't published. It is a lot of effort, frustration, and sheer will power to complete a story.

However, I hope this instructable inspires you to consider tackling writing!