Some days, it seems like everyone wants to write a novel.
I was re-watching “Shakespeare in Love” recently—I love that movie—and the scene in which the young Will Shakespeare discovers that the disguised Thomas Kent is actually the Lady Viola, object of his affections, jumped out at me.
At the end of the clip, the boatman, having just dropped his bombshell on Young Will, says “Strangely enough, I’m a bit of a writer me self…” and proceeds to pull out a manuscript he just happens to have handy. “It wouldn’t take you long to read it! I expect you know all the booksellers!”
Some days, it seems like everyone wants to be a writer. Never mind the long hours, low pay, and terrible benefits, it seems everyone’s got an idea, or maybe just a dream. The problem then becomes: we’re not sure where to go with it or what to do next. How do you know when it’s time to write that novel and, more importantly, how do you write the novel?
Because of my history in the publishing industry and now my three self-published books, that’s a question I get asked on a daily basis. So in today’s post, I’m going to break down the seemingly complicated process of writing a novel into a simple—not necessarily easy—thirteen week method. I hope you like it.
Before You Start
A novel isn’t a grocery list. It’s not something you can easily do while you have other, arguably more important things going on in your life. If you intend to succeed in writing a novel in thirteen weeks, you need to clear the decks. No moving across country, getting divorced, or changing jobs. Try to keep everything else as stable and on schedule as possible.
Then take fifteen minutes to answer three questions (five minutes apiece) about your book project:
- “I’m afraid to write this story because…”
- “One thing I feel strongly about is…”
- “The plight at the heart of my story is…”
Don’t think too much about the answers. Just write as much as you can in five minutes each.
On Day One, finish these sentences in five minutes each:
- “My novel is about…” and
- “What I want to express through this novel is…”
For three days in a row, 90 minutes per day, imagine the world of your novel. Where is it set? What does that place look like? Smell like? Are there local businesses? Neighbors? What’s the bus and garbage schedule like? When does the sun rise and set? What phase is the moon in? Anything you can think of that your characters might conceivably notice in the world they inhabit.
Then for four days, 45 minutes per day, continue to imagine the world of your story, and spend another 45 minutes each day considering questions of story structure. Will you use a Three Act structure? Maybe you want to consider a Four or Five Act structure? What does the ordinary world of your character look like? What’s the theme of your book? What action sets off the story and changes the hero’s world? How does your story end? What challenges does your character face along the way, and when?
Throughout this first week, you also want to spend 30 minutes a day getting to know your protagonist. Each day, ask your character six questions, and have your character respond, in first person. Spend five minutes on each question and write the first thing that comes to mind. And stay away from “attribute” questions, like “how tall are you?” or “what color are your eyes?” You want to know the character underneath the physical appearance. Here are some sample questions:
- “If I were to describe myself, I would say that I am…”
- “The most incredible thing I ever did was…”
- “The turning point in my life was when…”
On Day Eight, write for five minutes, completing this sentence: “The plight at the heart of my novel is…”. Compare this to the same exercise from a week ago. What’s changed? What’s the same?
Get three sheets of paper. One page one write the Act One plot points. On page two, write the Act Two plot points. On page three, write the Act Three plot points. (If you’re using a different act structure, repeat for each additional act.) Write the scenes as they come to you, in point order. Be very brief. Spend 45 minutes per day creating this scene list for your novel.
Spend 45 minutes per day this week continuing to imagine the world of your story.
Spend 30 minutes per day interrogating your protagonist. At the end of the week, put your protagonist into a dialogue with your antagonist. Be curious about what they want and the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving this.
Spend fifteen minutes per day interrogating your protagonist, and another fifteen minutes per day interrogating your antagonist.
Spend ten minutes in the middle of the week asking, “Why is this day unlike any other?” What makes the day your novel starts different from every other day in your hero’s life?
Each day, spend 45 minutes each on the plot structure and on the world of your novel. Continue to develop ideas about the world and the story-line.
Don’t worry if nothing makes sense. Note that we haven’t started writing “the novel” yet. We’re only filling the well at this point.
On the first two days of this week, continue interrogating your protagonist, antagonist, plot structure, and setting.
On the third day, take ten minutes and ask yourself: “The truth I’m resisting in my story is…”. By now, you’ll have been at this for about 23 days. This is a crucial moment in your story development. Resistance will be mounting. Use this exercise to find out why it’s hard. The usual suspects are: fear of failure, fear of success, and so on. Identify where your resistance is coming from and push through it.
Continue exploring structural and setting details every day, 45 minutes each per day.
Start tracking your hero’s pursuit of what s/he wants through your plot points each day.
At the end of the week, you’re ready to actually begin writing your novel. Take a little break on day 28 and set some goals for yourself:
- Total novel word-count: A minimum novel word-count is 50,000 words. Your mileage may vary by genre. Epic Fantasy requires twice that word-count or more. Romance novels are usually 55000 to 75000 words. Etc.
- Daily word-count: Take your total word-count and divide by 63 (the number of days remaining in the 13 week program). The result is the number of words you must write each day at minimum to meet your total word-count goal.
- Firm up your scene-count.
Then sit back with some red wine or a beer or something and just think about everything from the beginning of your story up to the inciting incident.
Week Five Through Seven
Write your first act (in a three act structure; the first 25% of your story in other structures). Set up all the primary and secondary characters, the theme, the setting, and the conflict, then set it all in motion toward a resolution. Go back to the well of thoughts and images you created in the first four weeks.
Week Eight through Twelve
Write your second act (or the middle 50% of our story). Throw obstacles and allies in the path of your protagonist. Make sure your antagonist is suitably challenging. Give your hero a taste of victory and then snatch it away again, forcing him/her to really earn it. Keep going back to the well for thoughts and images.
Write the ending/last 25% of your story. Your hero either surmounts all the obstacles and challenges in his/her path (in a comedy), or everyone dies (tragedy). Either way, the plight in the story is resolved with the protagonist evolving into a state of understanding that what he/she wanted was always actually irrelevant, and realizes what he/she really needs to resolve the plight.
Now you type “The End” and drink yourself into a coma for a weekend, overjoyed at the completion of your literary masterpiece. Enjoy this moment. Few people get here.
And on Monday, when your hair hurts and your teeth itch, you’ll review that masterpiece and realize that it’s all crap. The first draft of anything is always crap. But at least it’s finished crap. Once it’s finished, you can start revising.
And that’s all there is. This is the method by which I wrote Hedge King in Winter, A Merchant’s Tale, and my latest novel, The Romance of Eowain, and it’s the method I’m now using to write the next novel in the Matter of Manred series. It’s tried, true, and proven, and I’m very happy with it. I think you will be too.
For more details on each week in the process, check out my #13WeekNovel series of blog posts.
What are you going to write your next book about? Share in the Comments.