How to write a novel – Part 1

How to write a novel – Part 1

So you want to write a novel? Or maybe you’ve already tried writing a novel and it was a lot more difficult than you thought it should be? Over years of writing novels, I have come up with a system from combining known writing techniques that may be able to help.

Every writer is different, so my system may not work for you, but it works better than anything else I’ve found for me. Feel free to drop parts or adapt them as needed.

I am very interested in hearing about other peoples’ experiences using the system, so drop me an email: simon @

You have an idea for a book

The first thing you need is an idea for a book. This is the most important step in the whole process. In general, the earlier the step is in the process, the more important it is.

A good writer should be an idea machine. Keep something on you at all times that you can take notes on. A phone works well as most have a notepad application.

So, what kinds of ideas make for good books?

In general, you should be able to summarise the idea in a sentence or two. As a good test, try explaining your idea to a friend. If you can explain it quickly and the friend raises their eyebrows at the idea or gets excited, then you have a good idea for a book.

However, your friend may not have read widely in your genre, so next try searching for similar books and see if your idea has been done before. You can redo an idea that’s already been written, but if you’re just starting out, try to be more original than that.

If your idea passes the eyebrow test and is completely original, congratulations, you have an idea worth writing about.

Write your idea down in a sentence or two.

You have a document with your idea written down

Now you need to take that idea and turn it into an outline. The best way I’ve found to do this is to use the Snowflake technique.

Take your one sentence and expand it into three sentences, vaguely describing the beginning, middle and end of your story. For instance, taking Star Wars as an example, the one sentence might be:

A group of rebels fight against a galactic empire and win despite all the odds.

If we were breaking this into three sentences, we would start at the end of the story:

The rebels fight the empire in a massive space battle and win.

Taking this end sentence, we should find the furthest point from that battle and write that. Who would be the most unlikely person to defeat the empire?

A farm-boy living on a desert planet has his family killed by the empire, leaving him with nothing.

The middle, therefore, is the middle point between those two sentences:

Something happens to the farm-boy, meaning he has no choice but to fight the empire.

Expand your sentence into three sentences yourself.

You now have a three sentence summary

Now we’re getting somewhere. The three sentences are still pretty vague, right? Don’t worry about that. Things are always going to be vague, all the way until we start writing. We’re going to work slowly to make them less vague.

So, next, take your three sentences and expand each one into a paragraph in the same way that you expanded the single sentence. Using our Star Wars example:

A farm-boy, living on a desert planet has his family killed by the empire, leaving him with nothing. He chooses to go with his uncle Ben, who has a secret past, to somewhere safer. They travel to a space-port and from there off the planet.

The farm-boy and his uncle meet up with the empire and his uncle is killed. The farm-boy escapes. Wanting to revenge his uncle, he joins the rebel alliance.

The farm-boy has experience flying from his home planet and gets put in an attack fighter. The rebels attack the empire base, but are taking heavy losses. As a last ditch, no hope effort, the farm-boy attacks, finding a weak spot in the base and destroying it.

Notice here that I’m a long way from the way Star Wars ends up. All I’ve done here is given the bare basics of a story. The hero starts from a lowly position, gets a reason to fight and then fights. All of the details are still to come: Princess Leia; Han Solo; the Death Star; the Force. The story as it stands could describe a hundred different books and movies.

Expand your three sentences into three paragraphs.

You now have a three paragraph summary

In part 2, we’ll describe character creation that will give things a bit more life.


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