How to Write and Finish Your Novel: My 5-Step Method

“How to Write and Finish Your Novel: My 5-Step Method” was written by globetrotter and writer Ted Neill. Ted has worked on five continents as an educator, health professional, and journalist. His most recent novel, Reaper Moon, confronts the recent rise of white nationalism and white supremacy within the US, exploring the high stakes at the level of the personal and political. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram: @therealauthortedneill

author Ted Neill photo - how to write a novel

Working with that most mysterious of business partners: your muse.

Every work of writing is a combination of the time spent writing and the time spent NOT writing. You need time NOT writing to think about the writing, consciously—but more often unconsciously. It’s this unconscious area of idea development that artists for millennia have referred to as their “muse.” In the sciences, scientists call it the Eureka phenomenon. Both notions are as old as classical Greece—likely older.

But working with a process/partner as nebulous as this can be tricky and hard to explain to outsiders. That is because it means that desk time is not the only productive time for a writer. It’s your productive time, but your muse works different hours—odd hours—often when you’re not looking.

When writing a novel, we have to allow ourselves this time and space for ideas to grow. We must establish a rhythm of writing and not writing. We must balance desk time (when we work) versus away-from-desk time (when the unconscious/muse works). It’s only with this balance that ideas can properly develop.

And it can be frustratingly non-linear. That said, here is my best attempt to describe how to write a novel in a step-by-step way, including how I cycle through writing and NOT writing, desk time, and all-the-rest-of-my-life, all towards the goal of nurturing ideas into a finished work.

How to Write a Novel

Step One: Scrap Writing

I call this stage “scrap writing” because the ideas come to me randomly. Sometimes, all I have around are scraps of paper to capture them on. And I’m often left with just bits and pieces, or “scraps” of ideas.

Sometimes you feel like you have no control when the muse shows up with a great idea. Muses don’t work on our schedule. You might be driving in traffic, in the shower, in a business meeting and POW – an idea pops into your head. Thanks Muse, your timing sucks. Muses certainly don’t like the “constraints” of appointments. But, once you have captured the thoughts, written them down, typed them into your phone, whatever. . . relax. Go live your life. You captured it! You’ll come back later.

Step Two: Free Writing

This is writing with little structure. I’m a person who likes order so this part is REALLY hard for me. But I’ve learned that I need to take time to do character sketches, experiment with scenes, and scribble exchanges of dialogue. They might be out of chronological order. They might only be background experiences of characters that never make it into the final work. That’s OK. This is an exploratory stage.

Throw things at the wall, see what sticks. Look at your scrap writings from step one and build on them. This can be hard for many of us conditioned to measure our output and deliverables in a quantitative way. That doesn’t work here. You will NOT have a word count or page count at the end of a free writing session.

This stage is still iterative and intuitive more than it’s linear. But you will have spent time getting to know your characters and their world. That pays dividends. You’ve fleshed things out and the good news is that now your muse will keep playing in this world even when you’re not there.

Step Three: Outline Writing

This is the stage where I start adding some structure to the story. (The OCD part of me feels relief!). I might develop scenes, character arcs, maybe even initial chapter headings. If I’ve done my job in steps one and two, ideas are passed over the cubical wall between me and my muse. These feel like inspiration and they fill in story gaps.

This is also where the technical bit of craft comes in. Here, I outline by storyboarding: I write summaries of the chapters on 3×5 cards then spread them out on the floor, trying out different sequences of chapters, especially if they switch POV among characters. I also use guides like beat sheets from Blake Snyder.

But I remain open to surprises. Side plots still might pop up in this process. New characters might leap to the fore. Let them. At this stage, I’m still working in longhand. Longhand helps to remind me that this is still just a draft. It’s like a sketch and I’m free to cross out or erase. That allows me to be free and flexible even when my muse sends over something unforeseen, but brilliant. Then, after taking a deep dive, I step away again, knowing my muse is still at it, even if I’m not.

Step Four: Writing the First Draft

We’re only writing the first draft now!? YES. And I still do this in longhand, too! I think this is what separates the professionals from the amateurs who run up against “writer’s block.” Writer’s block is an inevitable hurdle only when you haven’t done the proper preparatory work first—the first three steps which “feed” your muse.

Sure, having a muse as a business partner can be stressful, but you can learn what brings him/her to the table with ideas. I’ve found mine needs to be fed a steady diet of art (films, poetry, prose, music), and outdoor activity (fortunately these are things I enjoy too!).

If I’m patient, and don’t try to force it, the muse does show up, the ideas flow, and those notes get passed over the cubical wall. The completion of the first draft means our baby is delivered, even if it’s still a mess. Babies are. But unlike real babies, this baby may benefit from a bit of neglect. So, I take a one week break from the first draft before I return for revisions.

Step Five: Writing Revisions

There are no good writers, only good re-writers. This is when I actually, finally, sit down and start typing on a keyboard. To be honest, it’s usually only on the third draft where I really see all the ideas and connections integrating in a symphonic way—ways which I could never have predicted at the beginning (but maybe my muse did all along?) This is when I start to glimpse the whole that will be greater than the sum of the parts and really start getting excited.

There have been a whole lot of steps and time leading up to the point where I am finally typing on a keyboard. When non-writers picture us “working” it’s only this desk time, keyboard time, they picture. That is a disservice. Don’t believe it. Writing is messy. More akin to painting or sculpture with splashes and shavings all over your studio and all over you. Don’t force it (or yourself) into a preconceived notion of what outsiders think writing should be. Let it be messy!

On sleep: When thinking about how to write a novel, you might not initially realize how sleep comes into play. Often while we’re in REM sleep, our unconscious is developing ideas, just below the waterline of wakefulness. You may sleep, but muses don’t: This is when our mysterious business partners do their most independent and magical work. Don’t short change yourself (or your muse). Get enough sleep each night!

One last caveat: Writing is not an exact science, but it is a process. Everyone has one and everyone’s process is unique. Success often means learning what your process looks like, what works for you and what doesn’t. When learning how to write a novel, figure out what keeps the ideas coming, figure out your process, then build your life around it.

Then hire a good editor. It takes a team to write a book after all. That team includes you, your sometimes-flakey muse, and a not-so-flakey editor. After all, you should only have one business partner who keeps odd hours, doesn’t keep appointments, and never sleeps.

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