Writing is hard work. However, finding a structured writing method that works for you can help you write better, faster, and more painlessly. In this post, I’m going to explain how to write a novel the way that I write all of my academic and creative works. Because of my training in both hard and social sciences, I tend to write in much the same way I design a research experiment: by using the scientific method.
This approach allows to me to think of writing like a problem I need to solve, with established and logical ways of getting to the “right” answer. Additionally, this writing method allows you to view writing as an organic and constantly evolving process. By learning how to write a novel using the scientific method, your work will develop and change in new and interesting ways.
Of course, this writing method may not work for you. That’s perfectly fine. Try it out, and if it doesn’t suit your style, don’t be discouraged. There may still be elements of this approach that you can use when developing your own way of deciding how to write a novel.
Step One: “Make Observations.”
“Where do your ideas come from?” Most writers hate this question, for good reason. It’s an infuriating question that manages to be both overly simplistic and impossible to answer.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. For example, Suzanne Collins thought of the initial idea for The Hunger Games while watching TV one night, flipping between reality TV shows and war coverage until the channels began to blur together in her mind. Jules Verne saw an advertisement in a newspaper that offered tourists the opportunity to travel around the world in only 80 days, which inspired his most famous book.
When trying to figure how to write a novel, keep your eyes open. Observe the world around you. Talk to strangers. Read the newspaper. Go for a walk. Anything you experience can potentially serve as an inspiration for your book.
Keep a notebook with you at all times so that you’re ready to jot down any fleeting thoughts that come to mind. When you finally get an idea that makes you desperate to put pen to paper, congratulations! You’ve found your inspiration.
Step Two: “Ask a Question.”
Once you’ve found an idea that interests you, it’s time to start asking questions. Each “what if” question leads to another question, which leads to another and then another. This allows you to flesh out your initial idea and develop an understanding the general rules of the world you’re building.
Some examples from existing literature:
Fantasy: What if gods—all of the gods that have ever been conceived by mankind—lived among us? What if old gods of classic mythology were being threatened by the new gods of science and technology, leading to civil war? (American Gods by Neil Gaiman)
Science Fiction: What if humanity was at war with an alien race—and the aliens were winning? What if children were recruited and trained to fight the aliens? What if a child was the most qualified person to lead the humans in battle and defeat the aliens once and for all? (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card)
Thriller: What if a gruesome serial killer has targeted someone wealthy and politically important? What if the only person who can provide information on this serial killer is someone even more gruesome? (The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris)
Keep writing these “what if” questions about your initial idea until you have about a paragraph’s worth of material .Remember: your goal here is to be general. At this stage, don’t get too bogged down in ultra-specific details.
Step Three: “Do Background Research.”
Now that you have a good idea about what your book is about, it’s time to do your research. You want to figure out how to write a novel that is realistic and plausible so that your readers can stay engaged in the material. This is true whether you’re writing a down-to-earth family drama, a high-stakes spy thriller, or an epic fantasy. The world you create has to make sense.
You should research locations, objects, people, and anything else that might come to play in your novel. Fashion, economic systems, climate, weapons—whatever might be relevant. You can use websites like Wikipedia to gain a general overview of particular topics, and quizzing experts in a specific field using sites like Worldbuilding Stack Exchange, Metafilter or Reddit can help you answer more nuanced questions.
Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with other books in your genre. Know what’s typical for novels in your field—know what’s expected, what’s subversive, and what’s clichéd.
Step Four: “Construct a Hypothesis.”
Here is where you start to provide answers to the questions you asked in Step Two. Outline your novel—and to everyone who flinched at the word “outline,” remember that you only have to be as detailed as you need to be. A few methods of making an outline:
Act by Act. Many works of Western literature follow a basic three-act structure. In Act One (aka the Exposition), the main characters, the setting, and the overarching conflict are introduced. At the end of the act, some destabilizing event thrusts the protagonist into unfamiliar territory. In Act Two (aka the Confrontation), the conflict intensifies. This act usually ends with another destabilizing event that sets the stage for some final conflict. In Act Three (aka the Resolution), the overarching conflict is finally resolved.
To plot your outline using this method, jot down your ideas about what major events takes place in each act. This is a very broad way of looking at your narrative, and allows you to be aware of the big picture without focusing too much on specific details.
Chapter by Chapter. Make detailed notes on what happens in each chapter. Make sure every chapter tells its own individual story within the larger narrative of the novel. Keep track of key events and figures that have to appear throughout the text. You can go old school, with notecards or post-notes, or use apps like Google Drive, Scrivener, or Evernote to keep track of your notes.
Subplot by Subplot. Most novels involve the interweaving of multiple subplots that feed into the main narrative. One way to plan your novel is to understand how each of these subplots develops over the course of the novel. J.K. Rowling is perhaps the most famous user of this method; an example of her plot spreadsheet can be found here.
Remember: this outline isn’t finalized—it’s a hypothesis, not your final results. Your understanding about what this book should look like will (and should) change during the course of writing.
Step Five: “Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment.”
The preparation is over. It’s time to start writing. Where do you begin? Well, that depends on you. Find whatever approach gets your pen to touch paper. Some ideas:
Are you a linear thinker? Start at the beginning. Refer to the earliest parts of your outline and use your notes to begin describing each scene. If you get stuck, skip scenes or chapters as you need to; you can always come back later and fill in the gaps.
Do think more visually? Start with the scene that’s most vivid in your mind—the final confrontation between the hero and the bad guy, the protagonist’s first step onto an alien world, the moment your romantic leads meet-cute in a supermarket, whatever gets you the most excited to write. Write scenes as you get interested in them, and stitch them all together to make your first draft.
Plot out regular periods of time in your schedule where you must sit down and write. It can be for an hour at a time, or it can be ten minutes. It can be daily, or it can be every other week. What’s important is that you establish a routine that works for you—and then stick with it.
It also helps to think of your project as a series of smaller goals. Finishing a book is a daunting task, and thinking of it as a single big project can make you feel intimated and unsure of yourself. Instead, establish goals like “I’m going to finish this chapter” or “I’m going to write 300 words,” manageable goals that can potentially be finished during your allotted writing sessions.
Remember: this is your first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. What’s most important during this step is for you to establish a routine, follow your outline, and get your words out.
Step Six: “Analyze Your Data.”
You have a finished first draft in hand—congratulations! The first thing you should do: take a break. You’re going to need to approach this next step with fresh eyes.
It’s time to revise. Go back through your manuscript—some people find it helpful to print it out and mark over it with red pen, while others prefer leaving notes for themselves in a word processing program. Do whatever works.
Try to be objective, or as objective as you possibly can be. Pretend that the manuscript was written by someone else, and be honest with yourself as you read. On the artistic front, look for plot inconsistencies, uneven pacing, flowery language, and poor characterization. On the technical front, look for grammatical errors, run-on sentences, and bad formatting. Revise your manuscript and make any necessary changes. The end result will be a slicker, shinier, more polished draft.
But it’s not over yet: then, you should find beta readers. These are people who read your manuscript and provide honest, constructive feedback on your work. Friends and family members can be good candidates, but be wary of loved ones who might be scared of hurting your feelings.
Instead, you may want to find a writing critique group. Try Googling “online critique groups” and browsing the results—keep an eye out for a group that suits your experience level, genre, and interests. Your local library may have regular writing workshops, which can help you meet fellow writers who would be willing to critique your work. Current students can usually consult creative writing classes or on-campus student writing groups.
Revision can be a brutal, tedious process. Staying focused on the positive changes you’re making to your book and how much your manuscript has grown overtime can help to keep you motivated.
Step Seven: “Communicate Your Results.”
You did it—you finished the manuscript. What next?
If you want to publish your work, decide on whether you want to self-publish or traditionally publish. In the case of the former, start making a plan for how you’re going to format, design, and distribute your work. In case of the latter, start getting to work on building connections in the publishing industry and crafting the perfect query letter.
However, know that you’re under no obligation to publish your work. Share your book with a few close friends and family members, or keep it to yourself. After all your hard work, you’ve earned the right do whatever you please.
What do you think? What does your own writing process look like? Do you think that this method might work for you?