So how do you go about writing a novel then?
Well, I don’t know how you do it but here’s how I go about it. I start by writing a very simple synopsis. This can be anything up to 1000 words. It covers the basic flow of the action, names the main characters and settings. That’s it. There’s no description, no dialogue, no bits of business of any sort. It’s just the bare bones of the story set down in the most basic way.
Once that is done, I go through this very basic outline and I start expanding upon it. I add a bit more detail and I break down the action a little bit more. I keep working away until I have reached anywhere between 2000 and 5000 words. This will provide me with the skeleton of the story.
In the old days, I would then switch to the outline view in Microsoft Word and begin breaking this into chapters. I would simply insert a level one heading with a chapter number between the bits of text until I had broken the outline up into the requisite number of chapters. This would normally be anywhere between 25 and 40 chapters for a standard size novel. I would generally aim for each chapter to be roughly 3000 to 4000 words and I would try to make sure that each chapter ended on some sort of cliffhanger to give the reader motivation to move on. I would italicise the body text for reasons that will become clear later.
Once this basic chapter outline was done I would go through it and extract the names of all the major characters and settings. I would add more sections to the outline giving each a level one header with the characters’ or settings’ name in it. I would then add detailed descriptions of each character and setting so that I would have something to refer to as I was writing.
At this stage I would often be ready to actually start work on the book itself. If I was not ready to begin yet I would go through each chapter in the outline adding more and more detail; bits of dialogue, bits of description or bits of action. I would keep doing this, adding more and more stuff until I felt I had enough in there to begin writing the actual book.
As I was doing the first draft I would refer to the notes in each chapter section. Sometimes I would keep the outline bits in italics so that I could refer to them as I was going on. Sometimes I would simply delete them as I completed each chapter. It would depend on how I felt at the time. This tends to apply a lot when I am working.
These days I use Scrivener which simplifies this process enormously. It is very easy to write an initial outline in Scrivener and then go through it and split it up into sections use the Apple Key + K key combination. Scrivener even automates the process of transferring these bits of outline to note cards which you can then use to give you a very broad overview of your story. It keeps them in a separate window in the Inspector so you can refer to them as you write and there is no need to delete them as you complete a section. It also makes setting up separate sections for characters and settings an absolute breeze. These days, in Scrivener I tend to break my outlines down one step further, into actual scenes within the chapters. Aside from this extra level of detail the process of outlining remains essentially the same.
When I am writing books for Black Library there is an added stage which involves discussing the book with my editors. This happens before I begin the initial outline. It consists of discussing what the book is going to be about in the most general terms. By this I mean which characters in the Warhammer setting it is going to feature and roughly what they are going to do. After this I will probably send in a very basic outline at some point. This is the first stage synopsis referred to above. This will provide a reference point for further discussion. I will almost certainly need send in the chapter breakdown with a list of characters and settings before contracts are exchanged for the book.
This is a very basic and simple system for sorting out the architecture of a book. Normally, the outline will be modified by the actual writing but at least it provides me with a structure and signposts along the way. This is the actual method I have used for writing most of my 20+ novels. The only exception to this that I can think of was a detective novel set during the Victorian period that I wrote a few years ago. I did this without any sort of outline at all. The reason that I could get away with this is because a detective novel, particularly one told in the first person singular, carries its own structure within it. A crime is committed and must be investigated. This implies a structure of interviewing suspects, visiting crime scenes and reacting to unexpected events. It is often easier to write about such things if you have no idea that they are coming until your sub-conscious mind springs them upon you.
Sometimes other things affect the structure as well. When I was writing the Tyrion and Teclis books, the broad outline of what was going to happen was already there. I knew this because I happened to write most of it in the High Elf army book almost 20 years ago. When you’re doing something like this, it becomes much more like writing a historical novel. You know that certain events happen in a certain order and that certain characters are going to be in certain scenes. You then need to work out the structure of your novel to make sure that you fit all of this information in and organise it in a dramatically satisfying manner. I still use basically the same method of outlining the novel in this case. I just have to make sure that I take into account all of the background details.
Thanks to Phillip Calvin for asking the question on Facebook that prodded me into writing this post.