What is the Process of Writing a Novel? Part 1 (Tips on Writing Tuesday #2)

One of my readers asked me last week, “How do you get from having a simple story idea to the completed manuscript?”

I talk to people all the time who have a wonderful book idea.  Unfortunately, they don’t ever see it come to fruition because they don’t know where to start.  The thought of going from a small ten word sentence to 150-300 page book is daunting…for all of us.

Almost three novels and hundreds of thousands of words later, this is the twelve step process I have become most comfortable with to get from point A to point B.  It will not work for all, but I believe within the list are tried and true principles that will work for most.  Over time, you will be able to adapt the list to fit your needs.

So you have a great idea for a story, now what?

A 12 Step Novel Writing Process
Part 1: Steps 1-6

1. Basic Story Arc – You don’t have to have it all down overnight.  Start small.  Who is the main character?  What is their goal?  What stands in their way?  How will they overcome and prevail (or not)?

2. Brainstorm – Now that our idea is more than a passing thought, we need to flesh it out even more.  What is the setting?  Who are other characters?  What makes them tick?  What is the conflict?  What genre?  Lots of notes and ideas will run together.

3. Scene Outline – This is where it gets hard.  A scene outline is a simple, step by step walk through of your story.  A one to two sentence description of each scene…that’s it.  So important, but easier said than done.

I look at this step much like story boarding for a movie.  A director is not going to start shooting a film until they know exactly what is happening, frame by frame.  As a writer, it benefits you to do the same.

I cannot stress this enough – your story is made up of scenes, a book is made up of chapters.

Write in scenes!  

A scene is a vital part of your story where characters interact.  Chapters are simply logistics you can figure out later as you put the book together.

4. Character Profiles – I used this step for the first time with Maiden, and I will never write another book without it.  How can you write a story about characters who have thoughts, feelings and dreams if you don’t have a very firm grasp on who they are, what they want, and how they get it?

Answer…you can’t.

I open up a word document with a page for each character and list traits, background, goals, and even a picture of who I would cast in that role if it were a movie.  For example, my current novel has a main character named John.  He is an honorable but flawed military captain I see as a cross between Captain Mal from Firefly and Arturius (Clive Owen) in the newest King Arthur movie.

5. Scene Summary – With a scene outline and a good grasp on character, now it’s time to expand.  A scene summary takes your one or two sentences and turns them into three or four paragraphs.  You are putting meat onto the bones and your characters and their story are coming alive.

By the end of the scene summary you know exactly what your story is about and all the major plot points.  You know when and how your characters interact with each other, when the bad guy gets in the way and when the good guy prevails, the climax and the ending.

It’s all right there.  All you are really missing is the dialogue to bring everything to life.  But before you start actually writing (and all this time you thought you were writing) you need to make a…

6. Synopsis – I would recommend a 1-page synopsis, but no more than 2-pages.  After outlining, profiling your characters, and creating scene summaries, you should be able to create a 1-2 page synopsis.

A synopsis is vital!  It’s the back of the book blurb that wets the appetite and paints a vivid picture.  It is your blueprint moving forward to pull out when times get tough and you can’t remember why you started writing in the first place.

Click here for Part 2 and steps 7-12.

If you have written a story, or have thought about writing one but haven’t started, I would love to hear about it.  Leave me a comment below.



  1. I am fascinated by the writing process and how it varies for each individual. This is a great list! One thing I have learned is that there are some universal steps that have to take place in the writing process, and most of the variation comes in the order or the execution of the steps. For example, some people have to write a few scenes or even a first draft in order to meet their characters and/or discover the plot. Much of this discovery writing will end up being omitted; but for some people, this is how the story comes to them. Writing by the seat of your pants is great, but it doesn't eliminate the need to go back and carefully consider character and plot.

    My process is very similar to yours. I like to have a synopsis and a basic idea of scene sequence before I start the first draft. I will say, however, that I've had bad experience with paid editors, but that's another story!

  2. It really does differ from person to person. A writer has to be willing to find out what works for them.

    “Most of the variation comes in the order or the execution of the steps” – well said!!!

    I would be interested to hear your editors stories sometimes. Maybe something I need to delve into more for a future post. I know I have also had negative experiences with paying editors.

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