How Do I Start A Novel? Part 2

Part 2

I split this post into 2 parts because it got really long.  In part 2 I cover the way I outline and create a chapter list.  In future posts I’ll cover my own methods for revision.

The outline

Before I outline I read back over my stream of consciousness and chop out all the crap I don’t like or that got changed.  I read through the Q & A and rub out the wrong answers, those ones that don’t lead into the story.  I then go over the characters and plot to get it all fresh in my mind because so far I may have spent several days writing.  Once I’ve got that sorted I write three headings: beginning, middle and end.  Under beginning I write all the starting conditions, all the hooks that lead in.  Under middle I write the first bunch of problems the hero must face and their initial set back.  I believe all stories need to have a bit of a climax in the middle, a problem the hero can overcome to reveal a larger problem, or that reveals something about himself that increases the tension.  In the middle you also need a setback; something that seems to defeat the hero.  Under the end heading I write how they overcome the setback and face the major climax and what the basic result is.  Once happy with that I decide how long the novel needs to be.  I assume about 2,000 – 3,000 words to a chapter and thus work out how many chapters I need.  Generally this works out to about 35 chapters which will result in a novel of between 70,000 and 115,000 words.  I shoot for as close to 100,000 words as possible because I’ve just arbitrarily decided that is a good length.


I write a heading for each chapter eg: chapter 1, chapter 2 etc… then I start writing one or two sentences for each chapter.  I briefly state what happens in that chapter.  I sometimes skip a chapter or two, but I just go from 1 to 35 writing until I reach the end where I’ve written a sentence about the climax.  I go over the chapter list a few times working more detail in each time until I can visualise the story and each chapter becomes more clear in its direcction.  Once that is all done I start writing the novel itself.


When writing the novel I refer back to my chapter list, characters and plot.  I tweak the order of the chapters and add new detail as I go.  There is still a lot of wiggle room in the story and I sometimes surprise myself with what ends up happening.  If you were afraid my process doesn’t allow room for organic growth and evolution you needn’t be.  As I write a chapter some plot item might jump out at me.  When it does I go back to my plot and chapter outline and write it in, jiggling things around if need be.

Fast forward 3 months

I have a first draft of a novel.  Hooray.  Now comes the hard bit.  I have to revise and rewrite like a machine.  Inevitably you think your first draft is wonderful at first, but I dare you to read it out loud to someone.  Go on.  If you do, and I suggest you do, you will hear all the awkward sentences and notice when the listener drifts off due to boredom.  If you have a good listener they will occasionally ask what happened to such and such or they’ll point out that you just said it was midday and then the next paragraph the shadows are long on the ground.  Unless you are some kind of genius, you’ll have plenty of work still ahead of you.  If you’ve done it right, the work will be fairly easy.

But revision is another story.


About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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