‘Sue, how do you write a novel?’

I’ve been asked this question, in various forms, often. So I thought I’d answer it on my blog.

I think every writer writes in their own way but it’s sometimes worth listening to what others do to see if it might suit me. Try it, if I don’t like it, don’t do it again, is my philosophy.

So the process I’ve developed is this:

– Character first. I spend quite a lot of time getting to know my characters, scribbling stuff down about them, looking at them from various points of view (for example, a hero’s mum will have a different view of him than the heroine will). Somewhere during that process I begin to use first person, which makes me feel I’m getting to know the character.

– Repeat for major characters.

– List conflicts, list quests. Hope some of the conflicts of each character conflict with the quests of others. If they don’t … make them!

– I’m usually doing some research as I go along. Conflicts and quests arise from or are affected by my research. For example, in Is This Love?, which comes out in November, Tamara is a yoga instructor. I’m into yoga and my own instructor spent an afternoon with me, helping me create Tamara’s business, limited by some of her conflicts. From that research sprang the fact that to work for the local rich businessman she would be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. And from that sprang so many plot points I can’t count them!

– Decide what’s keeping my hero and heroine apart

– Decide why they want to get together (even if they don’t know it yet)

– By now, from the conflicts and quests, I’ll probably have some idea of the material that makes up the plot up to

These sticky notes began all over a wall but I put them on cardboard to take them with me when I was working in Wales in July. Just moving them from one place to another made me reorder them, ie take stock.

These sticky notes began all over a wall but I put them on cardboard to take them with me when I was working in Wales in July. Just moving them from one place to another made me reorder them, ie take stock.

about the half way point. I might scribble these plot points all over a big piece of paper (not in order, more like a spider plan) then choose a route through it. Sticky notes work even better, because I can reorder. NB If I write the plot points as a flow chart, my brain gets tunnel vision and refuses to see that there might be another way.

– When the beginning of my novel is telling me it wants to me to start, I start. At this point, I always have the feeling that I’ve got too many plates spinning and I’m racing around trying to keep them all going. But I do like the beginning of a book because it’s like being on the grid at the start of a race (to mix my metaphors). It’s exciting and nothing has gone wrong yet.

– Because the first draft is hard for me I do keep stopping and taking stock of my plot and trying to work out if any of the plates need another spin or should they not have been there in the first place?

– I probably have at least four major taking stock points in a book.

– And then I reach the ending, which I feel is really really hard. So I often stop, go back to the beginning of the book and begin to edit and hope that when I reach the end again, what should happen has become obvious.

But the above relates only to the first draft. I do A LOT of editing!


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19 responses to “‘Sue, how do you write a novel?’

  1. Fascinating. Not totally dissimilar to how I used to write procedure manuals. Its part of the final edit to make sure it says what you want it to say! (and more important, what your readers want to read)



    • Interesting, John! The only non-fiction book I wrote seemed easier, to me, maybe because by the time I’d written the proposal I had the framework for the book.

      I left out the part my beta readers play – they influence later drafts with their feedback.


  2. For non-fic, of course, you haven’t got to develop Characters. A LOT easier from that point of view.


  3. Hi Sue. I’d like to break it down even further as I have a problem with charavter creation, actually not so much creation but giving them depth. It continuously eludes me, which is probably why I’m writing Flash Fiction…

    How would you develop a character for a short story instead, say 5-10k words?

    Thank you for the insight by the way.


    • Hi Chris,

      I have a truncated technique for short fiction. I do write a thumbnail sketch and include the major conflict, as my short stories normally follow the conflict>turning point>resolution structure. Then I write down the first 10-15 words or phrases that come into my head about that character. So if they are ‘boozy, bad tempered, profligate’ etc then I know he’s not the right guy for The People’s Friend, even if he’s also tall, dark and handsome. But, usually, I would have spotted that long before I got to the list stage! So, more importantly, these 10-15 words or phrases provide for me the essence of the character. I then try and ensure that I use them in the story, to convey that essence to the reader.

      Characterisation is easier for the viewpoint character because you can share his/her feelings and impression with the reader. Emotion and the physical manifestation of it (such as heart thumping, knees turning to water) are hugely important, too.

      It’s a bigger subject than I can really cover in depth here but do come along to a workshop, if you’d like more. See under Events in the right hand sidebar. 🙂


  4. I also have a problem with ‘c’ and ‘v’ by the looks of it…
    character creation


  5. Quiet Writer

    Really interesting and thought-provoking post, Sue – especially the point about a flow chart giving the brain tunnel vision. Do you sometimes limit the number of possibilities in a spider diagram, though, in case you end up with so many you don’t know which way to go, or do the right ones stand out naturally?


    • I think I just leave some ideas along the way. I don’t actually cross through them and I certainly don’t think, ‘Oh, I’ve got enough ideas for that bit, now,’ in case I prevent a stonking idea from coming to me! 🙂


  6. Morton Gray

    Great post. I seem to be able to get to finished first draft, but it is the editing that flummoxes me! Mx


    • Thanks, Morton. I love the editing. I really do. Even copy edits. It usually seems to easy in comparison to the first draft. The exception is if an editor is trying to get me to make a change I can’t agree with. Then it’s horrid. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I do everything on the computer (mainly because of my dodgy handwriting) but I do share the need to get to know my characters before I really get going.


  8. Hi Sue,
    Either that or if you can squeeze in a couple of hours in Tonbridge at the end of September. 🙂
    Seriously; there a writing clubs in both Geneva and Zurich (shame I’m in Lugano…) but I will find out if they organise such courses. In the meantime I’ll keep following your valuable advice.


  9. Lesley Dawson

    I love editing too. The first draft is like putting the basic ingredients of a meal together and the editing is adding all the lovely garnishes. 😀


    • I’m at 80,000 words in my WIP. It would be amazing to get the draft done soon so that I can have a breather before the next draft. What needs to be changed seems so obvious when I get a break from it.


      • Lesley Dawson

        I’m itching to get started on editing a novel I wrote about three years ago for NaNoWriMo, even though it feels like a formidable task, as it’s my first novel … but first I must complete a short story I’m working on. I hope you get a well-earned breather soon. 🙂


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