The Process of Writing a Novel

by Johnny Carlton

Copyright 2012 Johnny Giesbrecht

Johnny Carlton is a writer of twelve published suspense thrillers available as e-books at

THE PUBLISHING of books is presently undergoing a drastic shakeup, with the sales of e-books having caught up to the sales of printed books, and then just recently surpassing them.  This has various ramifications in regard to distributing and promotional procedures; however, the methods for writing a novel remain the same.

I suppose there are some people who think that writing a book is a simple matter–you just get a computer, typewriter, or pencil and paper, and you put some words together in the form of sentences.  And, of course, you need the time and patience to keep doing that until you have enough writing to make up a book.  To believe that is the way books are written is like believing that all there is to building a house is to buy a saw and a hammer and some boards and nails, and then to cut up the boards and nail them together.  If that was all there was to it, then just about anyone could build a house.  Well, I suppose that actually just about anyone can build a “house” in that manner, but who would want to live in it?

And who would want to read a novel that was just a bunch of words thrown together by a would-be writer who didn’t have a real grip on how novels are built?

Now this is not to say that every professional writer uses exactly the same methods; we don’t, but still there is some basic stuff that, in some ways, we all sort of follow.  So, let’s have a look at that, and let’s do it as though you, the reader of this article, are going to write a novel.

(This article will not go into the foundational matters of grammar, spelling, punctuation and paragraphing.  These are all important, and anyone planning to pursue any kind of serious professional writing might consider brushing up on these basics.  This article takes off from where that leaves off.  Keep in mind that writers who know the basic rules quite often break them in order to get some particular effect; but you can only break the rules in a clever way if you know what the rules are.  So a good grip on the basic rules of English writing is important.  Now, assuming that you have brushed up on those things, or will before you actually start writing a novel, let’s carry on with the more creative matters.)


To start with, you’ll need to get a great Main Idea for your story.  This may come to you without any noticeable effort on your part, or you may come up with it while you’re mentally, emotionally, very actively looking for such an idea.  It needs to be a truly worthwhile one if you’re going to be spending months writing your novel around it.

So you decide that your story will be about a Bengal tiger who is really a human being.  (That’s probably not such a great idea, to put it mildly, but it will do for the purpose of this article.)  Then what?


Then you daydream about it for a while–maybe for a week or two.  This is a very important and creative part of the process, and a lot of fun.  In your mind only, you try out various ways that the story might go, never pushing anything too hard, but always looking for the most interesting angles and plot turns to bring about a page-turner novel.  But there’s nothing very orderly about this step.  It’s the only step of the whole process that’s delightfully hodge-podge, with various elements being thought about, including: ideas about what some of the characters are going to be like, what some of the great action scenes, backgrounds, settings, etc., are going to be, but seldom firming up anything, at least not on paper or in your computer.

At this time you’ll likely start getting greater and greater urges to write down some of your good ideas so you won’t forget them, and at some point you’ll need to start doing that.


Using pencil and paper, write a heading: Story Ideas.  You should keep the page, and some extra blank ones, handy, and write down those ideas that you think you might actually use, but not in any kind of chronological plot order.  Number 1 might be, “When the tiger begins to recognize his seeming humanity, it disturbs him to the point of not being able to function well in his tiger community.”  Another point might be, “An anthropologist studying big cats notices the peculiar behavior of our feline/human protagonist.”  And so on.


The next major step is the writing of an outline.  Not all novelists use them; a few outline the whole thing in their heads, and an even smaller number–including some of the best–don’t outline at all.  Yet in my opinion these authors could probably do even better if they did write outlines, for now and then, as one reads their works, one gets a slight sense that they may have gotten themselves into a bit of trouble with a couple of early chapters that they don’t quite know how to deal with in later chapters.  In any case, I think I’m safe to say that most professional novelists by far avail themselves of the effective foundation power that a written outline provides.  When using an outline one can catch weaknesses and correct them before going many pages down a less effective road.

But you should never think that you need to slavishly adhere to your outline.  I often disregard mine and sometimes take time to rewrite sections of them.  An outline is only a roughly drawn map of where you’re going, and sometimes you may even change your destination in mid-stream.  Usually, however, departures from the outline are less major than that.

My outlines are written in pencil on standard sheets (I use green-tinted paper because it’s easier on the eyes), in the present tense, thus reminding me that this is not yet the actual writing of the book which will be in the past tense (as novels usually are).  Your outline can be full of dumb mistakes in grammar, spelling, weak sentences, etc., and you shouldn’t bother correcting them.  My outline for a full-length novel generally runs from about forty to sixty handwritten pages.


Once you have the outline written you’ll have a pretty good idea of what subjects you’ll need to do your preliminary research on–Bengal tigers, anthropologists, jungle flora and fauna, etc.  Make a list, then look for the needed material.  You’ll have plenty of resources available: the internet, libraries, encyclopedias, almanacs, magazine articles, etc.  Get this material together in one file, or pile, and study it.  I generally find a cardboard box to keep it all in.


After some days, maybe even weeks, of this preliminary research, you may be ready to start writing your novel.  But you’ll find that you’re probably still not done with research, because as you write, more specific things will come up that you need information on.  So keep a running list of questions that you need answered; then periodically take time out from your writing to research and find answers to those questions.  It’s great if you can have someone helping you with this.  I have my wife, Yvonne, who is a whiz at finding needed info on the internet.


Writing a novel works best when it’s done as a daily thing, so that you can keep up the flow.  Sometimes, however, one needs to take a break of a few days to stave off mental, emotional fatigue.  No matter how much you enjoy writing, it is hard work, and there’ll be times when you feel as though your brain is melting and running out of your ears.

How many pages per day?  This varies greatly from author to author, and you’ll need to find out what works best for you; but I think most book writers find it important to set a goal for themselves–so many pages per day.  You don’t need to always reach that goal, but having the goal helps greatly in keeping up a steady progress toward finishing the novel.  Dean Koontz does only three pages per day; so did Harold Robins.  (However, with today’s writers who use computers, as does Dean Koontz, I don’t know if the pages are computer pages, or the way they come out after being printed into manuscript form at about 260 words per page, or is he talking about printed book pages of about 300 words per page.)

When I’m at my best I do ten or more manuscript pages per day (260 words per page), but with research and time off for recuperation, and doing other things that need to be done, it takes me five months or more to complete a book–assuming that nothing major interferes with my output.

My novels usually run to between 90,000 and somewhat over 100,000 words per book, although one of them, CARPATHIA, is 300,000 words long.


Rewriting is extremely important, and a lack of it is one of the things that sets the amateur writer apart from the professional.

Before computers, when writers worked with typewriters, they would write what was called a first draft–namely the first effort at putting the words down on paper.  Many writers would do the first draft of the whole novel before doing any rewriting.  Some would write a chapter and then rewrite it and then go on with the next chapter.  But with computers rewriting is so much easier that many writers prefer to rewrite their daily output on a daily basis.  Some start out in the morning writing their daily quota of pages and then spend the rest of their working day rewriting those pages–perhaps three or four times.  Dean Koontz works that way.  I prefer to start out the day rewriting the previous day’s output of pages; then, having gotten my mental machinery warmed up, I write my daily number of pages.  I highly recommend this method, and I rework my pages about three or four times each.

When I’ve basically completed the novel, I let it cool for a couple of weeks or so, then go through the whole thing two more times, making improvements and polishing everything to the best of my ability.  Each change I make gives me a great sense of satisfaction, knowing the book will be that much more enjoyable to its readers.


Next comes the worst part: sending out a query letter, usually by e-mail, sometimes with sample chapters, to an agent or publisher, and waiting to hear from him.

You can find publishers and agents on the internet, but you should probably also get the book, WRITER’S MARKET, published yearly by Writer’s Digest Books, available in bookstores everywhere.

The question now is: will the agent or publisher want to see your complete manuscript?

If it turns out that someone actually does want to see it, I go through the whole thing again; that is, I rewrite and polish it one more time before I send it off.

If you get a rejection notice, you send out another query letter to another agent or publisher.  (Most of them highly disapprove of a writer contacting more than one company at a time.)  Probably some writers stomp on every rejection slip before ripping it to shreds, and you’ve likely heard that some use them as a cheap wallpaper.  If you save them in a drawer and then eventually make a sale, those rejection slips will be a testimony to your patience and courage.

You might want to consider the e-book route.  Amazon’s e-book distribution system seems to be open at this time to good writing (it has been for me).  And with e-book sales in general surpassing print sales, what’s there to complain about?–except that you need to do a lot of advertising so readers will be able to find your stuff among all the rest.

But the chances of having your story accepted by a regular, traditional type of print publisher is in the chance category of winning a lottery ticket.  And on that cheerful note, I’ll end this article.

But hey, it can happen.


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