Friday, July 16, 2010

How I Write a Novel (or Anything Else)

Digging through some old stuff, I found the following article. Someone asked me to do it for their 'zine, but then never used it. So I figured, what the heck, put it on here. Enjoy.

How do I write, let me count the ways ... There are a lot of
different ways to write a novel, or a short story, or anything
else. I do more short stories than novels, but the principles
are the same.

It would seem that the easiest way is the classic "start at the
beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop." This may
work for some people, but not for me, at least not for a novel,
or even a fairly long short story. It can work OK for flash
fiction and really short short stories.

No, for longer works I have found the way that works best for
me. I write the beginning of the story, to make sure the thing
is well launched. Then I write the ending, so I know where I'm
going. And then I go back and fill in the middle. Sound strange?
Maybe it is, but it seems to work. Of course, by the time you
have the middle done, you'll have to go back and rewrite the
beginning and end. But you're going to have to do that anyway,
so don't worry about it.

Back in prehistoric times when writers used primitive tools like
quill pens or typewriters, it made sense to write a first draft
all the way through, then a second draft all the way through,
and so on. The only way to edit was to cross out mistakes with
your quill pen, then retype the whole thing. And if you were a
terrible typist like me, you might end up having to pay for
professional retyping before submitting.

Wake up, gang, we have computers and word processors now. Fixing
a typo is simple, even if you're a rotten typist. And changing
things is easy. You just decided that "Chapter 7" should go
after "Chapter 3"? Move it. You suddenly get a great idea that
goes somewhere in the middle? Put in a new chapter in the
appropriate place. Hung up on what to call the evil wizard?
Don't break your concentration trying to think of a name, call
him Zamboni (yeah, the thing on the ice rink) and keep on
writing. Later one single command will change every "Zamboni" to

I hope I don't have to tell you to save your work often. But
when you get to a significant milestone in the writing, do a
special save. If your story is in file "fledermaus.odt," save a
copy in a special "drafts" directory as
"fledermaus_draft_062508.odt." Oh, by the way, that ".odt" thing
... I use a free office suite called "" which
saves as ".odt" by default. I highly recommend it.

As you're working, stop and read through what you have already
written once in a while, picking up both errors and better ways
to say something. Maybe read it out loud, sometimes you can hear
something that grates on the ear where you wouldn't see it in
print. But please, please, please don't wait until you're done
to start revising. At least if you're using a computer; if
you're still writing on stone with a hammer and chisel I don't
know what to suggest.

I will also mention that I don't do formal outlines. You can use
chapter stubs with a sentence or two in them as sort of an
on-the-fly outline, sometimes that's helpful. Some people like
outlines, so feel free to use them if they make you comfortable.
But they are not required.

* * * *

Then of course we have to worry about "Ideas." Where do you get
them? Everywhere! Any time you think of something that might be
an idea, write it down. Put it in a file in your computer and
never, never discard it. Review your idea files periodically.
Some ideas will never go anywhere, but some will ... and you
never know which is which.

I looked back in my notes file and found a line that read "A
girl named 'Ontario Higgins'." Where the heck did that come
from? I have no idea, and I may never use it. Or maybe I will, I
have this vague feeling that she's a starship captain.

Taking another look back, I found a short entry about a girl
with black hair and a white forelock, in a white jogging suit.

Yeah, I remember that one. The jogging suit vanished, the girl
became a vampire, and the story was published as "Bloodbank
Encounter." So keep all those ideas!

* * * *

You have to market your stories. You'll never sell anything
that's sitting in your desk drawer. When a market rejects a
story (and believe me, they will!) you should immediately send
that market another story, and send that story to another
market. Keep them out there, circulating. And always look for
the chance to submit to a higher paying market where possible.

But, never pay a reading fee! I just ignore any market that
charges a reading fee. That goes for contests, too. I will only
enter contests that do not charge an entry fee. The idea is that
you want them to pay money to you, not have you pay money to

And one more thing, don't send snail-mail submissions unless the
market is a top-paying one, like five cents a word or better
(Analog, Asimov's, ...). It just isn't worth the cost of a
snail-mail submission to a market that pays a half cent a word,
or copies, or exposure.

* * * *

So there you go, gang, that's how I do it. If you're just
starting, you might want to follow some of these suggestions. If
you've been at it for a while, you may still find some helpful
tips. Now get out there, boot up your word processor, and get
busy writing.


  1. Very nice post, Jim. You explained exactly how I write. :)

  2. Jim, the one thing I totally agree with you is the snail mail. The rest of your article was excellent but in the nowadays more publishers should come on board and have email submissions. Writers fork out enough for other stuff, they should be allowed to have one less expense by submitting online.

  3. great tips, Jim. I pretty much know the begining and end when I write, but I usually don't write the end, but I have on occasion.

  4. Hi Jim,
    I'm a slow writer, rewriting a gazillion times along the way. I start with a short story - but I like the idea of starting with the beginning and the ending first. Great tips, all of them.
    Thank you for sharing.