tagReviews & EssaysHow to Write a Novel

How to Write a Novel


Obviously, step one in writing a novel, get an idea.

Authors get the question all the time: "How do you come up with your ideas?"

Assuming you're not one, I can answer that: Formal viewpoint. Or a functional mentality.

For example, Forbes Magazine had a front page cover about how al-Qaeda was losing money, and it suggested that Osama needed a new business model.

I can NOT make this up.

The point is, people look at things from a "formal viewpoint." I would look at a large pile of money and think of where to hide it. An accountant would probably count it all. A pyromaniac would look at it as future gallons of accelerant.

In my case... to use an example, in 1998, my family went to London and stopped off to see the Crown Jewels. Everyone else stared at the jewels. I went and looked at the security. I didn't take notes, since I didn't want to be thrown out of the Tower of London by the fastest possible route [the jewels were a few floors up].


The British Museum got the same treatment from me. The Elgin Marbles from the Greek Parthenon had their own wing.... so, if the Greeks really wanted them back, they could steal them with a few construction helicopters and just airlift the whole wing—the Israelis did that with an Egyptian radar tower once to great effect.

Basically, it's a matter of looking at things from a certain viewpoint. I suspect that if I go see the Mona Lisa, the majority of my time will be pondering how someone could disable the security guards, the electronic surveillance, and walk away with a few paintings from the Louvre. Though the answer would probably be to steal something from the basement storage area—less security, without the individual alarms on every piece.... hmm, now that's an idea....can someone scan for Semtex at the entrypoint to the Louvre? Hrm...

The sad thing is that the above was really thought up during the writing of this blog entry.

I created one character because a teacher in high school, on the first day of class, said "I'm a wanted terrorist. I've been hunted for 19 years.... I can kill you with two fingers." He was the creative writing teacher, so we went with it....

And I wondered... "What if he was telling the truth?"

He's in a back pocket somewhere, for when I get around to writing that novel. The annoying thing is, I have it outlined....

Some, like Harlan Ellison, have described writing as a compulsion, and that's because that's how we seemed to be wired. Be it the Tower of London or the British Museum, writers wonder how we can do something with where we are, what we're doing, some little factoid we picked up, or a stray comment.

A friend of mine developed her novel (under review) described a similar experience when creating her book: "Why doesn't LA have any superheroes?" Answer: "Because something killed them all. And it's still here."

I had my character Scott "Mossad" Murphy (of the story Tinker, Tailor, Goyim, Spy) came out of the masses of Evangelicals flocking to Israel after 9-11. What does Israel do with all of these meshuge goyim? And what do you do with them if they want to join the military, or even the intelligence services? Answer: the goyim brigade—Mossad agents who not only don't look Jewish, but aren't.

Murphy was just a throwaway character I had come up with to use "someday." He had literally been shoved into a notebook and left there for three years. I had used him once as a supporting character in one book, and all but forgot him. Later, he came in handy.

And that's why writers have notebooks—to keep track of all the random neurons firing off with ideas. You never know when there's going to be something that comes in handy. Stephen King supposedly has a trunk filled with notebooks of ideas past.

So, if you ever think that a writer is odd, well, they are. They look at things from different points of view—if only because they have to be able to see things from the points of view of different people as they write them. Stephen King writes about things that scare him... and that seems to be everything... I think up various and sundry ways to kill someone with a ballpoint pen (I'm on nine).

That's how we find ideas. We're wired to....

I'll give you a for instance.

I read a book once....

Anyone who knows me is aware that this isn't new.

However, it was written by an author who I had just gotten into. I was a history major, it was a history book written by someone who taught philosophy and wrote novels on occasion. It was on Pope Pius XII and his history during the holocaust—essentially: what did he do, what did he know, and when did he know it.

The interesting thing is that it was less of a researched book and more like a composite collection of primary documents. The major source was from a book written in the 1960s from an Israeli Diplomat to the Vatican, who had also fought in World War II with the British. The second collection of sources were from contemporary newspapers. Most specifically, the New York Times.

Okay. Interesting book. Two months later, I started a graduate course called the History of Total War. The term paper was supposed to be about the events of a major conflict.... Hmm, let's work on Pius XII. I read one book, time to work on another.

And it was insane.

The primary material all pointed to one, glaring and obvious conclusion. Everything written from the 1940s-1960s pointed in one direction. Testimony from Jews in the camps, in Rome, in positions of power within the global community, the newspapers, the books by journalists, the books by diplomats in Rome, even statements and documents from the Nazi hierarchy pointed one way and one way only.

Then we hit the 1960s, and everything from the previous twenty years was chucked down the memory hole so fast, you would have thought Rod Serling had put in as a twist to a Twilight Zone episode.

Since then, we've had a "debate." One side believe that Pope Pius XII either: did nothing about the Holocaust; said nothing about the Holocaust; or was actively responsible for the Holocaust. On the other side, you have folks who think Pius XII was a saint, spoke out against the Holocaust, acted against it, was a grand spymaster. In the middle—and there are few in the middle—refer to him as "cautious and prudent."

Along the way, I came across authors who were not historians. I've come across people who had used proven forgeries from criminals convicted for the forgeries they used as "evidence". I've even come across historians who had done jail time for publishing their theories. And I've come across some deliberate liars: for example, one idiot said that "X person should have done Y thing"... but cited articles where it was STATED that X did Y, making him either brain dead or a liar.

One of the most interesting things about this is why I refer to it as a "debate," in quotes. One side of this conflict doesn't acknowledge the other. One side will take the opposition's statements and theories, vivisect them with a scalpel, the end result looking like shredded wheat, and the second side acts as though there are no alternate theories, interpretations or evidence.

And some of these people are hilarious. Both sides have biases. Cynthia Ozick, for example, is an eighty year old Jew who thought that nuns would kidnap and convert her when she was young, and her opinion hasn't changed much. St. Margherita Marcchione is a Catholic nun. John Cornwell hates his father, his seminary, his country, jumped over the wall of the priesthood in Britain (for which he has my sympathy), and more or less hates Church theology, the entire hierarchy, and possibly every Catholic. James Carroll wants the Catholic church to become the Unitarians. Though there is one lawyer from Missouri with a degree in history—I'm not sure where his bias comes in.

Anyway, by the time I was finished reading both sides, I thought it was fairly clear who was right. Hell, I had enough primary documents to work on that alone. I left motivations alone, because I wasn't going to break out my Ouija board and try to have a séance with a dead pope to ask him what he was feeling or thinking at the time. These are the actual events; to the best of our knowledge, this is what happened, and this is how the people reacted to it AT THE TIME.

For example, Mit Brennender Sorge, a papal encyclical condemning Fascism, released by Pope Pius XI, was unequivocally pointed at the Nazis. How do we know this? Well, check the title. Most encyclicals are written in Latin. This was written in German, not Italian, not Spanish. No one was going to mess with the translation when it hit Germany's borders. It had to be smuggled into the country after it had been banned from the press. When the Hitler Youth beat up parishioners coming out of church, attacked priests, went after Catholic groups, and banned the encyclical all together, one can possibly conclude that the Nazis took it personally.

The average reader is probably looking at the above paragraph and thinking "this guy needed a masters for that sort of thing? Duh." The average reader would be right. No, I wasn't going for high intellectual value. Much of the paper was a plain, simple, narrative telling of events, and many of the conclusions were as "duh" worthy as the above paragraph.


I won't tell you the name of the book that started this whole mess. But after I finished the paper, it was good night and good luck. End of Fall semester.

Then came some of the other books. Novels where the history was so bad, it was painful to read. "What sort of idiot thinks Churchill was a Catholic?" Or "An entire convent of nuns commit mass murder, and can keep their mouths shut with that secret for sixty years? What?"

And there was the Da Vinci Code. Yes, you know I had to get there. That anyone was getting their history from it was... interesting. It had been a theory of my family for years that we are better informed by our fiction reading than by our news media. Tom Clancy had airplanes running into buildings in the early 1990s. David Hagberg sent his protagonist assassin after Osama bin Laden before anyone considered bombing him. Dale Brown, in 1990, came up with unmanned aerial drones armed with missiles—twelve years before predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles started wiping out terrorists.

But people were getting their history from fiction? And they were getting it from a man who wanted to be a songwriter when he grew up, took one art history course, and whose major was in literature. Huh.

Did that inspire me on a rampaging crusade? Sadly, no. Didn't care. It was an odd little book, and even ignoring the "history," I didn't find it entertaining. In fact, I prefer James Rollins as far as historical puzzles go—he gives me some grounding in why he's saying what he's saying. Simply, Dan Brown just wasn't fun for me. My problem, no one else's.

Then I read a completely different novel, also using historical events as a background to the primary action. Premise... nothing new, really. Evil Nazi Catholic church, blah blah, snore. Okay, so what? Big deal.... But, hmm, wait, I know that character's name. It's historical. I know that name too. Hmm....

Skip to the back of the book to read the author's note, which collected the works used to create that novel. I had normally assumed that this author had read one side of the argument, and wrote another evil Catholic church story based on that. But, no, I had read these books. All of them. He had done his homework, and had completely and utterly come to the wrong conclusion, directly contradicting details that both sides agreed on, then saying it was true. I could take it if he had just said "I'm writing fiction, not commenting on a historical debate." But he took a side and lied about facts that everyone agreed on.

Dominoes fell in my brain. People not only read this crap, they believed this crap. Most readers would have almost no intellectual background to separate the wheat from the chaff (seriously, how many people have history degrees focusing on the religious and cultural activities of Europe in World War II?)

My reaction was somewhere akin to the quote of the eminent physician and research scientist, Doctor Bruce Banner. Hulk smash.

Fine. Simple. Easy. Two could play at this game. If people got their history from entertainment, I would take up the strangest project ever imagined. I would write a thriller that was (a) thrilling, (b) factually accurate about the Catholic Church in the Holocaust.

Now how the HELL was I going to do that?


Part 2: Now what?

So, you're going to right a novel that's both thrilling and accurate, without resorting to something over the top fantastical in the meantime?

The answer there is: that's nice, wake me when you're done.

Oh, darn, wait—I want to write it!

Now what?

In my case, and possibly in yours, I wanted to write for a while. Since I was sixteen in fact. I've spilled more digital ink than I know what to do with, actually. My point: the writing itself wasn't an issue. I had more or less taught myself keyboarding by the time I had gotten the concept of this one book, and had developed a mental habit of innovation out of the weirdest little things, as well as the ability to write for thirty hours straight.

But now, a new project. Working on a thriller encapsulating everything I had learned about Pope Pius XII.

Well, where do I set the novel? Another world hopping journey, digging in the muck and mire, or perhaps solving puzzles laid out from World War II?

Been there, done that, and we've probably all seen that movie. If only for Ian McKellen's acting.

Let's put in a counter-cliche, and stay put. So, when dealing with the Roman Catholic church, go to Rome. Check.

We need a conspiracy—what fiction with the Catholic church in it doesn't have some kind of deep dark conspiracy around it? Not counting The Exorcist.... few. Who's behind it? Well, the standard options are the government, the Church, or intelligence agencies....

Next step: who was I going to use in this mischegas of a plot?

Part 2a: The Creative Process: How to make a character.

This is my version... a chart I adapted from a role playing guide on character development. You'd be surprised how much detail is required. Funny enough, I don't play RPGs



Weight / build/height:

Hair color?

Eye color?

General baring?

Usual dress?

Born where and When?

Home environment?

Family economy?

Parental relations?

Relationship with parents?

Occupation of parents?

Ever go to work with parents?

Siblings? How many? Age range? Names?

Closet family member?

Childhood interest?

Childhood Developments?

How was childhood unique?


College Major? Minor?

Favorite subject?

Other interests before then?

Special Relationships?

How was education unique?

Job? Good / bad at it? Like it?

Peer Recognition?


Where live? Roommate?

Often travels?

Relaxes how?

Kind of friends?


Family contact?

Most Dangerous act? Silliest? Dumbest?

Farthest they've been from home?


Conspiracy (aka: Plot), check.

Characters, check.

Now it has to be written....

Oh, shoot me now....


Part three: The Creative process—AKA: Writing the darn thing.

During a winter break, I had gone through great pains to finish my thesis. It had been more or less a cultural analysis of Irish Rebel songs, which, like my books, had a lot of property damage, and fighting, with merry and bouncy tunes and boy, were these people having way too much fun.

That made up three credits of a semester where I had only two other classes, and no social life. The paper was mostly finished before the semester had even begun. I was even more finished when I pounded out two term papers before the first month was out.

What part of "no social life" do you not understand?

There were a lot of nights where I was up until three in the morning. The story wouldn't get out of my head or leave me alone. For the first time in my life, instead of making it up when I went along, I did an outline. I drew sketches and diagrams.

The sad part is, I kept footnoting the darned thing.

And it all came naturally to me. Link every character together as they're all on the trail of the same plot.

And, thanks to maps on the internet, I can make the bus terminal arriving from the airport be one point on a line from the Vatican to the Spanish steps.

Should any of my other books see the light of day, you'll note that I have a pattern of property damage at public places. A gunfight in a science fiction convention; a battle at the Cloisters; a shootout at a Fireworks factory in Long Island; the Muir woods in San Francisco; a hostage situation at a Barnes and Noble bookstore; a chase with MacGyver moments in CostCo. Been there, done that, blown it up.

And for some reason, I couldn't get one image out of my head—an armored SUV going down the Spanish steps.

End result: the book was eight hundred pages long. Two hundred thousand words, when the average novel was only one hundred thousand. And I had brought in EVERY, SINGLE, CHARACTER I had ever written, over a dozen books, excluding the science fiction ones. Because what had started with a simple and straightforward murder turned into an all out war, and I needed every person I could conceive of to support what protagonists I had standing. A very small army of light against a large army of darkness, and I didn't even have Sam Raimi.

Here comes the hard part.

Part 4: The Rewrite

From 2004-2007, there were several variations on the story. The first had an additional character. One had a character introduced from the very beginning who was used to bring in most of the history; he didn't disappear, but he was shifted. One version took out about 50% of the story and made it around five hundred pages.

Then there was the easy version. Split it up into three books. One character gets deleted, one gets transferred into book two, several sequences get shifted so that the character moments aren't all in one place or another, and ta da, instant trilogy.

Two major plot points in the story became a matter of what intelligence agencies call "blowback." When someone fires a gun, gunpowder residue gets on the shooter's clothing, even though the gun is pointed away from the shooter. In the world of intelligence, blowback means that an operation has come back to bite you on the ass: either an assassination went wrong and the target wants to return the favor; some dictator dislikes you blowing up his favorite weapons research facility and would like to bury you, that sort of thing.

If I used the blowback as the basis for completely different books, then dang, book one is only over a hundred thousand words. Excellent. Fill in details and character in books two and three, not to mention "previously with our heroes" moments that I can use to pad the book.... or keep the audience up to speed. Either way....

And then, after all this was done, it was time for the hardest part of all. I had to sell it.

After all, it was only one book, being marketed to a publishing industry that was swamped with hundreds of manuscripts per day, manned by people who had to slog through this slush of paper.

How hard could it be?

Don't ask.

Part 5: Selling yourself.

So, you're written your book. And then rewrote it. The time has come. Sell the book to... anyone, really.

For those of you who have never researched how a book goes from the pen of the author to the hands of the reader, a quick sketch of the process.

Agents represent the author. Their mission: sell your book to a publisher for the highest possible value. Agents make between 10%-15% of the money the author gets. Which isn't bad work if you're the agent for Stephen King. Having 10% of however many millions of books sold adds up to real money. However, 10% of a ten thousand dollar advance isn't much, and ten thousand isn't a common opening bid for an advance on a book.

Report Story

byRC_of_Doom© 3 comments/ 6414 views/ 10 favorites

Share the love

Report a Bug

2 Pages:12

Forgot your password?

Please wait

Change picture

Your current user avatar, all sizes:

Default size User Picture  Medium size User Picture  Small size User Picture  Tiny size User Picture

You have a new user avatar waiting for moderation.

Select new user avatar: