Ask the Editor #6: Creating a Novel from a Concept

In this Ask the Editor, we’ll explore some strategies for bringing ideas from bar napkins to the page for novice writers.

It can be difficult to transition an abstract idea or a snippet of a story into a novel. Even established authors have wonderful story ideas that never get developed enough to go anywhere. If you are having trouble putting words on a page, you are not alone.

It’s very easy for novice writers to get bogged down by overly-sophisticated advice like “determine your audience,” “write to a specific genre,” or “novels should only be this many words in length.” I urge you to ignore all of this advice on your first novel and simply put proverbial pen to paper.

Don’t become mired in either lofty images of success or worries of failure.

Writers are those that write. So get writing.

Step 1- Write down everything you can.

Drop what you are doing and record your idea the moment you have it. Don’t count on remembering your idea and thinking about it later. Be sure to record ever bit that you can including tones, colors, and sounds. Write as much as you can about every quality of the idea.

Keep a notebook, smart phone, or voice recorder on hand at all times to record your ideas.

Step 2- Prewrite

Even if you don’t normally like to prewrite, you should do it now. If nothing else, it will force you to think about your ideas in some depth. Remember a novel isn’t a five page school report. A novel is complex and lengthy. The more you sort out ahead of time, the less likely it is that you write yourself into a corner and give up.

Depending on the kind of idea you might:

  • Create a character description for each principal character.
  • Draw a rough timeline of events.
  • In genre fiction you may want to start considering the rules of your new world.

You can utilize various tools to begin prewriting:

If you’re having trouble putting things into your prewrite, it’s possible that you don’t have enough to fill a novel. Change your plan and start thinking of the work as a novella or short story. Use your prewrite to bring your idea to the page as a shorter form work—don’t let your idea or the prewrite go to waste. Once you’ve written the short story, you may find yourself imagining new ways to expand it later.

Step 3- Chapter Outline

I recommend that you next create an outline of what you would like to happen in each chapter. Obviously things will change as your manuscript develops, but putting together a chapter outline will help you pace your novel well, give opportunities for foreshadowing, and force you to think about cause and effect.

The simple Excel timeline that HL Reasby writes about in her Alchemy of Writing post on Outlines is a fine example of a chapter outline.

Step 4- Start Writing

If you are having trouble starting the first page, simply skip it and begin writing wherever you’d like. Because you took the time to create the chapter outline, you should be able to start writing wherever you are comfortable. Start where your strengths lie. If you are best at or most interested in dramatic scenes, begin there. It will be much easier once you have a good chapter down.

Step 5- All writing, no fussing.

Do not go over your work again and again.  While perfecting a chapter is a great idea, remember that you will likely have to make many changes as you go and stopping to polish a chapter is a good way to derail your momentum.

Step 6- Fussing & Wrap Up

Once you have a fair amount of a manuscript, feel free to polish it up. Insert colorful or poetic language. Check your word count per sentence and make sure you are using sentences of varying length and structure. Think about your theme and tone and adjust your writing accordingly. Make sure the story makes sense and doesn’t feel too slow or rushed. After you’ve made sure that you’ve covered everything you wanted to cover in your Chapter Outline, wrap it up.

Congratulations, you have a first draft.



In the next Ask the Editor: First Draft to Final Draft

If you have a question for Ask the Editor, leave a comment below.

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