23 September 2017

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel (a crooked path, of course)

Okay, I tricked you. You thought this was going to be a humour column. Not so fast. Yes, it’s about writing humorous books, because that’s what I write. But I’m sure this could apply to most books.

Writing a novel, or even a novella, means hours and hours of work at a keyboard. Hundreds of hours. Maybe even a thousand hours for a full-length novel.

Some of those hours are great fun. Others, not so much. Why is it that some scenes are a kick to write, and others just drudgery?

Here’s what Agatha Christie said in the Foreword to Crooked House, one of her “special favourites.”

“I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure… Again and again someone says to me: ‘How you must have enjoyed writing so and so!’ This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. “

Christie was referring to books, but I think the same can be said for scenes. Some, you can’t wait to write. Others are purgatory. Here’s my own method for plodding through the fire.

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel

I always start with what I call a “light outline.” Yes, I outline. But I don’t outline every scene, or even list every scene. Instead, I start with ‘Three Acts and a Finale.’ Here’s the minimum I know before I start a book:

Inciting moment, Crisis 1 (in a murder mystery, the first murder,) Crisis 2 (the second murder,) Crisis 3 (includes the black moment, usually danger for the protagonist,) Finale (solving of crime.)

Yes, I write it down. I use Excel for this. When I have more thought out, I add it in. When I get new ideas, I make notes on my schematic so I don’t forget them. (I understand Scrivener is terrific for this. Some people use post it notes on a white board. Different strokes, but the same idea.)

So here’s the question I often get asked by my Crafting a Novel students: Do I write in order, from A to Z?

No, I don’t.

I always write the beginning chapters first. I do that, because I want to see if the characters are compelling enough to carry an entire book. Meaning, do I like the protagonist, do I care about her, and am I really excited to write her story. It may take a whole year to do so. I better freaking well want to live her life for a while.

If that works (meaning, if I like the first few chapters) then I’ll usually skip to the end, and write Crisis 3 and the finale. I’ve just said something big there: Yes, I always know the ending before I start the book.

I like to write the ending before I’m too invested in the project, because I want to know that it rocks. If it doesn’t rock, then I’m probably not going to want to invest another 500 hours writing the middle of the book.

So once I’ve written the beginning and the end, THEN do I write in order?

Not always.

Here’s my trick: I continue to move forward. But sometimes I skip scenes I’m not in a mood to write. I’ll put a note in brackets on the manuscript to fill in later.

I can’t explain it, but some scenes are just hard to write. I put off writing them. This is where many of my students go wrong. When they hit a scene like that, they just stop.

The trick is not to walk away from the keyboard. Instead, go on to another scene that you do want to write.

When your manuscript is 90% finished, you will have the incentive to go back and complete those hard scenes. It will still be work. But the lure of the finish line makes it easier.

Why don’t I write a complete outline, scene by scene? I’m one of those authors who gets bored if I know *exactly* what is coming next. If I have to write a fully scripted story for an entire year, it feels like drudgery. So this is what works for me: know where I am going in each act, but not exactly how I will get there. Be willing to make changes along the way, if I stumble across a brilliant new route to the end. Heck, even change the ending, if a better destination presents itself along the journey.

And that’s what makes it all fun.

Here's a book that was pure pleasure to write: WORST DATE EVER

Now available at bookstores, and online at all the usual suspects.


  1. Congratulations on the new book, Melodie. And I agree with you -- when I can't or don't want to write a scene or anything else I just put a note in and move on. Come back to it later. People should never get stuck on one thing or you'll be there forever.

  2. Best of luck with your latest book!

    i am always interested in the different ways writers approach a novel and must say I admire anyone who can write the end early as I am lucky if I know the ending within 50 or 60 pages of the finish.,

  3. Congrats on the new book!

    Loved this column, Melodie--great advice. What you've described here, about writing a novel, is pretty much the same way I write short stories. I have a general outline in my head but not every single scene, I write the beginning first to see if everything seems to be "working," I always know the ending before I start, I don't necessarily write in order, and I always make sure the action moves forward. And I think humor is vitally important, in any story OR novel.

  4. Nice column. I used to outline in minute detail but I use a one page outline now for novels.

  5. Paul, I've known so many students who just stop when they hit a part they don't want to write. I think the mark of a professional is to find a way around it.

  6. Janice, I would be terrified to write without a road map! So admiration goes both ways.

  7. John, isn't that interesting! I came to writing novels after a ten year history writing short stories. I wonder if this is what brought me to this method? With short stories, we almost certainly know our ending, because we don't have many words to get there.

  8. O'Neil, one page is about what I create. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Good column - and thanks for the outlining tip.
    I write mostly short stories, so when I get stuck, I don't write another scene, I usually go to another short story. I generally have 3-4 that I'm working on at the same time, and get through that way.

  10. Fun post, Melodie. I always like learning how other people do it, even though it doesn't help me at all...

    I sort of outline my novels, listing the scenes I think I MUST have in what seems to be the right order. I look for a major turning point about 25, 50, and 75 percent of the way, and if I don't have one, I think some more.

    Then I jump in. I write in order, but as I write, I find the scenes I left out or put in the wrong place and add them to the list. By the time I finish writing all the scenes for the first time, I'm usually on anywhere from the 15th to 20th revised list, which I guess is both my outline and my first draft. That usually runs 4 or 5 pages.

    But I don't outline short stories at all. I write the first part and as I find where I'm going, I go back and change the early stuff. I usually have a general idea of the ending, but never really know how I'll get there until it happens.

    One of the hardest things for non-writers and new writers to grasp is that there isn't "One right way" to do it. You have to find what works for you, and that takes lots of time and wrong turns.

  11. Hi, Mel. Wow, a way we diverge. While I also use a high-level outline (I know the start and end points of the trip and some stops in the middle but not every mile of the drive), I write in order. I'm so linear that I'm not good at jumping around. (Though if I have an idea for a later scene, something very specific, I might write down some notes.)

    Fortunately, if I get stuck, I usually can unstick myself by taking a drive or a shower--freeing the muse to help me figure out what about what I'm trying to write is problematic. Because I've found that's usually the cause of getting stuck--there's a problem with what comes next that my subconscious is trying to fix. Once, after I forced myself to write a troublesome scene, I still felt uncomfortable with it. While I slept that night, I realized that the scene was all wrong. It was taking the story in a much too complicated direction, and I had to scrap the entire prior day's work. But it was worth it in the end.

    I have a good friend who writes out of order. When she finishes a book, she then has to go through a process of weaving her scenes together. I like to laugh at that point and tell her, if she had written in order, she'd already be done. Aren't I sweet?!

  12. Eve, that is exactly what I do! I always have three projects going. Usually two novels and a short story. When one isn't working, I switch to another.

  13. So true, Steve, that you have to find what works for you. I tried outlining everything, every scene. I found I was so bored when it came to writing the book, that I gave it up, and started a new one.

  14. Yes Barb - I sometimes have the jigsaw puzzle problem of linking together 'acts' if I've skipped more than one scene. Usually it's only one, so this doesn't happen too often. But I'm with you on knowing my way before I start. I need to know I have a good ending before I invest too much time in my work. I don't trust myself, otherwise.


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