26 June 2020

How a Story or Novel is Written

Spent the last two hours going through all the posts I put up here on SleuthSayers to see if there was something about writing I had not posted. I came up with this piece of information from respected editor, writer, historian, poet, and literary critic Malcolm Cowley who explained the four stages in the composition of a piece of fiction.

Cowley explained how a story or novel is written by most writers. It went this way –

1. The Germ of the Story

The writer comes up with an idea for a story. It could be something the writer has experienced, witnessed, felt, heard about, or read about. An inspiration strikes the writer and the process begins.

2. The Conscious Meditation

The writer's imagination takes over and the writer meditates. A mix of conscious and unconscious thoughts perk in the writer's mind. The writer thinks of a way to present the story. Who are the characters? Where is the story set? When? What happens in the story?

Many writers compose an outline, some detailed, some sketchy. The outlines is often revised as the story is written.

3. The First Draft

Written quickly, it is an expansion of the outline. Remember – get it written, then get it right.

4. The Rewrite(s)

After the first draft, the writer takes the time to edit or rewrite the story, often more than once, to polish it until it sparkles.

This sounds simplistic and it may not apply to all. I know Harlan Ellison often skipped #4. He wrote one draft and that was it.

Writing a novel is like construction a building and revision is turning the building into a house a human can live in.

Good luck to everyone in the middle of this pandemic. It ain't easy.

That's all for now.


  1. A good concise way of looking at what we do, O'Neil. And if Harlan Ellison could skip step 4 my hat's off to him. For me that's where everything happens really.

    And congratulations on your Shamus win!!!

  2. Good summary of how to tell a story. I can't even imagine not having to rewrite. My first drafts are always so bad even I hate to look at them. The rewriting is the fun part, for me.

    Yes, congrats again on the Shamus. What a great honor!

  3. Congrats on your new Shamus, O'Neil. How many is this?

    Excellent overview of how we write. There's no way to explain it completely because it's different for everyone. It's sort of like saying, "I do this and this, and then magic happens."

    Stay safe.

  4. O'Neil, you're doing good on that Shamus Award. Congrats !!!

    I'm one of those slow writers who combine Steps 3 & 4. Instead of writing straight through, I write until I stop, then when I come back to the story, I rewrite/edit from the beginning to where I left off. Then, I continue with writing the new part until I stop. By the time the process is finished, the first part of the story is usually pretty smooth. The downside is that the longer the story gets, the more time it takes to get to adding new words to the place last left. This method does get me back into the story though when it is time to add new words.

  5. Of course, there's always Red Smith's observation: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
    Part of the reason I write so slowly is that I rewrite as I go along. That and I have a tendency to not always know who did what until about mid-way through.
    Congrats on the Shamus Award!

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone and for the SHAMUS acknowledgement.
    Paul and John - I couldn't do just one draft.
    Steve - You're correct, there's no one way to do any of this.
    RT - I'm a lot like you when it comes to short stories rewrite-edit from the beginning but I can't do that with novels. I do go back and read what I did earlier but have to work flat out to get through the first draft.
    Eve - I think Hemingway said something like that as well.
    Back to the SHAMUS. Steve, this is the second time one of my stories won the award. One story from AHMM and one from EQMM. Several of my novels were finalists but did not win. It is a wondeful award to win (and to be a finalist).

  7. O'Neil, I always enjoy reading about other authors' processes for writing. I never outline, but I'm leaning toward doing more thinking before starting my next project. Inventing some characters, and their names, putting in a few plot points, and even deciding who the killer is before beginning. I've always left that until I'm about 3/4s of the way through, hoping to surprise both myself and the reader. Also, I only read over the last session's writing, tweak it, make corrections so they won't distract me when I finish the first draft and move until editing.

  8. I seem to spend a lot of shampoo-rinse-repeat #4. I've heard Mickey Spillane never bothered to make an edit pass, but years later I came across a suggestion that he combined #3 and #4.

    Congratulations on the Shamus! Yeah!

  9. Congrats on the Shamus! Both of 'em.

    My writing has changed a lot over the years. My first novel just started with the idea of the USA needing a commonsense dictator and no more partisan politics. As I had ideas for some of the characters and scenes that might be fun, I'd write those scenes and fit 'em in later. And I put in multiple alternative endings in epilogues.

    After finishing four novels under my Jake Devlin pen name and another under a female pen name, I started writing short stories, mostly weird and as off-the-wall as I could make them. For example, I saw a little girl building a sand castle on a beach, and to make it weird, I made the sand castle haunted. Then I had to ask "By whom/what" and "What happens" to build the full story, about 1300 words. It's the usual questions: "What if?" and "What then?" and go from there. For another quick example: "Why can't DRAGONflies spit fire?" Wound up at about 830 words.

    Then I opened the BOULD Awards Anthology competition, got a few other writers to act as judges, and put out two annual editions so far, 2018 and 2019, and now we're accepting entries for the 2020 edition. The weirder, the better.


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