Writing a Novel

big typewriter

Walter Percy says that a novel, for all its length, is just an extremely long name for a complex, evolving emotion that has no name but that.

Flannery O’Connor says, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”

Even Jesus told stories.

As the dust settles from my move to San Diego and I’m managing a somewhat regular daily routine of writing and otherwise fighting off boredom, it occurs to me that I have not posted a story up for a while. Part of that has to do with the fact that without school I have no deadlines to complete stories; but I have been busy working on a novel.

Beginning to tackle something as big as a 200-300 page novel is like waking up one morning and deciding to be a whaler or a fighter pilot. The problem is not so much whether or not you can do it (the task is so astronomical that any fear of failure is masked by the great possibility that it will never happen anyway–it is only the possible that I fear), the real problem is figuring out how other people do it, and more pressingly what steps one should take today to begin down that road.

So I’ve taken advice from Robert Olen Butler (see Recent Books on right) and for the past three weeks have been using this system:

1) you start with a stack of note cards, 2 or 3 hundred.

2) A general sense of your characters (their desires, etc) and the milieu (where, when); these are, of course, subject to change.

3) Meditate, dream and meander through the world of your characters. Take special note of how characters react to the world and each other through their senses. (Avoid at all costs writing down abstractions on the note cards; eg. So-and-so saw the dragon destroy the house. Write notes about the heat of the fire, the sound of the wreckage, the character’s legs turning in to tapioca pudding…)

4)Over the course of days and weeks you will fill the note cards with sensory impressions, character yearnings, conflicts, and imagery, but not abstract plot elements. (Plotting a story before its written is dangerous, especially if your characters are organic and want to steer the story in a direction that would be impossible to go if you, the writer, stuck rigidly to your plot outline. If you must plot, be flexible.)

5) Organize the 2 or 3 hundred cards in the order that you want to tell the story. This is not a science. You can organize them together by scenes, chronology, characters, whatever the story, or your unconscious, dictates. Think of it as a tarot deck rather than cue cards. Intuitively place the scenes at the beginning, middle or end.

6) Write the book.

As for myself, I have completed all but step 6.

These steps can work for short stories as well, however far fewer note cards are needed because short stories are often only a few scenes long.


  1. I want to try this for a short story sometime, but in the meantime I wonder how this technique would apply to a screenplay. Most books give you to the opposite approach: write down only the abstractions, the gist of what happens in a scene. At first it seems like a screenplay could only benefit from that approach, given the emphasis on structure. But it would be interesting to explore the characters first before the plot…and it could probably make it a lot easier if you were writing a TV spec script for an existing show. I will try this out.

  2. I think this method could definitely work for a screenplay. My first thought was to say that a screenplay’s sensory elements come through most in the actual making of the film: ie the shots and the nuances of the actors. But that is not the case at all. If the writer of a screenplay has a clear sense of character yearning, and how that yearning affects the way they experience their world through their sense, then it is bound to come out through the dialogue as well as in the general development of the story. All this boils down to is that great stories are not told from the intellect, they are told from the unconscious.

Leave a Reply