The two most asked questions I get are: “How did you decide to write a novel?” and “What is you process in writing that novel?”
As to the first question, I was able to retire fairly early, and my wife, Dolores, said, “What are you going to do with your time? You don’t love golf or playing cards. Why don’t you write a novel?” That just seemed like the thing to do at the time, as I’ve always been an imaginative story teller. That’s a skill I used as a kid to avoid trouble at home.
Typically for me, I set out to get educated, knowing just a flair for writing wouldn’t be enough. So I attended several writers’ conferences and a few top seminars, and in the process learned how to style riveting fiction and develop a unique “voice.” If I set out to do something, I planned on doing it very well. Now it’s become a full time avocation … something I do because I love it, not something to do to earn a living.
So, here’s my novel-writing process I’ve developed over the years, and it really works for me. It is how I wrote my latest Detective Al Warner suspense, The Prom Dress Killer. I seldom suffer writer’s block, because I always know where I’m going.
First I envision a story, trying to find a unique plot-line, something I seem very good at. Then I imagine my characters: the heroine (in my first 2 novels. Warner becomes a hero in my 3rd and subsequent novels); who will be her hero; an anti-hero or villain (sometimes more than one); and various enablers (both good & bad). Each character has their own 4 x 6 index card, with physical appearance, likes, dislikes, traits, and backgrounds. As the story develops, anything new gets added to their card, like what car they drive. New characters that appear get their own cards.
Next, I outline the entire story, chapter by chapter - just a few sentences for each, as a guide. Then the writing begins, and soon the characters magically take over the action, often plunging off into uncharted directions of their own. They often speak to me at night, while I await sleep, telling me things about themselves I never expected. The outline becomes a flexible tool, not an iron cast mold. I pretty much write the entire story straight through, only reviewing each chapter for glaring mistakes and to be sure of where I’m headed, before I move on to the next one.
After I complete the 1st draft, I begin several edits. First, I correct spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. I always find something I missed, no matter how often I do this. Next, I look at overall flow & pacing. Often, chapters are moved around to improve structure and increase tension. Then I go back and look at prose for more powerfully descriptive words. It can take many minutes for me to find the right way to say something in an elegant way, and I’ve been rewarded with praise by my peers as being a superb wordsmith. This requires a balance between too terse and too flowery.
Next I review each scene to be sure it’s as tense as I can make it. In Donald Maass’ seminar, he asked “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?” After coming up with that, he then asked “What can be even worse than that?” and then, after some serious head-scratching, “What can be even worse than THAT?” Without tension, no one stays interested in your novel very long. Traumatic events need to be much more than just a half-page long.
On a final edit pass, I often break longer chapters and paragraphs into shorter ones, a trick I learned from, among others, Dean Koontz and James Patterson. It keeps the reader more engrossed.
Finally, it’s reviewed by my small critique groups of fine published authors who always supply great input, and then it goes to a copy editor to double-check for spelling and grammar. It always amazes me that, even after that, any subsequent edits will find things missed on previous passes.
So dear readers, I hope I’ve managed to give you some interesting insight as to what goes into writing a novel. There’s a lot more involved than just sitting down at a computer.
Thanks for your time and interest.
George A Bernstein