Conception to Completion

This is a pure writing process post.* There are one thousand ways and one to write a novel, every one of them right. This is how I do it…most of the time. The novel in this example is The Black School, which hasn’t yet found a home.

Conception of idea: What do you want to write about? This is question one. In my case I usually start with a world or magic system. Starting with a character or a scene or a situation all work too. It helps if you can articulate the idea in a sentence–I want to write about ___________. Or a pitch “World War II with sacrifice magic and dark fey Nazis” for example. That’s a gross oversimplification, but when I say it, my listeners will have an instant sense of where I’m going, and so do I.

Basic blocking: Write out the idea in some detail. Shoot for at least two to five single spaced pages. Put flesh on the bones of the one-sentence description above. Try and think through the ramifications of the ideas, i.e. How would a military magic school work when the magic is built around sacrifice? How big a school? How many students? How many teachers? Where is the school? What is its relationship with the local military? Etc.

By the time I reached the end of this process for The Black School I knew the number of buildings on the campus and what their purpose and design was, my total student body, student rank in relation to general military, class schedule, dorm arrangements, etc. That let me open the first day of the book knowing where my lead character had to be and when, if he followed his schedule. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I needed to know, but it gives the flavor. I come back to this and add to it all through the writing of the novel as more details become clear.

Narrative Outline: What is my actual story? In my case I started with a solid idea of where I wanted the story to start, where I wanted it to end, what kind of general transformation I wanted in my main character, and who that character was. That’s a good start for this model. Other models can work just as well and may mean knowing a lot less about the overall story.

For the narrative outline I typically end with a five page overview (standard length in 12pt Courier). In this case, a page on the school, magic system, and main character, to set the scene. Then I started with my opening scene and wrote a very loose description of events over the next four pages, introducing new characters as they came into the story.

The outline had to answer the following questions: What does the main character want? What do they need? What are they going to get? What obstacles do they have to overcome to get there? What do they have to give up to get what they need? How are they going to fail on the way? Failure is key to plot. If the main character doesn’t fail from time to time, then there’s no dramatic tension or payoff when they succeed.

The final version of my narrative outline should tell the main points of the story in a voice as close to the actual fiction as possible.

Three Chapters: At some point in the process, beginning as early as halfway through basic blocking or anywhere thereafter, I need to actually start writing the book so that I can get a handle on who my characters are and the style I’m going to use to write the story. I find that I am often surprised about some of the details of the story and characters both here and later, despite the fact that I have a very good idea of what the story will look like in overview. I typically start these chapters during the blocking process and finish them in tandem with the basic narrative outline as the two inform each other.

Note: Three is not entirely an arbitrary number, because the basic book proposal format is three chapters (~50 pages) and a detailed narrative plot outline. As a writing tool, three chapters is purely a suggestion as it may well take longer than this to really figure out where the story is going to go and how it will get there. In an adult-length novel ~100,000 words, I will usually nail this down somewhere between 15-20,000. First time authors would be advised to have a completed manuscript before submitting the proposal version in any case.

Working Outline: This is a very different critter from the narrative outline. Here my goal is not to tell the story to a third party reader, but rather to blueprint it for myself. It will include both the events of the story and the structural reasons for those events. So, it might include something like “Draft student into school. Establish teachers, also the student TAs.” This tells me that at this point in this chapter I need to write several short scenes showing my lead character in his classes. One of the purposes of these scenes is to establish some of my other characters and make them distinct. The depth of description in a working outline will vary widely from author to author and should include everything that you think is important in the scene at the minimum level of detail necessary for you to remember it. This isn’t the story itself and all the time I spend here is time that I don’t have to work on the actual finished product. Generally, the more inexperienced the writer, the greater the detail they should put into this sort of outline.

A working outline should at the very least lay out all the major events. In my case, I like to lay it out chapter by chapter. For Black School what I did was looked at my first three chapters to get an idea of what my chapter length was going to be (this can vary wildly depending on the story) and then mapped it against the max number of words. YA is short: 30,000 at the low end up to 75,000 at the extreme high end. I chose to shoot for 60,000 as a ceiling and to bring it in shorter if possible. That meant 16-20 chapters. Just getting in all the events listed in the narrative outline took about 14 chapters leaving me 2-6 chapters for unexpected surprises. I determined this by looking at the events in the narrative outline and seeing how much space they had taken up in my three demonstration chapters. This is an extremely inexact science, as one event might be a paragraph in narrative because of its importance, but only a short scene in text, while another might be a sentence in narrative, but a chapter and a half in text.

Further Chapters: This happens concurrent with the following section. In essence it’s very simple, put in-scene the narrative you’ve developed. In practice it’s messy. You may find out that one of your clever ideas doesn’t work. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to find a good critic to read your working draft they may point out things that need to be changed to make a better story. For one novel not all that long ago, I scrapped two chapters worth of working outline and started over. I kept some of the same events, but shifted the emphasis and removed the supporting characters entirely to emphasize the central role of the protagonist.

Advanced Blocking: This may or may not be necessary depending on your own individual process. I find that when I’m having trouble with a scene it means that I need to take a step back from the actual writing and figure out what I’m trying to achieve with a scene and how best to achieve it. So I might put together something like “Chapter 12, Scene one” with a description of what I want to happen and why, then follow with “scene two,” etc. until I’ve fully blocked out the chapter.

Finish/Clean-up/Ongoing Rewrite: Once the first draft is finished (if you haven’t already) it’s time to go back and clean up any messes made by the changes that will inevitably have drifted in from the initial conception and do things like throwing in foreshadowing for a scene not originally anticipated. A person can also do all of this as they go, going back and inserting whatever adjustments that need to be made as soon as they occur, and this is actually the model I follow though I don’t necessarily recommend it. For many writers what it leads to is a dead stall where they are continually rewriting their first chapters and never actually moving forward.

Celebrate: This is key. If you’ve finished a book you owe yourself a dinner out at the very least, and possibly a blow-out party.

A Final Note: I can’t emphasize enough that this is only one way to reach the goal of a finished book. I know writers who have no idea what’s going to happen with the story from day-to-day and who just “follow my characters around and see what happens” and who write excellent novels. I know writers who would be paralyzed by my model, sinking hundred of hours into blocking and outlines and not working on the text at all. Think of this as one possible starting point. Use the parts of it that make sense or help you move forward, discard those that don’t.

*This post is assembled from a series of pieces I previously posted at

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There are 7 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. C.E. Murphy

    God, you’re organized. O.O

  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    For some reason people keep telling me that…now I’ve got to get back to sorting this rice by grain length.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    And width. Don’t forget width. And color grade. And weight. Boy, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you before you can eat.

  4. 4. Phiala

    Eh, ignore them. I think this is fabulous, and remarkably helpful as well.

    I think it’s a case of “right thing at right time”, but that counts too.

    Thank you!

  5. 5. Kelly McCullough

    You’re welcome, Phiala, glad you found it helpful.

    And no worries on the teasing, I can take some gentle poking from friends with nothing more than a wink and a smile.

  6. 6. Phiala

    *grin* Sorry, I wasn’t being serious (about the teasing). It was certainly all in fun!

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    Got it. grins back I do sometimes wish online conversation carried tone better. Dry humor and teasing are never as clear as I’d like.

Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.



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