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THE FIRST STEPS IN WRITING A NOVEL

February 23, 2016

by David Chill

With the publication of my sixth book, Nickel Package, I wanted to jot down some thoughts on my writing process. I’ve been helped by some terrific writers over the years, and I hope this essay can help others who share an interest in fiction. Now that Nickel Package has been published, and is doing well, I am hard at work on my seventh book. But getting to this point has not been easy.

Many people want to write the Great American Novel. If you like reading great books, the thought of writing one yourself is something that’s always on the horizon. I love reading murder mysteries, and the possibility of creating a memorable whodunit propelled me into this field. Coming up with story ideas is the easy part. Putting these ideas into a full-length novel however, is another issue altogether.

The best place for a new writer to start is to focus on something you feel passionate about. While you can’t ignore the old adage to write about what you know, there are limits to that approach. We only know so much! New authors should concentrate their writing on those things they feel strongly about. It’s important to remember that when writing a book, you will be living with the story in a very intimate way for many months — or possibly years. Having passionate feelings about your subject matter will get you through those dark days when you are troubled by the self-doubt and writer’s block that most writers have to endure at some point.

For me, I have always been fascinated with the subject of siblings, and that is deeply personal. A long time ago, my older brother passed away in a car accident when he was just 24 years old and that left an indelible mark on my life and on my writing. Oddly, I did not intentionally set out to write about my brother in my first novel, Post Pattern. And it wasn’t until I was finished with the first draft did I fully comprehend the personal implications of the story. In many ways, the exploration of sibling relationships in my novels is an opportunity for me to better come to grips with my brother’s death. And as Joan Didion described it in The Year of Magical Thinking, a goal of understanding a loved one’s death is sometimes our way of trying to bring them back to life.

Before I begin writing a novel, I create a 24 point outline. This details the 24 important events that occur during the story. If you go back and review many great literary works, there are often 24 events which push they story forward. This is helpful to me because I am a writer who needs a certain amount of structure. I can’t sit down to write and just let the story go where it goes. My 24 point outline normally starts out at 3 or 4 pages and is a living, breathing document. By the time the novel is finished, I’ve added lots of details and nuance, and the outline often mushrooms to 15 or 20 pages. This outline gives me the detail I need to soldier on through the story, and provides a trail that leads me out of the “second act wilderness” and into the climax of the plot.

I typically don’t sketch out character descriptions; I simply think a lot about who they are and what makes them do what they do. My protagonist, Burnside, lives by a code which is very clear as to what is right and what is wrong. Burnside has a particular distaste for lies and injustice, and is willing to take the necessary steps to make amends for that which is unfair. He recognizes that you may not be able to change the world but you can change your corner of it. The events in my books present some of the randomness and unfairness that are inherent in everyday life. Some people seem to have everything go their way and others appear to get the short end of the stick. And yet the world frequently take steps to invoke a balance, which often — but not always — can even the score. What Burnside does is help this process move along a little quicker.

Regarding the actual writing, I am one of those people who gets easily distracted and has trouble concentrating. I follow the guideline Oscar Wilde once employed, which is to say that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. I realize I may need to spend six hours procrastinating just so I can get in one or two solid hours of writing. But those one or two hours produce some extremely good work. And whether it takes combing through the internet for bits of trivia or simply daydreaming before I can ease into the actual writing, I know this is simply part of my process. Forcing myself to sit and stare at the screen does not yield great results.

So that’s the basics of how to start writing a novel, at least from my perspective. Every writer finds their own path and the method in which they feel most comfortable. For me, this is the system that has worked best. And I’ll leave you with a final thought that has served me well as I sit down each day to work. A writer is nothing more than a reader who sits down at a keyboard.

About the author:
David Chill writes classic hard-boiled mysteries with a contemporary edge. Post Pattern was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Press contest for new private eye mystery writers, and is David Chill’s first work of fiction. Post Pattern has been highly praised for the intriguing plot, memorable characters and crackling dialogue. David Chill has written six novels in the Burnside Mystery series (with a seventh book coming soon!) and all are available in e-book form through Amazon.com. The first four novels in the series are available in paperback. The most recent work is Nickel Package.

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3 Comments
  1. MITCH MARSHALL permalink

    THIS IS THE FIRST TIME I`VE WRITTEN AN AUTHOR, BUT I HAVE BEEN TAKEN BY YOUR NOVELS (I`VE READ THEM ALL). I`M 88 YEARS OLD AND BEEN BLESSED WITH A GOOD MIND AND GOOD HEALTH. I READ A LOT OF DIFFERENT AUTHORS AND CONSIDER YOU IN THE TOP TIER. BETWEEN READING AND WATCHING SPORTS ON TV THAT TAKES UP MOST OF MY DAY.

    YOUR BOOKS KIND OF REMIND ME OF ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS HARLAN COBEN WHOSE FIRST BOOKS WERE MOSTLY ABOUT A SPORTS AGENT NAMED MYRON BOLATOR.

    MY DAUGHTER GOT HER MBA AT USC AND I`VE GOTTEN HER TO READ YOUR BOOKS.

    I`LL LOOK FORWARD TO HEARING OF YOUR NEXT BOOK.

    MITCH MARSHALL

  2. Bob Mann permalink

    Thank you for these great books. I love the play on USC/UCLA!
    You finally named UCLA something other than LAU!
    Having gone to both, I can appreciate the humor. Of course when it comes to football and creativity, nothing matches USC!

    I am also very much interested in your development of the characters. You really define them well, whether antagonist or protagonist! As a psychotherapist in private practice, I have run across so many different and interesting people. Some of them fit criteria as full on personality disorders.

    Thank you so much for your work!

    Bob Mann, MSW, LCSW USC’85

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