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How I Write: Structuring a Book

I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember, but it took years before I was able to complete anything that I was happy with. As a child and teenager, I started new projects regularly but didn’t know how to shape them into a novel. I stuck with fragments and short stories for a while, always wanting to create something longer.

Undertaking a Creative Writing masters in my early twenties gave me the time and focus to complete a novel, but it wasn’t very good. After that, I wrote several novels with confusing or boring parts and unsatisfying resolutions.

It took another decade of practice until I was able to craft books that felt engaging and complete, and what really helped my learning process was writing mysteries. These types of stories have a clear structure. I currently write two series of mysteries, with novels, novellas and short stories in them, and though I feel fairly confident in how to structure my ideas, I’m always learning. My current guide is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Genres, which is huge but highly recommended.

If you’re hoping to stretch your writing to something longer, it might help to take a look at how I do it. Learning other writers’ processes is one of my favourite ways of finding tips for new techniques.

My novels are 30-40 chapters, depending on length, and I like to write the first two or three without any plan. This should ideally get me to the murder in a mystery, and I will have introduced all the key characters. While writing, I make note of the interesting things that come up in the story. For example, in my most recent book, I mentioned the Cragg Vale Coiners and Tom Bell. These historical characters are on my mind as they’re from the town I just moved to. When they appeared in my book, I considered how they were connected. They’re both related to stolen money, so I wondered if I could feature that in the novel in a more significant way.

Once I have this opening section, I try to shape the rest of my ideas for the book using a beat sheet. There are lots of versions of these online (I like this structure from Blake Snyder), and I find them very helpful as a way to plan the major elements of a novel. Beat sheets aren’t for everyone, but when I applied one to a book that wasn’t working, it made my plot better. Now, I save time and motivation by using one every time.

I follow my plan to write the rest of the book, being careful to replan things if I find my ideas straying too far from the original. Then I let the book rest (I don’t even glance at it) for a few weeks, before reading it through again and making notes on which sections to cut or expand. The more times I’ve done this, the more comfortable I’ve got with deleting and rewriting huge sections of the book. I’ll do anything needed to make my writing better.

I hope this peek into my process helps you think about structuring your writing, whether you’re just starting out or trying your first novel.