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How I Write: The Story Bible

November 21st, 2010

When all the research and brainstorming is done, the first thing I do when I sit myself down at the keyboard to embark on my next novel is to come up with a story bible for the book. This is something that people often create for films and TV shows or even shared-world novels or anthologies. It’s a document in which you set down the details of the world so that you can refer to it when you need to.

My story bibles are fairly short. I write up an entry for each major character that’s maybe a half-page long, often less. Then I break down the plot into a chapter-by-chapter outline with a paragraph of text describing what should happen in each chapter.

I started out writing tie-in novels, and when you pitch one of these to a publisher, the editor often requires a document something like this so that he or she has some kind of idea about what you’re planning to write. After all, there are lots of reasons why an editor might reject a novel, and it’s better to kill off a bad idea when all you’ve developed for it is an outline rather than having written an entire book. Still, I’ve used roughly the same procedure for my original novels too.

[By the way, my first original novel — Amortals — just debuted in the UK and Australia on November 4, and it's available worldwide as an ebook too. If you want print copy in the US, that's due out December 28. Please don't be shy. Check it out.]

Having a story bible before you start the actual writing means that you know something about the characters already, what’s going to happen to them, and how they’re going to react. This helps eliminate writer’s block. You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to write about next — and whether it’s all going to manage to gel into a decent story in the end. You already know.

However, I never feel bound to adhere to the story bible. Writing is an act of discovery in which you peel back the layers of the story as you write it down. Sometimes a better idea comes along while I’m writing the book, and I don’t let the outline hold me back from pursuing it.

Instead, I trust my instincts and follow the new path for a chapter or two. When the edge of the rush from that discovery starts to blunt, I stop and re-outline the rest of the book from the point that I’ve reached. I often wind up using large chunks of the previous outline, but this sometimes requires some inspired juggling on my part to make it all happen.

This happens to me every time, and I’ve come to expect it. I don’t fear it. I enjoy it. Better ideas mean a better book, right? Even if I’ve had to re-outline a book three or four times from a series of sequential new starting points. In the end, it’s well worth it.

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  1. Dr. Curiosity
    November 21st, 2010 at 20:00 | #1

    Doing that kind of pre-writing for a story – and revising it appropriately as the story unfolds – seems to be a really helpful way of building a narrative and keeping it cohesive. I’ve only really used the technique for game-related writing work thus far, but I can definitely see how it’d extend to novel-writing use.

    What I’ve seen of Amortals so far looks intriguing, and no end of good praise from people whose opinions I respect. I don’t know if UK/Australia distribution extends as far as New Zealand, but I’ll be checking with some local retailers all the same.

  2. November 21st, 2010 at 20:23 | #2

    Thanks! I have no idea about New Zealand distribution, sadly. If you read ebooks, you can pick Amortals up that way now. Otherwise, if you do find it in a local store, let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

  3. Alma Alexander
    November 24th, 2010 at 16:36 | #3

    I do THAT, and the real book never gets written. My back brain would ask, why bother? I’ve done all the writing already. The story’s there. Why waste any more time on it…?

    I know that there are two kinds of writers in the world – the kind that can’t write without a story bible, and the kind that can’t write WITH one. I’m the latter. I find out what happens in a story the same way a reader does – by watching what’s coming out from underneath my fingettips as I’m typing it. It’s fraught, sure, and risky, and yes you can get mired in side-trips you never meant to take – but hell, that’s what the rewrite and the edit are for. As for writing the actual story, the only way I can do it, the only way I know how to do it, is by opening the stable door and letting the storyhorse loose and then trying to follow as best I am able…

  4. Dr. Curiosity
    November 27th, 2010 at 19:35 | #4

    @Matt Forbeck : It looks like it’s available here already for NZ$24.95 (US$18.72) through Whitcoulls, one of the major book chains, and through some other smaller/independent stores. In the process of making inquries, one online retailer now also knows how your name is spelled ;-)

    I don’t have any useful device for reading ebooks on yet, so I’m going to go and get myself a dead tree version for reading over Christmas.

  5. November 28th, 2010 at 19:41 | #5

    That’s certainly another way to do it, Alma. As the title says, this is how I write, but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. I prefer to have a map that shows me the way toward my destination. Others like to just wander and trust that they’ll have an interesting journey.

    I also mentioned that I always deviate from the outline should a better path open before me. The outline is just that, not the finished document by a long way, and it leaves me (at least) plenty more to discover in the course of the actual writing.

  6. November 28th, 2010 at 21:20 | #6

    @Dr. Curiosity That’s excellent. Thanks for the update. I hope you enjoy it!

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