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How I Write: The Story Bible

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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