This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, a publication.

I’ve been writing long fiction since the mid-late 90s. In all that time, I’ve collected a great deal of strong evidence in support of the idea that there is a specific way to write novels that almost invariably produces better novels than any other process. I could lay out all of that evidence in the form of a persuasive nonfiction article, but because I think the strongest argument for this process is its results, I’ll simply walk you through it. I’m confident that, if you follow this process in your own work, you’ll start to see many connections that you may have never seen before—connections that make a lot of sense and dramatically improve your long-form storytelling skills. I’ve used this process to coach more than 100 novelists of varying experience levels, and they’ve all had tremendously positive things to say about it.

Disclaimer: This guide is a heavily condensed, high-level overview of a process that can take hundreds, even thousands of hours. To exhaustively cover every facet of this process, I’d have to write an entire book or a whole series of articles. In the name of brevity and accessibility, I must omit most of the finer details here.

Next to each section heading, you’ll see a number expressed as a percentage. This number is a rough estimate of how much of the total time and energy invested in the entire project should be devoted to that stage of the process. For example, if the whole novel takes you 1,000 hours from start to finish (a typical amount of time), and the brain dump phase is 5%, you should spend about 50 of those 1,000 hours on the brain dump. There is some flexibility in these ratios, it’s not a hard-and-fast formula.

Step 1: Brain Dump (5%)

Virtually all novels begin with a single idea or a small set of related ideas. The first thing to do is to figure out whether those ideas can support a story of 100,000 to 300,000 words, and the way to start figuring that out is by doing a brain dump. Begin by writing down anything and everything that comes to mind about the story you want to tell, in no particular order. This could be character notes, ideas about settings, theme or plot possibilities, rough sketches of action scenes—anything at all.

You’ll be tempted to organize this data somehow. Don’t. That comes later, in the outline phase. Just barf everything onto the page as it comes to you. Trying to organize these fragments of thoughts at this stage will only distract you from the objective of this step: to get all of the raw data out of your head and into permanent form, on paper, so you can then see all the pieces and start playing with them.

Once you feel like you’ve gotten it all out, take a long break, at least a week. Then come back to your brain dump document and see if you have anything new to add to it. If you do, then take another long break when you’re done, and come back again later. Repeat as many times as necessary until you can’t think of anything else to add. If, at the end of this step, you strongly believe that there’s a good story here, you can move on to the next step.

Step 2: Choose a Theme and Plot-Theme (5%)

Although this is a small portion of the overall process in terms of time invested, it is by far the most important part. Don’t rush this. Just as the theme makes or breaks a nonfiction piece, your theme and plot-theme make or break your novel. To whatever extent your theme or plot-theme aren’t dialed in perfectly, the whole novel will suffer.

A novel’s theme is the summation of its abstract meaning. A theme can be overtly philosophical, implicitly philosophical, or (mostly) non-philosophical (all stories deal with ideas and values to some extent). For example, the theme of The Count of Monte Cristo is “the crucial difference between justice and vengeance.”

A novel’s plot-theme is the central conflict that determines the events of the plot. It is a summary of the concrete events that serve to illustrate the novel’s abstract theme. The plot-theme of The Count of Monte Cristo is “a conflicted man’s struggle for justice.” Virtually every significant action that Edmond Dantès takes during the story illustrates some aspect of the novel’s theme—the difference between justice and vengeance. This relationship between a novel’s theme and plot-theme is crucial to understand.

It’s important to note that, although a nonfiction theme is a complete sentence, fiction themes and plot-themes are not complete sentences. There are several reasons for this; I’ll cover these (and much more about themes and plot-themes) in a future article.

Step 3: Outline (50%)

That “50%” up there isn’t a typo. My fiction coaching clients often look at me like I’ve lost my mind when I tell them that at least half of the entire novel-writing process should be devoted to creating a robust outline.

I say this because the act of writing good prose—the actual text of the novel that readers will eventually read—is a subconscious activity, not a conscious one. Most fiction writers have been “in the zone” — a state in which the words of a manuscript or short story seem to come out almost automatically — but most writers find this difficult or impossible to turn on at will.

If you’ve done the outline well and correctly, you can be “in the zone” all the time once you start writing the manuscript. It’s a great feeling.

An A+ novel outline is long and highly detailed. It covers every major event, every character’s motives, every major choice that the characters make, and every consequence of those choices. Ensure that every major event—every instance of the plot-theme in action—illustrates the theme in some way.

In other words, a great outline is the tool that enables you to immediately and fully answer any question that anyone might conceivably ask about any aspect of your story. It’s the road map that you will use once you start “driving”—that is, writing the manuscript. It should come as no surprise that, if you start driving with an incomplete road map (or no map at all), your trip will be very difficult.

Writing a novel outline at this level of detail takes a long, long time. It’s a lot of thinking, introspecting, writing down notes and crossing them out, rambling into a voice recorder, and trying to stitch narrative threads together into a complete tapestry that makes perfect sense. You’ll hit many roadblocks. You’ll have to abandon ideas that seemed good, delete big chunks of text, and start all over, probably more than once. But I promise you, it’s worth doing. Eventually, as long as you stay disciplined and keep at it, the pieces will start to fall into place. You’ll know it when it happens. You’ll realize, with full clarity and certainty, that everything now fits together nicely, all the important questions have satisfying answers, and you’ve got a tight, compelling story that deserves to be told.

I won’t lie to you, the outline phase sucks at times. It can be a slog. But your future self—the version of you who has to write the manuscript—will thank you for powering through it.

Resist the temptation to start writing the manuscript before you’ve had that moment of clarity, before you know with certainty that your outline is done. Jumping the gun here will cause more problems than it solves.

Step 4: Get the Story Out (20%)

If you’ve put together a complete and solid outline, congratulations—the hardest part of writing a novel is done and behind you! The first draft of your manuscript should now be relatively quick and painless because your conscious mind has already built a smooth, level road that your subconscious mind can drive on easily and comfortably, at a consistent speed.

Just as you were tempted to organize information during your brain dump, you’ll be tempted to edit your first draft as you go. Again, don’t. Just get the story out, as I like to say. You can correct major typos or fill in previously undiscovered plot holes as you go, but other than that, just accept the fact that your rough draft is rough and keep writing. (Filling in truly massive plot holes may require returning to your outline and fixing them there before you come back to the manuscript.)

If you find yourself struggling with writer’s block or deeply dissatisfied with the way the pieces of the story are coming together, that’s usually a sign that there’s still something wrong or missing in your outline. Take a break for a while, then go back to the outline and scan carefully for problems. Find and fix them before coming back to the manuscript.

Step 5: Take a Long Break

If you’re anything like me, by the time you type the last word of the last chapter in your first draft, you will be thoroughly sick of this story. You may feel like you never want to see it again. That’s normal and healthy. It will pass.

I find that one month is the bare minimum amount of time to let the first draft marinate. Writing a novel is extremely mentally taxing. Take the break you’ve earned so that, later, you can start editing with fresh eyes and replenished willpower.

Step 6: Self-Editing (10%)

Some writers claim that nobody is objective enough to edit their own work properly. Based on more than a quarter-century of writing and editing experience, I find this claim to be entirely baseless. Self-editing is necessary but not sufficient for a great novel.

Once you’ve fully recovered from your first draft, read through your entire manuscript slowly. Do your best to pretend that you’ve never read this story before. In fact, pretend it was written by someone you mildly dislike, so you have an extra incentive to look for problems. When you get to the point where you can say, “Wow, someone I don’t like wrote this story, but I have to admit that it’s excellent,” that’s how you know you’ve got a revised draft that’s ready to proceed to the next stage of editing.

Self-editing almost invariably takes multiple rounds. Take breaks at least a few weeks long between rounds. When even your most eagle-eyed scans can find no major problems in your draft, you’ve done all you can in this phase.

Step 7: Get a Top-Tier Editor (10%)

No matter how good a writer you are, and no matter how great you are at self-editing, a qualified editor (who is not you) will always make your work better than it otherwise would have been. Finding an editor who is both highly qualified and who works well with you is a skill all its own. (It’s yet another thing on my list of guides to write.) For now, let’s assume you’ve already pulled off that Herculean task.

An excellent novel editor is compassionately vicious. I’ve worked with far too many editors who are so afraid of hurting the writer’s feelings (or of losing a paying client) that they fail to point out major problems in the manuscript. A top-shelf editor pulls no punches—they’ll identify every potential problem they can find, but they’ll do it gently and constructively, in a way that makes you believe that their goal is to help you publish the best story you possibly can. In other words, a superb novel editor will tear your work apart as an act of creation, not as an act of destruction.

You may be tempted to skip ahead to this step before you’ve fully completed the self-editing phase. Once again, resist that temptation. Don’t hire a professional editor until you’ve self-edited your manuscript to the point that it is, in your estimation, the best it can possibly be. (It’s not—it’s just the best you can possibly make it without help.) If you hire an editor prematurely, you’ll probably find their advice more confusing than clarifying, and you’ll end up paying them way more than necessary because of all the extra time they spend fixing things you could have fixed on your own.

Proofreading is crucial, but don’t bother until you and your editor both agree that the manuscript is otherwise good to go from both developmental and line-editing perspectives.

There you have it—an agonizingly difficult, painfully long process distilled down to just over 2,000 words. I think you’ll find that these general principles, executed slowly and carefully in this order, make for a better final product than any other novel-writing process can produce, especially in terms of consistency across multiple novels. Of course, this brief guide leaves many technical questions unanswered, but I’ll cover some of those questions in future guides that will be much narrower in scope.