It seems there are two kinds of writers: those who plan, and those who write on the seat of their pants.
I would love to write synopsis, theme, the backgrounds of each character, the main events of each chapter before I ever begin, but that just won’t work for me.
When I start a novel I only have a germ: a snatch of dialogue, an incident, a theme. I don’t even know what kind of characters will pop up, which will prove to be major and even where the setting of dramatic scenes will be. But despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D. I’m an irrevocably, irredemiable pantser.
Working on the small germ, something happens to the character speaking or experiencing the incident. That turns into a chapter. At the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but not further. By about the fourth chapter something emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters.
The novel outline falls into place when I know the ending. Usually that’s before I get halfway. Then it’s a matter of laying out the remaining ground, including character backgrounds, needed for reaching that end.
All my fiction has one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way.
There’s no great plan but interesting things gradually emerge.
Here’s an example of my writing process. A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII) began with one tiny thread. An elderly man told me his school had been evacuated to a village where after milk and biscuits, the children were walked around the village in a crocodile seeking billets. A tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) this man was the last to be chosen.
I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning child. He was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment , humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.
Consequently, a cousin for Billy surfaced. He would experience these negative emotions and be a psychological bully to make Billy’s life a misery. I made him artistic and physically frail. However, this Kenneth would need to be a charmer for the adults to be blind to the bullying.
Now I had a theme for my novel: the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by the two cousins in their developing rivalry.
Billy then needed a secret symbol of power to support him. I hit upon a Cossack sabre, that then needed a background story of its own. This led me to research the Russian/Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. And I realised that the sabre icon would need to filter right through the story.
I am not recommending this approach to writing, just showing how a novel can unfold as the narrative continues, and in this case, it was a trilogy that emerged.
Are you are writer? Consider which kind you are, planner or pantser.
Are you starting to write a novel? Yes, it’s hard. Really, it’s best just to press on with it rather than tell people about it. There will be time for that when you’re finished.
Here are 10 points to consider. You can waste so much time in the early stages of starting a novel when you should be just getting that important first draft down. Before listing these, one thing that will help you above all others, is to buy Scrivener. At around £45.00 it’s the best purchase I’ve ever made and if I’d had it years ago, I would have had a longer life and lived more of it! It organizes all your writing and avoids all those hours searching for previous drafts, short notes you’d made on a character or setting and so on. It will considerably help your structure. You can even trial it free.
Let’s say you’re well past the ‘thinking about writing a novel.’ You have the germ of the plot and have written enough to imagine the finished work in your hand. Download the trial of Scrivener and start building your chapters, or scenes within the chapters. (iTunes has how-to videos).
Now consider these ten points.
1. Write your target quota each day before entering any social media site. Social media diverts you, it is time-consuming and will seriously cut in to your allotted writing time. Scrivener provides a progress signpost, showing how well you are meeting your target.
2. Write from your instinct before reading any writing advice on style. This is to ensure it is your voice that emerges on the page. Texts on the craft of writing are best read before or between writing novels. The analytical task is best kept separate from the creative one of starting to write a novel.
3. Similarly, only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section. It is your novel from your imagination and experience. Others’ views and suggestions when you are writing the first draft will confuse that first push to get the story down.
4. Only seek feedback from other writers. Readers’ views are wonderful, but only when your novel is published or ready to publish.
5. Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through. You might write the end at this point.
6. Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly. Feel their conflicts and listen in to their conversations.
7. When you are ready to read your first draft, print it out. Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue. Scrivener allows for you to mark your chapters or scenes with colours according to how near they are to ‘finished.’
8. Beyond halfway, read the first and last lines of every chapter. This is a way of seeing a ‘want to read on’ for your future readers.
9. Your own voice and writing style will be uppermost in your mind. Read a highly rated novel – with a very different plot from yours – while you take a break. High quality writing is privilege to read. Each such work has some impact on your own developing skill.
10. Care about your characters and write their future… and above all, get on with your writing NOW