Friday, January 15, 2010

How I Write a Novel

Last post I wrote a bit about my struggle to write again after chemotherapy, and how different my process was compared to how I wrote before chemo. Now that I'm on my second novel since that period, I'm noticing my writing process edging back toward the old pattern. I made the decision to write WILLA as linear as I could manage, just to see if I can do it. I'm no rule stickler and won't adhere to this plan if it starts to hinder, or squelches the joy. I still say do what works, whatever gets those words onto the screen... today.

As to my method, if you're at all interested, read on....

I can best liken my method of getting those words out to laying railroad Tracks... while the Train is coming down the line behind me. Usually not very far behind me. In the beginning, after I've mulled over story ideas and characters and started a bit of research, I begin jotting down notes (nothing so formal as to be called an outline or synopsis), about scenes or characters or plot turns I feel pretty sure need to happen in order to tell the story. I place these notes in a file in roughly story order, but it's hard to know what that should be (should character A be introduced before characters B and C? I insert the corresponding notes where I think they should go. I can change them later).

Concurrent with these rough plot notes, I start creating character files, in which I write everything about the main characters I can think of, appearance (including a photo if I can find an actor who closely resembles them), attitudes, hang-ups, strengths, back stories, and the core issue that's going to drive their story arc through the book (if I even know what it is at this point; often it's still hazy). I do this to a lesser degree for secondary characters. Even some minor ones.

For several weeks I tweak and modify all these files, while doing historical research that helps me add to the plot out line, and form a time line for the story, and also for the back story (or those events that have most impacted the characters and made them who they are by the time they show up in the novel). I call this part Laying Tracks.

At some point in the process I looked up and see a Train coming. This is the Story, and it means I better start writing it. Now. This is the first big leap of faith for me. My characters aren't yet fully formed. Some of their motivations are hazy. There are gaping holes in the plot. I haven't done the half of the research I'll need to do. But that can't be helped. While laying the Tracks I've also, subconsciously, been stoking the fires in that Train engine and like it or not it's on the move. I can see that first scene. I hear Willa's voice, I see what she sees and what's making her heart ache, and what she wants but is afraid to admit or hope for. And I see what's in her path keeping her from getting to the place she thinks she needs to be.

This is a wonderful, frightening, energizing moment. For a day or two I abandon the Tracks and write. But that only stokes that engine to make the Train go faster. Before it derails, I jump off and lay more Track. I plot out the second chapter (which my subconscious has been working on while I wrote the first few scenes), told from a different character's POV, and maybe a little of the third chapter, too. And way on down the line I see something that needs to occur, so I jot that down in the outline, which at odd moments has been growing in detail as I research, and as notions come to me.

Then I rush back and stoke the engine fires again before the Train comes to a complete halt. Chapter Two gets written. Then I go back to laying Tracks for Chapter Three, Four. I'm getting a better sense of these characters now, who they are, their backstory, what sort of people they will grow into over the course of the story. I get a few 5 x 7 cards and write down the revised Character Arcs for all my main characters, and some secondary ones. I'll keep those in a prominent place on my desk to be sure I'm staying true to those arcs, or to change them if the character shows me I had them all wrong to begin with.

If I simply can't figure out a character, I'll write a journal entry for them, in first person, and let them vent and whine about the unfairness of life, if that's what they need to do, or just spill their heart and their hopes out, knowing no one is ever going to read what they're writing (I don't count). I fully expect that by the time this Train and Track all come together at the end of the line, I'll still be discovering who these characters are, and the process will continue through the editing phase.

This is more or less How I Write a Novel, as of January 15, 2010. If it sounds exhausting and unstructured, it is. It's also exhilarating and absorbing.

Anyone else have a method remotely similar?


  1. Oh I wish I had your discipline, I am a seat of my pants type, I have decided. I am a runaway train and I do need to get in some sort of order. You certainly have a good system and thanks for sharing.

  2. Glynis, it doesn't feel disciplined to me while I'm at it, trust me. :) I feel like I fall somewhere in between seat-of-the-pants and plotter. I wish I could plot the story more thoroughly, but I'll be halfway through it and know more or less where I mean to end up, but still have no idea of many of the turns I'll need to take to get there. I like to have a general plan, with room for surprises.

    But really, whatever works for you, don't sweat it. Whatever helps you show up each day, get the words down and enjoy the process. I'm right glad there isn't just one way to write a novel.

  3. Wow, what an interesting post! I am always so curious about other's writing methods :) I used to be a reporter (and reporters always fancy themselves closeted fiction writers!)and its always inspiring to see how others get the words to flow.
    And thanks for coming to visit me and your sweet comments on my art blog! Its never too late to start painting again :)

  4. Heather, I wish there were two of me, one to be a painter, one to be a writer.

  5. I enjoyed reading about your process. It sounds similar to mine, now that I'm writing on the computer, rather than in notebooks, I now am taking a more logical approach. I do a lot of back tracking - backwards plotting. I also write many out of sequence scenes as they pop into my head. I plot, plan, and write, all at the same time without an outline, but often a timeline (if that makes any sense.