Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Writing A Novel

Okay, that title should probably really be, On Writing THIS Novel, since each one of them ends up needing something a little different.

But basically, since it is the beginning of a new year and I am starting a new novel, I thought it might be fun/interesting/entertaining to kind of do a loosey-goosey year long workshop and show what tools I use when writing a novel and when I apply them and what I do when I get stuck. Some of this stuff is elsewhere on the blog, but this will present everything in (relative) chronological order.

Or is that too writerly oriented for the readers who stop by here? Maybe I’ll put up a poll to see…

Right now I’m kind of puttering in the pre-writing stage. I’m giving myself a couple of weeks off of the actual producing pages part, but I’m getting ready in other ways, mostly seeding the ground of my subconscious.

First, of course, is to clear the decks of all the detritus of the last book, file away all my loose papers and notebooks and mss printouts. Not only is this good feng shui and organizational practice, it’s like erasing the chalkboard in my writing brain.

Next, I gather all the research materials I know I’ll need. I will always need more, but I won’t know which ones until I get farther in. I begin reading the research books and taking notes. I also go around the house looking for and collecting any and all random notes I may have made about this particular book and read through them once.

I also usually have a vague kernel of a sense of my main characters which I will be able to dig around in and coax into some sort of personage. Although with this particular book, I do have a decent loose sense of who they are as people since they were secondary characters in the last book. This is also the stage wherein I pull out two fresh, shiny unused notebooks. Not sure why I always start with two; sometimes one is for my official ideas and the second one is for playing around with ideas, or sometimes one is for the stuff I know is absolute, not-changeable, and the other is more of an evolving canvas.

Even though I still consider myself to be in the pre-writing phase, the next thing I need to do is to get a sense of the shape and heft of the book. Some people determine that as they go along but I find it really helps to get it firm in my mind now. Part of this may be because I write books of such different lengths and complexities, from 20,000 words to 135,000 words, long, complex books with five acts and lots of twists versus short, early books with linear plots, only a few layers, and a handful of twists. It’s like knowing whether you’re going to make a single, layer 8” x 8” cake or a triple layer wedding cake. Knowing that up front helps my brain gather the materials it will need to create something of that magnitude, or conversely, ignore things that are less central to the smaller sized story.

The tool I use for this is a template I’ve adapted from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT book, which I highly, highly recommend. At this early stage of the process, this is the perfect template for me as it is vague enough that I don’t feel forced to ink in actual scenes and turning points yet, it mostly just reminds me what each section of the book should feel like and encompass. A brainstorming template, if you will. And while it might seem a bit left-brained to bring in at this stage, I have learned that by seeding some soft, left-brained stuff in early, it actually becomes incorporated by my right brain's more creative process.

The template looks something like this:

Setup 1-40

Catalyst 48

Debate 48-100

Break into Two 100

Fun and Games 100-200

Midpoint 200

BadGuys Closing In 200-300

All is Lost 300

Dark Night of Soul 300-340

Break into Three 340

Finale/Climax /Resolution 340-400

Those are the target page numbers I’m using for a 400 page mss, but if you were working on a 50,000 word novel, you’d just cut those numbers in half. Next time I’ll show you how I fill that in and begin massaging it into the material for the book.

And what about you guys? Do you have a pre-writing phase to your process or do you just jump in? If so, what does it include? Do you have a new book you’re starting this year? An old one you’ve vowed to tackle? Care to tell us about it…


Deva Fagan said...

I look forward to hearing more! I love hearing about people's creative processes! That template is intriguing, and I am interested to see how you fill it.

I just started the actual writing of my new project at the beginning of the month, after wrestling to get enough of a grip on the story to start it. I ended up using a four-act structure as a template (from a post by Jennifer Crusie that Cheryl Klein mentioned: ) and it helped me so much in wrapping my head around the book and figuring out what the key elements were.

Mae said...

Mine? Well, I get this idea. Like, I'm tired and I want to do a story. I feel like doing acting. Logically, I die. I can't really die. And that's how the end of a book came about. Other times it's a character, a plot- most often an image. Sometimes sentences.

I let it incubate a bit. Fully form. And then I write and it forms even more. Sometimes they surprise me- a free lunch has to become a major character!

Sometimes drawing characters helps me form them. Right now, on my desk, writing-related objects are a sketchbook- on which there is currently a portrait of a minor character named Felonidae, or Cat- and colored pencils. I generally stick with keeping my ideas in documents. My desk is messy enough as is!

Robin L said...

Deva, I'm trying to think how to fill it without creating spoilers. That'll be the hard part. I might have to use an earlier book that's been out a while. Or make up something totally new just for example purposes.

And YES. Jenny Crusie has a TON of amazing information. She's an incredible teacher. I was lucky enough to be a part of her online workshop for a number of years and cannot even tell you how very much I learned!

Mae, I agree that incubating is a very valuable part of the process! And I love knowing what's on your desk! Very fun.

Becky Levine said...

Oh, I love when you do these posts. And I like "Fun and Games" as a section label much more than "That Miserable Middle." I think I'm stealing that for myself, with your permission. :)

Anonymous said...

Mrs. LaFevers, I have a question.

When I start to write a novel and get to the middle of the beginning, I start to get really bored with it and want to get to one of the exciting scenes of the story that have already formed in my head. Have you experienced this before? If you have a suggestion on how to handle this problem, it would help me so much!

By the way, I can't wait for the Dark Teen Assasin and Theo Four to come out!