Saturday, October 31, 2009

How I write a novel

I'm starting to get my hands around the process that I use to write a novel.  I do it in stages.

First I have an idea.  Whenever I have an idea I try to type up the nucleus of the idea so I can think about it later--usually a paragraph or three.  I have about 3 dozen ideas that I liked enough to write down.

An idea may be very sketchy.  One of my favorite ideas is really short right now:
"A protest is going on outside a courthouse.  Inside a research scientist is being tried on bio-terrorism charges for creating and releasing a virus that alters people's brains to make them immune to the effects of narcotics.  Crowds calling him a hero argue with crowds calling him the devil.  A high-school student with a camera interviews people on both sides, including finding family members on both sides.  The doctor is found not guilty.  He comes out and is assassinated by angry drug lords."

Second I try to think of a title.  I've read that other authors will not even bothering writing down an idea if they do not immediately have a title.  I'm not good at titles, so I assume that the title will change over time.  But I'm not going to start actually working on an idea until I have some sort of title that I feel good about.

For the novel I am working on right now the original title was:
"The Problem with Miracle Cures"
That was shortened to just:
"The Problem with Miracles"
And then changed to:
"The Trouble with Miracles"
And there is a good chance that it will change again.  But I liked "The Problem with Miracle Cures" enough to get started on the novel based upon that.

Characters & Plot
Third I take the idea and flesh it out with a few names for the main characters and some general outlines of the action of the story.  The main characters each get a paragraph or two describing who they are and what motivates them.

The plot will just be a sequence of sentence fragments like, "Find the diamond.  Get shot.  Wake up in hospital."  This list of sentence fragments may go on for two or three pages.  At this point I could probably sit down and tell you the gist of the story and why I think this character would do that, etc.

Scene Descriptions
Fourth, I go back through my plot points and organize the fragments into scenes.  For instance, "Find the diamond." and "Get shot." might happen in the same scene.

Then I go back through my scenes and flesh out a good paragraph or two description of exactly what happens, where is it, who is involved, etc.  If there are important plot points I add those in where I think of them like, "Barbara refuses to explain why she shot Paul."

I do this from start to finish, in natural order.

I think that a novel should have between 80 and 120 scenes.

Someone could read this and understand the story reasonably well.

Timeline, Themes, & Cycles
Fifth, I draw up a timeline of the story.  I may not put specific dates in the book, but I want to have specific dates in mind.  I need to plot out the seasons and make sure the seasons change appropriately in the scenes.  I want to map out the holidays and other telltales that I can use to give a sense of the time that has passed between scenes.

A book should have a central theme, and it should have supporting themes.  The central theme should be consistent throughout.  The supporting themes should change.  The supporting themes should follow natural progressions, like the stages of grieving or the stages of growth.  This is the time when I write out the themes and plot those changes on the timeline.

Some things should happen in cycles.  The cycles shouldn't be simple and obvious, but they should be there providing a framework of understanding the book and interpreting the themes.  Like in a war book there might be a theme of 'escalation only kills more civilians'; and so the book should have clearly visible cycles of escalation and each one should kill more civilians.

I also like cycles that give the writing itself some structure, similar to a formal poetic structure.  This can help give the reader the sense of the familiar without (hopefully) being redundant.  So I might lay out each chapter with 9 scenes:

  • Long scene with good news.
  • Short scene with a mystery.
  • Short scene with bad news.
  • Medium scene with good news.
  • Long scene with a mystery.
  • Medium scene with bad news.
  • Short scene with a big surprise that changes everything.

The good news, bad news, and mystery should be different each time.  Some mysteries will be stronger than others.  Some good news will be better than other good news.  Etc.  But, if that is the pattern that I pick then that pattern should hold for each chapter.  The biggest value of this is that it helps me keep the book balanced, so it doesn't get too sad in some places or too happy in others.  It also helps provide a basis for foreshadowing.  And when I want to throw in real surprises I can vary from that structure to make the surprise feel out of place.

Action and Dialog
Sixth, I step through each scene and write out the activity and dialog.
Patrolman Jennings stopped walking, turned his head, and listened for another scratch.  He closed his eyes.  He whispered, "Melissa.  Melissa, can you hear me?"
I did this in normal order (beginning to end) in Walta Sepatet.  I ran into plot holes that are going to take a long time to fix.  That's part of why I stopped working on that book, I think.  I hit places where I needed to establish something in an earlier scene, and didn't.  Now I have a list of things that I have to go back and work into existing scenes.

On Trouble with Miracles I am working this backwards.  I started with the last scene and it is pretty easy to make changes to the earlier scenes as I go, in order to make sure that I have everything properly established.  I'll tell you how that works when I'm done.

I just use the same document where I had the scene descriptions.  I write the action and dialog right beneath where I have the scene descriptions.  When I'm done with a scene I delete the description of that scene.

Character and Setting Descriptions
Seventh, I step through the whole book and add in color and texture details.  What color was her dress?  How much light was there?  Etc.  Sometimes I will restructure sentences while I am here, if I need to in order to get the setting information into the scenes.

Eighth, I read the whole story, looking for mistakes.  Did we find out who the mysterious stranger is too early?  Did I use any adverbs?  Are my seasons and time lapses appropriate and noted?

I hate it when authors tell us what characters are thinking.  That's a cop-out.  That's not the way we go through life.  We see people's faces and hear the lilts in their voices, and we figure out what they mean.  So one of the things I read for is whether or not the description of the person (and their actions) is sufficient to work out what they are probably thinking.  It seems that because I don't spell out what people are thinking, but I know what they are thinking, I often don't get enough description down for others to figure out what a character is thinking.

Others Proofread
Ninth, I print out a few copies and ask others to read it.  I print with wide margins and room between chapters for them to make notes.  I ask them to use a highlighter and pen and tell me where things are unclear.  One of the big questions I ask them to look for is whether or not they think a particular character would do what he/she did.  When they say 'no' it probably means that I didn't get enough of that character's background down out of my head and into the text.

Final Editing
Tenth, with the feedback from others I will make a final pass through the book and fill in the missing details.  I might change the order of scenes or the setting for scenes.  It all depends on the feedback I get.

No comments:

Post a Comment