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I vaguely recall buying the Creative Writer's Coursebook some time ago. I never got past the introduction. Something in the back of my mind is telling me that the answers to the coming questions lie beneath the dust covering that book.
Regardless, I'm wondering how I should approach writing a longer piece. Something that could expand to 50,000 or 100,000 words. It's a large undertaking, as I'm sure most of you will already know. The longest thing I've written was some 15-20,000 words, and was almost entirely off the cuff, letting it write itself, the story being made up as it went along.
I'm conscious that this is not necesarily a recipe for quality material.
Is there a proper way to go about this? With plot in mind, create the characters, conceive of the major plot points, determine the plot drivers, the scenes, etc? Is there a good order? Is there a list of dos and don'ts?
Should I just read the book I paid a not insignificant sum for and sort out my own problems?
I don't think there is a definitive method of writing a novel. What works for you is what's right - sorry, but I really believe that's the truth. I plan my novels pretty thoroughly but another novelist friend of mine simply takes off and sees where the story will take her. I'd panic if I didn't have a map, but she enjoys the sense of freedom and discovery.
I'll tell you what I do and see if that sounds like it might be some use to you, IB.
I start with a question or a hypothesis - in the case of the current novel, it's something like What kind of man would leave his disabled wife? - and so the character and situation are born together. I'd then have a good think about that shadowy mc (and consider how he might go on from the moment he left his Mrs).
Then I draw a line and write down the main points of the plot, and at this stage there won't be all that many, but over the next few weeks as I think about the novel I'll be able to add more and more detail. That gives me an overview and also a sense of how I'll pace the story.
Next I do pages of notes on my mc and three or four other characters. I generate these by asking them questions, and I'm always particularly interested in what they did before the action of the novel starts. So for the one I'm writing at the moment, I did a time-line for the mc's life, plus another more detailed one of the years he was married. I did the same thing for the woman he hooks up with. Tha advantage of all that is I get lots more ideas for plot development, eg what happened in his childhood that might have made him impatient with his wife's illness? It also makes me confident about that character, because I feel I know how he'll react in any given situation. Sometimes I end up with a stack of info that never makes it into the book, but it doesn't matter because it's served a purpose.
I've also done family trees to stop me making stupid continuity errors, and for my first novel I went as far as to do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. That meant firstly I was able to write it very quickly, and secondly that I was able to write some of it out of sequence, the way you'd shoot a film.
I do think you have to love novels and be passionate about the novel form to generate the stamina for a piece of 80,000+ words. It's a lonely business, novel-writing, but some of us quite like that.
Is that any help? I know I've gone on a bit.
Thanks Kate. Your response is longer than most of my short stories, but it is actually very helpful.
Most of my little snippets are born from an event that materialises in my head. A bizarre situation, an irony, an epiphany or a random thought. The end around which I wrap the means, or the beginning of something which winds on to something else.
Character development has, thus far, always been low on the priority list. Putting background into characters seems on the face of it incredibly difficult and laborious, and I've only attempted it once (the rather insignificant results of which are currently uploaded to the site), and didn't go into nearly enough detail.
I'm sort of envisioning a process of writing a series of shorter stories which provide a basis for characters in a larger piece, which doesn't directly include those background pieces.
I'm rambling, I know, but I am considering two projects right now. The first is a story which I intend to publish on internet forums and my website, one chapter at a time. The second would be something building on the experiences I gain from that, which I would then seek to self-publish in some form or other.
I think I've got some food for thought. Being the sad accountant that I am, I'm probably going to spend a while revising my process before I actually do any work...
IB, I'd agree - unhelpfully!
- with Lammi that there are as many different ways of writing a novel as there are novelists. You'll probably find that some ways suggested strike more of a chord with you than others, but in the end you'll have to accept that you may look back on your finished first draft and realise another modus operandi
might have suited you better. If you do, it's not a failure, or even a mistake, it's a sign that you've learnt something important about your writing self.
Some have a general idea, wait for the first sentence to strike them, then set off into the wild blue yonder of Chapter One. When inspiration fails they do a Chandler and make a man walk in the door pointing a gun. Others start the same way, but work out the characters and what happens to them in more detail before they actually write 'Chapter One' at the head of the first page. Many start with a situation, as Lammi does, others start with a character, or a combination of the two, or two characters whose interaction is the motor of the plot. I know of one or two who write any scene when it occurs to them, from wherever it happens in the book, and then lay the scenes out and knit them together at the end. But I think they must have a pretty clear idea of the whole novel in their head to do that.
A question like Lammi's is a very good engine to propel the writing.
FWIW my novels start with a vision - and I do mean that, it's always wholly visual - of a person, in a place, and so my questions are usually 'how did they get there?' and 'what happened next?', and I chew simultaneously on character and place (which includes period) until I have enough to plan out the chapters, at the depth of ten or twenty words each. I'm researching alongside, so that throws up all sorts of ideas which feed into my plans. But I write long, multi-layered novels where the structure has to be very strictly controlled. Even so, I still plan in pencil, metaphorically and actually, because everything - even structure - is provisional. Then I let it stew till I hear my first sentence, and then I've got the narrator's voice, and the point in the story where this narrative starts. I've almost never changed that first sentence, whatever else changes later.
Some refuse to move on from a page until it's perfect, then never touch it again. Some people start by revising yesterday's work before moving onto the new bit. That gets you back into it, but the temptation is always to go on fiddling with it rather than doing the tougher work of writing more. It's worth keeping a word count at the end of every day, so you can pat yourself on the back for a few more hundred words, if nothing else. And it's worth resisting the temptation to go back when you realise an earlier chapter needs revising: just make notes, and keep pushing on. That way you experience the story as nearly as you can to the way the reader does.
There are wonderful insights into different writers' practice in the Paris Review interviews. The list of authors has a rather White American Male bias, but it's still pretty staggering. Many are available online, and there are lots of themed anthologies which a library could get you; they're published by Harvill, I think. And I see they've just started a new 'best of' series of anthologies.
The Paris Review
Good luck! Anyone who embarks on a novel deserves respect for courage, and anyone who finishes one - however terrible they immediately realise it to be - deserves even more.
Reading your reply to Lammi makes me remeber that you needn't think you have to develop characters in full gory detail before you begin to write. You can get to know them as you write, and as one does in real life: by seeing them in action, deciding what car they drive, how they wear their clothes... You may not know about their abusive marriage or long-lost ambition to be a buddhist monk till you're well into it.
But I think one thing that is different in long-haul writing is that the plot does need some kind of mainspring that keeps propelling it: at its crudest, the characters have to have some kind of need or want, and be trying to get it fulfilled, and meet various obstacles, and finally gain some kind of resolution.
Fascinating insights, Kate and Emma. Something I read once, IB, is that you can create plot out of character but rarely the other way round, There is a book I read once, which I thought quite good called "How To Write A Damn Good Novel" by James Frey. But then again, you've already got one dust-covered weighty tome!
IB, the book you've got is a good one, and not one that necessarily needs ploughing through from beginning to end, so you may find you can get enough from it with a bit of skillful dipping.
FWIW, for me the character(s) always arrives first and always in some predicament which needs some resolution. The ideas - so far - have come from my immediate environment (things I've seen, conversations I've had, experiences). I guess I'm lucky to live in a, er, not-so-affluent but diverse part of the world that does provide me with a wealth of ideas, if I look hard enough. Some of these ideas stick.
From then, I've found that it's depended on the structure of novel I was writing. I've written two - the first one I've shelved - and both had markedly different, er, births(?)
The first ranged over ten years and two countries and I did plan it out pretty thoroughly before putting pen to paper, though, even at the best of times, I'm not great on prepatory notes and character studies and the like. Compared to the second one though, the notes for the first were a veritable blueprint.
The second takes place over a few days. I had an idea - which came to me in much the same way as the first - and a character in a difficult situation. And then it was just organic. I just sat and wrote, wondering, as I wrote, how did this character get into this situation? How does he feel about it? How did people react to him before/after? How is he going to try and get through it? And all the other characters, situations, scenes came from that. It was one person and his relationships with a small cluster of people, and not particularly, unlike the first book, plot driven.
I think Lammi's right: just keep asking yourself questions like that and scenes, characters, even things like little character traits, will pop into your mind. And then these grow and sprout more scenes and before you know it your characters are driving the book and you're the passenger taking minutes (very well-written minutes, at that).
It's a tentative theory but maybe the amount of planning a book needs is roughly proportional to how big the canvas (and I don't mean emotional reach, of course, more geographical or time-span etc) of the book is, or how much 'plot' is in the book?
Curiously, with both books the endings that I thought of at the outset were played out when I got to the end. And, like Emma, the first line, once written, never changed. And I think many writers are like that: have a beginning and an end, and just spend a year or so zigzagging from one to the other.
|have a beginning and an end, and just spend a year or so zigzagging from one to the other.|
Yes, that's how it is for me, too: I know pretty early where I want my characters to end up emotionally if not physically, and then it's just (just?) a matter of describing the journey from A to Z
And yet, Jem, Sarah Waters says she starts with plot first. I think plot came first with TBMH, too. But it's only first by a fraction of a thought. Now I look back I think plot and charater arrived almost simultaneously via the 'What kind of a person would do such and such?' method.
As Emma says, there are probably as many ways of approaching a novel as there are novelists. Discovering which method works for you is as much a challenge, I'd say, as writing the thing. But to turn that model into something optimistic, you could say that once you discover what works for you, you're half-way there.
I've found this a really interesting and enlightening thread.
I'd like to add something insightful of my own, but, uhm, ur, mmm, the fact is I'm not sure what I do, or how I do what I do. Don't know that I've reached the stage where I can say I have a definite method, still in the process of working it out.
I'm getting more into writing crime, so I have to have things pretty tightly worked out in advance for that. Having said that, I worked like mad getting the structure and story sorted for Taking Comfort too - approaching it a little like a feature film, which I have read is all structure. I even wrote a film script at one point, which helped me see the story and made me realise that it could only be a novel. What came first there? Well, I don't know - a feeling maybe. Something inside me that I felt needed expressing. An idea came along that seemed to fit with that feeling. Then I had to find a way to express it.
But I think writing is sometimes like dreaming, that is to say, the true work is carried out by the subconscious. Even with the carefully worked out crime stuff, I like to go off piste, as it were.
Great thread folks, although maybe it's because I'm putting together a novel at the moment.
IB, you might want to have a look at the Write A Novel In A Year
stuff that is being done on the Telegraph website by novelist Louise Doughty.
At the very least it's a good way of finding a start point and forming some ideas before you decide which method is best for you. I don't agree with everything she says, but the accretion of potential material through writing exercises and the building up of central characters is as good a method as any I think.
I don't think there's one surefire way to go about creating a substantial piece of work because everyone is different. But I do think that basics like really getting inside the head of your characters, establishing a theme, sorting out some major plot points - even if you abandon them later and identifying where the dramatic tension in the story will lie are probably fairly universal to the whole experience.
This is a copy of an email I received today. It's maybe hopeless - it sounds a ridiculous idea to write a novel in a month, but it'll know more about it than I do.
All the best.
|Hello, We haven't forgotten you! Write Here Right Now will return to Radio Scotland in February 2007. In the meantime, for those of you who are itching to write another novel before then, why don't you check out this site http://www.nanowrimo.org/ |
The Write Here Right Now Team
Some great input here. I'll read some of those Paris Review interviews, and I've saved the Telegraph link for reading later. Thanks to everyone who has had their two cents so far.
This is really interesting.
I like the idea that character generates plot - or that that is where you should be by the time you've finished. Then the plot is dictated by your character's actions. Even if they're fairly passive in the first place, they have to respond to the incidents that happen around them and the story goes with them. This is what I aim for.
I tend to use plot a bit like a clothes line in the early stages of development. Then the jumper I hung on it turns out to be a pair of trousers... Often, it's the bits that don't change shape as I go along, that I chuck out.
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As you are used to writing between 15,000- 20,000 words, you could try treating each chapter as a short story. I did with my first attempt because it was less terrifying than looking at the final word count. I do find that writing a brief chapter by chapter outline stops me from running out of steam halfway through. I don't follow it exactly, its just a guide.