I’ve spent this month (which is flying by, can it already be the 18th??) doing the background research and developing ideas for two new stories. Now I’ve chosen one of them to push ahead with. Or one has chosen me. Its protagonists have grabbed hold of my heart, a plot has been spun, and already I’m on the verge of writing that first scene. Research is ongoing, and will be for months. But I thought it a good time here at the outset to jot down the nuts and bolts of my novel crafting process.
Every writer has a unique process by which he or she gets words on the page, then shapes them into a story. I’m always interested in other writers’ processes, especially when they’re different from my own.
Getting to know many writers over the years, I’ve noticed two extremes. On the one hand is the writer who pens her first drafts as fast as possible, then goes back and performs one or more substantial edits to bang it into shape. At the other extreme are those writers who write slowly and with such thorough editing as they go that what they end up with at the end of that first draft is pretty much the finished product.
Over the last three novels (since I began writing again after the chemo fog began to lift in 2004), four counting this new one, my process has evolved until I now find I’m somewhere in the middle of those extremes.
My process goes like this: before I start writing a first draft I do a few weeks of brainstorming (or several months if this is happening on the back burner while I’m still writing another novel) about the story as a whole, ending up with what I call a story salad. A story salad is bits and pieces of possible twists and turns, motives, settings, characters, names, connections, mysteries, secrets, hopes, and dreams all tossed together, maybe or maybe not hinting at a novel-worthy plot at this point.
Jesse goes to the Cherokee.
Willa is struggling with some internal conflict.
The overseer is making life tough for Seona.
Daniel or Nathaniel… Danny or Nate…. or should I just go with William?
I create a master file that I fill full of this stuff, laying it down in what I think is chronological order (though it often proves otherwise).
My next step looks like this:
When enough of this story salad gets tossed together that I start to sense a shape and a plot to the novel, I create an outline. I used to skip this step, but I found with the last book I wrote that arranging my story salad in a Three Act plot outline
helped me keep the pacing in balance as I wrote. And I never lost sight of the main focus of the story. I won’t adhere so rigidly to this outline that if a better twist occurs to me along the way I won’t take it, but having the outline, reminding me what my original intentions for the story and the characters were, gives me a good base line for judging whether a sudden inspiration (or a character taking the reins) will make for a more exciting, nuanced, or intriguing story, or only prove a sidetrack.
Once I feel I’m ready to start writing, I find a scene to begin with. It may or may not end up being the actual first scene of the book. All it needs to be at this point is a scene early on in the story with something in it that’s hooked me, captured my attention. One in which I see the character, feel his conflict, hear his dialogue. That scene I’ve been daydreaming about and running through my mind over and over more than any other. That’ll do to begin, because I want to capture that character’s voice as soon as possible. If I do, it will make pushing ahead with the writing work much smoother.
So to begin, I take whatever is there–that first chunk of story salad that looks like it would hang together as a scene (the phrases, maybe a snippet of dialogue, the what ifs, the historical timeline of an event where applicable, all the possibilities I threw out while brainstorming this story)–and create a rough draft of the scene. I do this in a screenplay format: present tense, bare bones setting, basic stage business, main story/conflict beats I plan to build this scene around, most of the dialogue (but rarely any tags beyond a name or even initial). Sometimes long strings of bare dialogue if I hear my characters talking, getting it down as quickly as possible without the distraction of setting or stage business.
By now I see the shape of the scene, that it has a beginning, middle, and end. I know what the main character is trying to accomplish, what his motive is, what the conflict will be, who or what forces are working against him. I put it away for a few hours, or overnight if I’m at the end of a work day. I probably jot down notes to myself about it as I work on dinner or do whatever I do of an evening.
Next writing session I go back to the beginning and begin what I consider my first draft. I listen for an opening sentence if I didn’t write one yesterday, wait for it, and when I have something that resonates, off I go. I convert the story salad bits to past tense (in 1.5 spacing, which is the format I’m comfortable working in). I craft whole sentences, add dialogue tags, description, more stage business, really try to get into the skin of my point of view character and hear, see, smell, feel his world, his thoughts, his motivations. Internals spill out, I try to up the conflict, anything and everything that comes to mind at this point gets spilled out onto the page. I want it to look like a finished scene in a book. Of course it doesn’t. It’s got rambling parts, and parts that are too spare, and parts that don’t need to be there at all. I’ve probably written 1000-1500 words and I’m exhausted. I put it away for the day and will come back to it tomorrow.
The second pass over a scene means drawing even more on the senses if I’ve skimped in spots, making sure description is in the character’s voice and is appropriate for the scene and the pacing. Tweaking dialogue. More detail. Going deeper into character. Probably a few surprises pop up, things that hint a what’s to come, making me jot down ideas and begin to formulate future scenes.
Third pass, in which I realize this is all terribly overwritten and start analyzing what should stay, what should go. I strip out phrases and sentences and extraneous dialogue tags, while adding in bits here and there too.
Fourth pass, in which I’ve had a revelation that Something Else needs to be in that scene and so I work it in and finally (perhaps) understand what that scene is really about. More trimming to focus, not necessarily to make it shorter (that will come later).
At this point I might give the scene one more quick polish before moving on and repeating the process with the next scene. I’ll do this over and over again until the book is finished. Then it’s set aside for as long as possible to let the whole thing cool before I read through the entire story for the first time, as fast as I can, trying not to fiddle with it, but making notes for edits.
Then, I start to edit. If there are any big changes in the story structure, they come first. Then my very favorite thing of all, editing line by line, polishing the prose, choosing better, stronger, more vivid language wherever possible. Getting lyrical where appropriate, reining in my tendency to overwrite and using restraint in other places. There always seems to be more trimming needed. I’ll double check my sources for any historical facts that have begun to slip my memory to be triple sure I’ve been accurate. Lastly I’ll do a search for words and phrases I tend to overuse and replace some of them and….
That’s how I make a novel.