Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Planning a novelly novel

I'm writing my first novel. I say it that way because while I've had story ideas before and have started some, I've never before had a novel idea planned out so completely that I've actually thought I had a prayer in finishing it.

I've been posting little bits about my progress on Facebook, and a friend who also writes sent me a message asking for tips/advice on how to get to that point of feeling like you can get the whole thing written as opposed to hitting a creative wall. I wound up answering with a kind of long message. Since NaNoWriMo is coming up and I have friends who are planning to do it, I thought I'd post that message here in case it could help anybody else.

Don't get me wrong--I'm still not far in the actual page-by-page writing of the thing. So I'm not a novelist. I'm still but a baby in the ways of "the writer." But with the way I've always been about writing fiction (thinking "Wouldn't that be nice?" and not doing anything about it, or getting an idea for a character and not making that character into a part of a story, where things happen ...), the fact that I have done the things I mention in this message and gotten into the headspace I'm in right now is a major accomplishment for me. So I know there are other people like me, and if I can help peeps like me, who have always been stopped early down the road of fiction-ing, actually get a step further down the road to writing a novel, well, that would be cool.

What follows is the message I sent. But first I should add: I am absolutely hands-down in love with my main characters. If you haven't come up with characters you want to be with all the time, haven't found a connection to them that feeds your ability to tell a story about them, imagine them in lots of different situations, imagine their reactions to different things, really get to know them, then the rest of what I say here probably won't matter. Now, with the kind of story I'm writing, it makes sense that I "love" my characters. It's a romance, and I'm pulling for them. Maybe the kind of story you're going to be writing requires a lot of time spent with someone unlikable--I don't know. But whatever kind of character it is, my point is, they better really, really, really, really make you tick. I don't see how you can come up with hundreds of pages of words about a character you're not wholly, completely invested in.

Here it is:


Hm ... the first thing I envisioned for this story was kind of the first turning point in the story. Then awhile later an idea for the climax of the story popped into my head. And I knew how I wanted it to end. From there, I really thought about the main characters and how they should be changed/what they should learn/what should be shifted about their lives over the course of the story. From that, I got the basic story arc.

Then I wrote down any images, bits of dialogue, happenings, descriptions that popped into my head. Kept doing this even when I thought I would never bother writing the story all out, just in case I would actually do it. I wrote out a bunch of full scenes, too (from throughout the story), when they materialized in my brain. A bunch of them I'm not using now, or I've changed them/am going to change them a lot, but they've still been important in figuring out what I want to do/use.

When I decided six months or so ago that I was really going to go for it and try to write this thing, I wrote character studies, about 3-5 pages each, from the point-of-view of my two main characters about themselves--about the way they see life, about their families, about their interests, and what's important to them. That was helpful even though I already had these people down pretty well in my brain. It was different putting it on paper somehow, having "them" talk about themselves.

After that, I wrote out full-on character histories about these two, deciding what their childhoods were like, what their families are like, what high school and college were like, the years between college and when the story starts. Decided how many relationships they'd had and what they'd been like, chose names for those other people, even though they might never be mentioned in the story. Doing this part was really, really helpful--can't stress that enough. Again, it was like, even though I thought I "knew" these people, coming up with real specifics--names, years, old jobs, blah blah blah, kind of made a bank I could draw from when I thought/think about the characters during the actual writing.

I still had a chunk of space in the first third of the story that I wasn't sure what I wanted to all happen in it or in what order, and I found that was holding me back. One day I sat down with a notebook and decided I was just going to write out what I wanted to happen in that section step-by-step, telling myself specifically that what I came up with was not set in stone. (I have a tendency to think what I've done needs to stay that way rather than be changed.) I thought about the things I knew I wanted/needed to happen in that section, and I wrote down how they should go--one or two sentences for each event/happening: this happens, then this happens, then this happens ... That day I wound up doing that all day and night, figuring out not only that section but doing the same for the whole story.

I organized all my notes (typed up) in separate documents in Word and put them in chronological order (naming them Doc1_blahblahhappens, Doc2_blahblahblah, etc.--not literally "blahblah" but you get the idea--so they'd be in order in my folder), and that helped me envision things, too, seeing how it all lined up. I wound up doing some rearranging of what I had decided in my writeup I just mentioned. And there were other things I had notes of that I had forgotten about in my writeup or that I just hadn't decided where I wanted them to go yet, and seeing the docs separated and lined up in order like that helped me figure out where to put those other bits.

And I read The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield. I highly recommend this book. I wrote about thirty pages about six months ago that when I wrote them I was really happy about, and then for months as I planned the book I didn't want to go back and read them for some reason. When I finally went back and read them, I knew why--I had feared they really sucked. They really sucked. There was about one conversation, about a half-page long, in the whole thirty pages that I found myself getting interested in, as though I were reading someone else's story. Reading The Scene Book helped me see what it was I was doing and not doing that made it suck, and what I could do to make it not suck. I changed the point in time at which I wanted the story to start, and I rewrote the beginning entirely. I'm happy with what I have now. Hopefully I still will be in a few months. But I know it's better than what I had before. Anyway, I think that's a great, great book for getting to know what makes fiction writing work.

Geez, this was long. I hope it's helpful.


To those about to write, I salute you. <---Total cheese.

Oh yeah. Some helpful links:





  1. Very interesting and fascinating to read about your creative process for your novel. It's also exciting to know that you are writing a novel. I can sense your excitement and passion for writing and for the development of your characters.

  2. Thanks, Chris! I hope it comes through strongly in the book itself.

  3. love hearing your process as things go, keep it up and i will probably keep inquiring of you...stacy

  4. The thing that has stopped me from even attempting to write in my adulthood is that I don't have a clue what to do with if afterwards. I have no clue how to go about getting published. I will quietly wait for you to blaze that trail . . . hehe!

    But I've been scribbling notes and ideas and setting them aside all along. Remember when we used to look at floor plans of houses in the paper and decide our characters would live there? I still do things like that. LOL


  5. I do remember that! Remember that stack of sort of TV Guide-sized magazines from the '50s that used to be by Dad's chair, that had tons of floor plans and home pics/descriptions in them? I still remember picking one of those houses for Rena's house in 3 Dumb Girls. LOL.

    Gosh, I hope you don't end up having to finish this story too ... ;)

    You should write anyway when you're inspired! You can always figure out later what the nuts and bolts are of trying to do something with it. That's my plan--I know a little bit about what to do later and I have the tools at my disposal with a subscription to Writers' Market, but I'm not worrying about those steps until they come. And even if after that you decided not to send it somewhere, how awesome would it be to have written one in adulthood that you like? Awesome that you're writing down notes & ideas and keeping them.

    Now, if you do so and you get published before me, just know that I might have to kill you, but you go right on ahead, knowing that! :p

  6. It goes without saying that I'm kidding about the murdering, but in all seriousness, if you were to go forth and do that, I would be supportive through my raging jealousy after my three-month fit of inconsolable self-doubt and -loathing, and I would seek your help in getting published myself.