“I have a great idea, but how can I make it into a novel?”
“I’ve started three or four books, got past the ten thousand word mark, and lost my way.”
“I have a great beginning/ending/scene in the middle (delete as appropriate), but now I’m stuck.”
I’m writing this blog post in response to an email, and it’s not the first I’ve received on this subject. This time, it came from a chap who already writes for a living. He falls into the middle category; he’s started two books, but they’re still squatting on the hard drive.
He reminded me that I mentioned planning/outlining my books in one of my Author’s Notes, and asked if I could expand on my process. Well, yes I can, and I will in this post. Before the off, though, bear in mind that millions of words have been written on this subject, and every author has her own method. In some cases, those methods vary from book to book. No hard and fast rules, just suggestions.
Here’s what has worked for me. I write commercial fiction, so that’s all I’m going to talk about. I’m interested in stories that hook me and won’t let go. That’s what I love to read, and that’s what I want to write. For me, that description covers Lee Child, Ursula LeGuin, Charles Dickens, John Irving and Herman Hesse, so it’s pretty broad. A good story is a good story.
The nuts and bolts
Current wisdom has it that authors are pantsers, outliners, or a combination of the two.
Pantsers start with nothing more than an idea. Stephen King is the most famous example. This method is great for keeping you interested, as the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. The subconscious, muse, or boys in the basement according to Mr King will work their dark magic and provide the next scene, introduce a new character, whatever’s needed to keep the story moving.
It seems to be working out okay for Stephen King and it might work for you. Set aside a decent amount of time for editing that first draft, though, as it’s likely to need a fair amount of work. The Jack Reacher novels are written the same way, but Lee Child’s process is different, the initial draft is written much more slowly, and much of his self-editing occurs as he writes (there’s a book called Reacher Said Nothing which documents his process.)
Outliners do just that. They plan, they outline. Some split the book into three acts, some into chapters, and some outline the entire book, scene by scene before writing a single word. My friend Phil Quaintrell (author of the epic Echoes Of Fate series) writes this way, and his excellent fantasy series is a big hit with readers.
Combinators, er, outpantsers, um, pantsliners, (oh dear, that won’t work at all, will it?) use a combination of the other two methods. I fall into this camp.
Outpantsers (yep, that works, I’ll go with that)
Six completed books (yes, I’ve finished book two of the Halfhero trilogy, more news on that soon) have taught me this: before I start writing, I need to have a story. Not outlined in detail, but more than just an idea. I don’t start writing until I know how it starts, what the exciting bit is that will keep me reading (the inciting incident, as it’s often described), and how it ends.
For me, the story has to have the following three qualities to get me fired up enough to plant my arse in the seat and start typing:
- a hook
- (the potential for) pace
- memorable character/s
The hook is the initial idea. What if an intelligent jellyfish species ambushed a cruise ship full of heavy metal musicians? Actually, I quite like that. Title suggestions in the comments below, please. (Heavy Jelly?)
Pace is crucial. Once you have your hook, you need to stay hooky, and pace is a big part of that. I need to know some of the obstacles my hero will face. I picture these scenes as if they’re on screen. There’s a parade in New York City in my new book. I knew it was coming and, as I wrote, the pieces fell into place to get the story there at the right moment. In between the action scenes, we need to get our breath back. Pace is a balancing act. Description, done well, can help the pace of the story. Done wrong it kills it dead. If the machine gun-toting hero runs into a park, pursued by a pack of genetically-modified psychotic squirrels, no one wants to know the exact colour of the grass or the species of the trees.
As for characters, the main character is the deal-breaker. We have to be drawn in, we have to care what happens to them. Even anti-heroes and monsters. You wouldn’t want Patrick Bateman from American Psycho at your dinner party, but he exerts an irresistible fascination as we peer into his horribly twisted mind. If your other characters are believable, great, but plenty of bestsellers have paper-thin secondary characters. (The more I write, the more I care about making all the characters as fully rounded as possible, but I’ve read plenty of books where I only remember the main character.)
For me, this means notebooks and my phone. Sometimes an app called Scapple, which lets me move ideas around in a mind map. A big piece of paper would be fine. I have my story idea, maybe two or three key scenes that I’m excited about. I have an ending, although this always changes at some point, as something better comes along. That’s my notebook for Halfheroes on the tidy desk above. Every page looks like that. I dictate voice memos to my phone. I write in the morning. The rest of the time, I ponder (and actually have a life too.)
I wrote the first two books with a daily target of 750 words. I wrote the next two with the word target feature on Scrivener (great piece of software. I use about 5% of its many features.) That meant I set my target of 90,000 words and my planned finish date, plus how many days a week I would write. Sometimes I got ahead, very occasionally, I skipped a day.
Here’s the practical side in summary (for me):
- notes – however you want to make them. Back of a napkin, or vast document.
- daily discipline – words per day, something you can stick to.
- thinking time – walk the dog, go for a run, the shower is a traditionally good place to get ideas.
- change direction if you need to – if you box yourself in, go back to the point where the problem started, and don’t be scared to re-write. I threw away 18,000 words of Children Of The Deterrent at one stage. It was the right thing to do.
A writer writes
Ray Bradbury said that. It’s all you need to know, but it’s not easy. I didn’t find my mojo until I was in my late forties. (It was behind a airline ticket at the back of my sock drawer).
I started lots of stories, and a fair few novels in my twenties. I did the same in my thirties. There was no major life event, no upheaval, no crisis that precipitated the change in attitude leading to my first completed book in 2016. The success of ebooks and self-publishing meant I knew I’d be able to get it in front of readers if I just wrote the bloody thing.
So I wrote the bloody thing. If you really want to write and you have enough health, stamina and determination to sit down every day and do it, you’ll write a book. And, unlike brain surgery, it doesn’t matter if you make a complete dog’s dinner of it, because you will learn so much from the experience.
The tried and tested method of becoming a writer is to write. Good luck!