Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"How Do You Write a Novel"?

This is not a how-to course or even advice. A friend asked me on Facebook and I said I'd try to respond. I don't think my answers are universal, but it's just a description of how I've done it for my five (going on six) novels.

1) The Idea(s). They just come to me. Almost never in the form of plot, unfortunately, but more characters I'd like to write about, and scenes I'd like to describe. So basically, I get these ideas, and then I have to wait for a plot to come along and string them together into a meaningful sequence that people would like to follow. For my first novel, I started writing with only a pretty sketchy middle of the plot: I knew the starting and ending points, but in between was not fully mapped out. But I did need the beginning and end and the cast of characters before I could start. So, for example, I've had another novel idea in mind for years, but I don't have enough to start: Set in the Old West, syphillitic robber baron terrorizes town with his army of zombies. I mean -w ow, that's not a bad tag line. It's probably a better tag line than a couple of my novels that I've finished. But I don't know who the POV character is, I don't know how it's going to end, or how he got his army of zombies - so there's way too much blank for me to start.

2) Outline. For my first, it was pretty sketchy. I basically had three places the action would take place, and the outline was "Museum - stuff happens. City - stuff happens. Prison - stuff happens." Since then I've gotten much more detailed. Much. But I still leave it open for development and detail: the outline for each chapter still is only a sentence, basically saying where they are and where they end up, whether they meet anyone, and what's been done to move the plot forward, sometimes a reminder to myself like "Make sure they find a shovel (since they'll have to dig somewhere three chapters later)". As I said the other day, the action sequence I'm working on now is taking much longer. It's much more elaborate than I first intended , but I see now that it needs to be. So the outline has to adapt.

3) Write. As above, once the parts are in place enough (however "enough" is judged), I put them in motion, moving them through the plot, while being open to changes and developments in where they need to go and what would make the story more interesting or exciting. As a writer with a day job and family responsibilities, I don't write every day, except sometimes in the summer and Christmas breaks, I might write every day for a few days in a row. Even then, I don't stay sitting at the computer when nothing's happening, though I know a lot of writers say they do and it's part of their routine and discipline. I'll just go do something else and try again later. (Well, that or I'll get in trouble on Facebook, but I'm trying to discipline myself away from that.) But even at a very moderate rate of 1k words/day, and only 2 days/week - that still means the thing would be done in 40 weeks. That's how long it takes to make a baby, so it's not an impossible length of time. If there isn't a market for zombie novels in 9 1/2 months, oh well.

4) Send It off. I have no special powers here. I just send them in. You are not (I'm pretty sure, unless I've missed something) going to sell a prospectus or idea to a publisher for a first book (you're not Sarah Palin). I can do that now with my non-fiction, after I've published 14 books of non-fiction. But fiction - no. Only one of my novels was contracted before I wrote it. Everything else I finished and sent in like everybody else, including the one I'm working on now.

So, I thank Dave for asking, and I hope I answered his questions, and I'm sorry if it's still (as they say) a descriptive and not prescriptive answer.


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