Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NaNo Day 18: The Process of writing a novel

Alright, back to answering questions. (Just one today, because this is a big one.)

Cher asked: What process to you go through during the writing of a novel? Also, something that keeps popping up is the use of scenes and sequels. I'm a little confused about the differences. I understand the functions but when I look at other's writing I can't point out which is which. Any suggestions or examples?

My answer: There are a couple different ways I could interpret this question, so if I don’t hit on what you are really asking for Cher, please let me know. (*Disclaimer* this is the process that works for me and I am not claiming it will work for everyone.)

Anyway, my process for writing a novel goes something like this:
I start out with brain storming sessions where I figure out my world and my characters. I tend to work with pen and paper in this stage, and the result is typically a mess. I rarely start with plot ideas, so this is truly just figuring out who I’m dealing with and what the world around her is like. My world and my main character tend to develop simultaneously. As I figure out what interests me about her, I learn about what the world around her must contain, and as the world fleshes out, I learn the rules and the pressures that will have shaped her. It is very organic—thus the mess. Once my idea start to solidify, I tend to write down the major rules to my world so I don’t forget. If I’m lucky, during this process, other characters and a plot have emerged, but not always.

The next step I take is what I call ‘post-it note plotting’. Basically, I write down every idea for a scene I have, in whatever order it hits me, on a post-it note. Then, once I have a whole lot of such scene ideas, I try to arrange them into a coherent plot. I blogged on this process a few years ago if you’d like to see a picture of a complete post-it note plot arc.I used to do this on actual post-it notes which I then stuck to my wall, but these days I use a program called scrivener which has an amazing outline/post-it note feature.

Now that I know the structure of my plot, I transfer the scene list from post-its to my computer. (Obviously, I now skip this because I use a program these days.) I then take this scene list and flesh it out into a full and fairly detailed outline. I have yet to write one of these the same. My first outline was based on time. Night one: list of scenes of occurred on that night in order. One outline I structured based on key points such as ordinary world, inciting incident, rising action, turning point one, ect. and listed the corresponding scenes under those points. I’ve written outlines broken down by chapters. I tend to go with whatever feels ‘right’ in my head at the time I’m organizing. It’s very trial and error for me. As you’ve probably noticed from my early posts this month, I didn’t actually go through any of the stages I’ve mentioned for this year’s NaNo novel—that is one reason it is stalling out at times. I’m a plotter and I like the road map, even if I don’t follow it. (Oh yes, I should have mentioned that. Despite the fact I write very detailed outlines, I still deviate from them as I write, but they do let me know where it is I think I should be should I get stuck.)

After all the pre-writting stuff, all that is left is to sit down and write the novel. (Easier said than done, right?) Once I start writing, my only processes to to write one word after another. I know that doesn’t sound very helpful, but it is true. In a first draft, my concern is to get the story down on the page. I don’t consciously focus on scene and sequel, or the heroes journey, or any of the writing rules I’ve studied. I just write the story.

I’ve taken numerous online writing courses, read dozens if not hundreds of writing craft books, and sat down and picked apart my favorite novels for how and why their writing worked for me. As I sit down to write a first draft, it is my hope that all the information I’ve gained has merged with my subconscious and my inner story-teller so it will be applied without my conscious effort as I write. Also, with any luck, my pre-writing plotting has already dealt with things like character motivation and logic issues, so they are already in place when I write.

Once the first draft is finished and the whole story is on the page, I start worrying about consciously applying writing principles. I evaluate the story as a whole and by scenes. I’m condensing what is actually a whole lot of work into a couple sentences, but I’m not really sure how to explain revisions. There are Macro story edits where I evaluate logic ensure I have rising tension through out the scenes, that characters grow, that I don’t drop story threads, and such. Then there are more micro edits where I look to ensure each scene serves a purpose to the story (or better yet, two or more purposes) as in, does the scene progress the plot, show character development, create tension, ect. and does the scene start and end at the correct spot. (As in, not too far before or after the main purpose and action.) Then I go to the very micro edits where I evaluate the flow to sentences and my word choice. After all this and some polishing, I send the manuscript out to my critique partners so they can poke holes in it. After more revisions, the MS then goes to editors, who poke even more holes in it. Yet more revisions, and then I have a very tight book which (hopefully) won’t have any holes left for readers to find.

So, that is my whole process, from idea to polished manuscript.

As far as your question about scene and sequel in particular, I have read books and taken classes on the subject, but I have the same issue you have Cher. I understand the principle, but I can’t tend to pick them out unless there is an obvious ‘rest’ beat. By the way, that is how I tend to think about scene and sequel—scenes are ‘action’ beats where the character is actively taking action to achieve a goal and sequel I translate to a ‘rest’ beat when the character is reflecting/planning/deciding what action to take next. The important thing to remember is to keep ever increasing tension in the story. Even in a ‘rest’ beat, the end result is the decision to take action (always better when the decision is between two bad choices.) Make sense? Like I said, I don’t consciously write thinking “okay, this is a scene. Now this one is a sequel.” I just tell my story, and hope that I’ve assimilated enough of these principles that I follow them subconsciously.

For more about writing craft, here are books and classes I highly recommend:
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham —This is a great book both about the structure of single scenes, and the structure of scenes throughout an entire book.
Goal Motivation Conflict by Debra Dixon —This is an amazing book to help make sure your characters are moving forward logically and that you throw the right things in their path.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King —This is a micro editing style book—I love it. (This is also part of the grand prize package for the NaNo competition)
Margie Lawson Teaches several amazing classes, in particular the EDITS class, which help you break down your scenes and really see what you have on the page.
Mary Buckham Teaches an amazing class called POWER PACING. I highly recommend it. She is also the co-author of the craft book Break into Fiction.

Okay. This has been an obscenely long post. So I’m signing off with my wordcount:

25551 / 50000 words. 51% done!

How is everyone else doing? Cher, did that answer your question? I have only one more question to answer, unless anyone would like to chime in with more. Feel free to ask!


Kailia Sage said...

Day 18: 3,449
Total: 27,871 56% done
To go: 22,129
i wanted to reach 30k last night but I think i'll get 35-40 k tonight!

Cher Green said...


Actually that was very helpful. Thank you.

You are the second to recommend Dixon's book. I ordered it yesterday.

Your answer also spawned another question: Picking apart a novel, dissecting a novel. I keep hearing this but I'm not totally sure how do do this. Could you give a general overview of what it means to you?

Word Count: 24909

Kalayna Price said...

Wow, looks like day 18 was a great writing day for you Kailia! Congrats.

Cher, I'm glad to hear that helped! I'll tackle the editing question in a post later this week.

Kitt said...

I really liked this post too, if not for any other reason than it makes me feel like I have very good natural instincts as far as writing goes. I've never read a single book about the writing process itself, or taken any classes (well, no specific creative writing classes, but there were of course assignments in school in various English classes), and I tend to do a lot of the things you describe already without really having to think about it. My main problem has always been attention span and the motivation to finish what I start. Thanks to NaNo, I'm finally taking huge steps to defeat these self defeating tendencies! ;-)