Friday, 22 May 2015

Writing Ramble: How I Write Novels Now, Part 1

This is not how I write novels.
It's an obvious point that no two people write novels the same way, and an even more obvious one that there's no right way to go about it - though it's surely the case that there are all manner of wrong ways!  At any rate, even within the space of one career-so-far and a few short years, my own method of going about such things has changed completely.

That change was started by chance and necessity, as I realised after Giant Thief got signed that I had exactly two years to write exactly two books and then flailed around trying to figure out some way to make that happen when my first novel had taken something like five years and more drafts that I'd been able to keep count of.  Out of that flailing, though, came the beginnings of a process that worked for me, and that's worked ever since - ever since in this case meaning, for my recently completed fourth novel To End All Wars, two more books currently midway through redrafts and another that I've just begun.  It's seen some refinement over that time, and there's undoubtedly room for more, but it definitely has its virtues too.  And so, because I find this stuff interesting and therefore conceivably other people out there do too, I thought it would be worth sharing here.

Skimming lightly, then, over the very early stuff - an idea that digs in like a tick, that comes to feel like it has meat enough on its bones to stretch to novel length - we get to the preparation stage.  Before even a word gets typed, there's a period of planning, floating ideas around, and depending on the subject matter, of research.  So far this has varied from a few weeks to a year, (that being the book I just started, White Thorne, which is set in the Middle Ages, a time period that turns out to be even less like the current day than you might think.)  The aim here is somewhat hard to define, and equally hard to set a timescale on, but basically involves reaching a point where the next stage feels like a practical possibility.

This is not how I write novels.
For that next stage is writing the entire plot out in synopsis.  By this point I'll at the least have a few major scenes in mind, characters, an idea of the tone I'm aiming for and the mental outline of a beginning, middle and end.  In small snatches over the course of perhaps a month, I note down what I have and work to fill in the gaps, figuring out significant plot mechanics as I go.  The end product here is a document of somewhere between five and ten pages that tells the story crudely but coherently from start to finish, that contains all the characters I'm likely to need - though not necessarily by name - and which another human being can read and take away a solid sense of the story from.  In fact, that's one of its main purposes; with White Thorne especially I jumped on the opportunity to get feedback on plot mistakes before I made them, and it was such a huge help that I rewrote the synopsis heavily on the back of the feedback I received.

Either way, once the synopsis is at a point I'm happy with, it will get broken down into a chapter plan - this being the key reason why it needs to be so detailed.  This stage generally only takes a day or two, and basically involves figuring out all the little climaxes that would make for suitable chapter end points and then balancing that against what I can realistically cram into, say, five thousand words.  One of the reasons it's a valuable process is that it flags up the structure, in so much as there is one at this point, and emphasizes any weaknesses.  If there's a leg of what might be three chapters where not much happens, or a stretch of constant action without much exposition, say, it will definitely show itself here, and with luck I can juggle scenes accordingly.

Which feels like a sensible place to break, if only because all this talk of writing novels is making me stressed about all those novels I should be writing.  In part 2: all of that stuff!  And everything that comes after...

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