Writing Schools of Thought
I’ve noticed two major schools of thought in novel writing. The first is having a basic plan for a story and plowing ahead from beginning to end. The second is planning meticulously ahead. Of course, these are two ends of a spectrum. In this post I discuss them both, and explain what I think works best. This is a bit of a long post, so if you’re short for time, look down to the bulleted list that outlines how I recommend writing a novel.
I’ve seen this method advanced by creator of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Chris Baty. As I understood it, his book No Plot? No Problem! holds that you can create a few characters and a rough idea of the story you want to tell, then just write it by sheer force of will. This book suggests that all humans are born storytellers, and that if you just keep writing, everything will work out. He even suggests that this method is “low stress.” Once you get that first draft done quickly, you’ll have a novel to revise and perfect.
Let me fill you all in a bit more on NaNoWriMo. It is a worldwide competition of sorts held every year in November. Those who enter the competition write a novel over the course of one month. The usual word count goal is 50,000. If you reach that goal and haven’t finished your first draft, you still won.
Baty himself did this with little writing experience and wrote a novel in a month. And honestly, I don’t mean to disparage him at all. He started NaNoWriMo, which has been helpful for many authors. I have a lot of friends who have participated, and I participated one year myself. (2020 Update: I’ve participated twice.)
The problem with this approach is that it’s a recipe for writer’s block. The biggest cause of this affliction is not knowing what you’re going to write about ahead of time.
Think about when you were a kid and had to write a paper for a class. You sit down to start it, and have no idea of what to say. You think that the problem is that you need to write a good first sentence, but it won’t come to you! A lot of teachers and parents seem under this delusion as well, and try to help students by taking a “one sentence at a time” approach. This was agonizing for me, and I imagine it was for just about everyone else.
Then, at some point, if you had a good writing teacher, you learned about brainstorming. You wrote the topic of your essay on a piece of paper and wrote down any related ideas that came to you. If you were supposed to write about Gandalf from The Hobbit (I envy anyone who actually got an assignment like this), you wrote “Gandalf” on the paper. You might have jotted down words like, “grey wizard,” “big hat,” “helpful,” and “wanders around.” The more words you wrote, the more ideas you had. Next, you organized those ideas and came up with what you wanted to say in your essay, and in what order.
At that point, your writer’s block was gone. You wrote your essay. Of course, you then had a lot of revising to do, but you had all your thoughts on paper (or on your computer) and could get it done in time.
On the off chance that you never learned this method, now you know it! Use it from now on.
This brings us to our second school of thought, which is to plan everything in advance. With this, you create your characters, create a detailed world, and meticulously plot your entire book, chapter by chapter. Note that “create a detailed world” can mean a completely new setting, like a fantasy world or a science fiction future, or it can mean creating the major settings where your book will take place in the real world.
I’m sure you can see the problem with this already. It’s too much planning! Fiction has a certain spontaneity to it. Characters often don’t want to go in the direction we planned for them. When this happens, it’s your subconscious saying to you, “I understand this character, and he wouldn’t do what you’re trying to make him do. Think about this a bit.” That grinds writing to a halt, and forces the writer to go back to find out where the story took a wrong turn.
Plan Ahead Wisely
Now, planning ahead is great. Knowing your characters, your world, and what kind of trouble they’re about to get into can keep you writing briskly every day. You need to plan ahead wisely, which means not plotting out all the details in one go.
Here’s the methodology I suggest based on my reading and experience.
Come up with a great idea, which can start with a setting, a character, or an event.
Create your cast of characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist.
Write out a basic plot outline about a page long. If you need to, do some brainstorming first for ideas. Based on the characters, what likely conflicts are likely to emerge?
Expand that to several more pages, if you like.
Take the first bit of your plot outline and expand it. Try to plan out the first three or four chapters.
Now, before you write your first scene or chapter, expand that. This type of writing may look something like this. “Meg enters her new office to find Bill sitting at her desk. She’s puzzled and annoyed, so she asks him to leave. Bill says he will after in just a minute; he’s putting the finishing touches on his presentation. Bill is at the same level as her but has been there longer, and she sees this as his way of intimidating her. She reminds Bill that he has his own office, but he says IT is working on his computer.”
Write the scene or chapter.
Once you have done this with the first few chapters, go back to step 5, but for the next few chapters.
Much of this I worked out for myself years ago. When I wrote Children of Rhatlan in 1998, I sketched a detailed outline of each chapter before writing the actual chapter. This allowed me to be in touch with my characters’ motives and to work out all conflicts ahead of time. That done, typing up the chapter came quickly, because I wasn’t sitting there squeezing every word out of my brain, figuring out character motivations and actions as I went.
More recently I read a terrific book by Rachel Aaron called 2,000 to 10,000. This gem costs just $0.99 for Amazon Kindle and is terrific. It reiterated all this to me and reminded me just how important it is to novel writing. Using this technique, Aaron went from writing, yes, 2,000 to 10,000 words per day. I can’t recommend her book highly enough.
So, that is essentially how I recommend going about novel writing. This technique works great for NaNoWriMo, too, because by giving yourself time to pre-write every chapter, you make it possible to write the actual chapter very quickly. It also keeps the outline loose enough for approaching chapters that you can modify or completely change it as you go.
There’s one more piece of the puzzle, one I myself am still working on, and that is to keep moving forward.
Don’t Look Back
This has been the toughest thing for me to learn, and is likely why my own novel writing tends to slow down around the middle. Oh, I eventually get the book done, but I need to work on getting my stories done faster.
In fact, I had a dream the other night that I had written a few books from beginning to end, using the “Plowing Through” method, and published them. I remember that they were crazy stories, but wanted to go back and revise and re-publish them. Then, I woke up and remembered that I hadn’t written them at all. I felt a loss.
Then, I saw this picture posted on Facebook, with a quote by Joshua Wolf Shenk. It’s what prompted me to write this post.
On the chance you can’t read the graphic, it says, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”
I fell into this same trap after writing the first third of Bodacious Creed. Now, fortunately, I didn’t do a ton of rewriting on that first third. I made a few changes since, by writing it, I understood the world and the characters better. Still, it held me back from continuing on to the next third.
I still haven’t finished the novel! I’d estimate that I’m about halfway done now, with really exciting stuff coming up that I want to write about, but just haven’t gotten to. It’s because I still have the notion sitting there in the back of my mind that it needs to be good the first time around. Shenk is right. To paraphrase, have the courage to write a crappy first draft.
What I should have done is taken notes on the changes I wanted to make, and gone on with the story as if I had made the changes already. That’s what I recommend. It’s what I will do from now on. It would make reading the first draft very confusing to anyone else, but so what? I’m not handing it out yet.
Keep using the methodology I laid out in “Plan Ahead Wisely” until the first draft is done. Write notes about what you would like to change later along the way. The first big accomplishment in writing a book is having a first draft.
Once that’s done, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to make story changes to bring everything together. As Shenk said, you’ll know the shape of the thing.
Your Grain of Salt
I hope you will take this to heart, especially if you’re fairly new to writing, or generally struggle with your novels. However, while I believe the techniques I’ve outlined will work for most writers, some authors work very differently. I believe that the end of a story should arise organically from everything that came before. Some writers start with the end and write backward, and somehow make the end work perfectly. For me, plowing ahead without any foresight, or sticking too rigidly to an outline that doesn’t work for the characters, will cause writer’s block. Some writers can both plow ahead and force their characters to stay in line. They can always change the characters in the next draft.
The more you write, the more you’ll learn what works for you. So, take this all with a proverbial grain of salt. I might also save you months or years.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” — Terry Pretchett