This is a slightly updated version of an older post, but I wanted to let it surface again because I was talking about this very thing with some friends at Readercon:
There are several good posts on this already, but I’m going to add the things I do. (I completed my fourth novel in March, working on my fifth, so I’m not writing from a huge well of experience, but these things work for me).
By writing, I’m talking construction, how you go about the writing stage of a novel, the activity that takes place after you’ve outlined, planned the arc, and your characters are doing stuff, getting hurt, committing crimes, making eye contact, re-forging ancient swords, drinking blood, whatever.
I’m pretty sure all authors have a particular way of getting things done with common ground that we all have to cover to complete books. I’d love to read what others do–So, if you know of other "How to write a novel" posts out there, let me know.
Here’s what I do, keeping in mind that this is the general flow:
After the overall story ideas are in place in my head and in my journal, I may write a chunk of the ending first. I like to have something to aim for. If things go as they have the last four books, I will then start at chapter 1 and write the chapters in order until I’m about 2/3 through. That’s when things start to go all gappy, inconsistencies will catch up to the characters and demand evening out, holes in the plot yawn open and demand to be filled.
By gappy I mean…picture a landscape full of rocky towers and bluffs, only it’s not erosion that accounts for the space, but that the writer hasn’t gotten around to filling everything in. Think Monument Valley at the southern edge of Utah and northern Arizona. From the side, the last ten chapters of the story look like this:
Okay, now fill it in.
At this point in the process I will also find it difficult to stay with the chapter order and move into story line order, following a particular character far–sometimes to the end before I can go back and pick up a second story line.
To take this one level lower:
I do outline, but it’s rather loose. I need to know where to go, but not necessarily be clear about how to get there, and keep in mind that I usually do a decent amount of thinking, journaling, sketching, painting, and writing scenes, bits of action, before I really dig in to the real writing.
I’ve posted several times on the need for authors to sketch and paint scenes, characters, etc., but in case you haven’t seen those, these are the kinds of things I do for every book. The first is actually all the action from chapter 15 from my current book rolled into one work. The second is a character study, which I use to get a character’s look in my head–mainly so I don’t go overboard on description. It works, I’m telling you.
At some point–after the first eight or nine chapters–I will build a complete chapter list, typically with bad descriptive titles like "Monster kills Anthony." This will be shaky for a while, and whole new chapters will spring up in the middle, others will die and fade from the list.
I write mostly in MS Word because of the Document Map feature, but I do occasionally use OpenOffice. One of these days I’ll get a Mac–but only when I can carry it around in a manila envelope–oh wait, didn’t that just happen? Anyway, it’s been Windows or Linux for me for a while. I’ve heard good things about Scrivener. One of these days.
Here’s what the Doc Map feature in Word looks like (on the left)–I use it mainly to jump between chapters:
And here’s a bit on how the Document Map works.
With the badly headed chapters in a list I can jump to any of them and jot down an idea I think belongs there. I update the outline as the writing progresses because things change, things fit together better in a way I didn’t see in the beginning. Eventually I’ll fold the outline into the chapters, and it all becomes the same document.
Another thing I do to keep the action in a particular unwritten chapter clear is to put the line, "Ends with…" at the end. So in a chapter called, "Monster kills Anthony" I will have something like this:
Ends with Irene standing on the porch holding Anthony’s severed head.
(We obviously want to end chapters with something sharp–or at least much heavier than you thought it would be, with eyes bulging from their sockets and drippy. I know, I’m trying to keep the severed head thing going).
To cap it all off, I think taking the time to just close your eyes and think about the story is as important as the actual writing.
I sit down all the time and just make myself write, but I also need to take some time to think. Best time is early in the morning, somewhere around 5 AM. I don’t get up at that ungodly and undemonly hour, but I sort of drift around in the story soup, blow up the raft, get on and paddle here and there, trying to see how things are going, circling the areas that are giving me trouble. I figure all writers have a pretty good head for their own words, their own story, and you can play it, rewind it, play it back at half speed, rewind… That’s what I do until I get it right.
Okay, now I have to get back to writing.