Everybody has their own way of working, and not one of those ways is any better than the others, because it really is all down to the individual and what works for them. Some people have the idea for a novel in mind, and then one day they just sit down and go for it:
Title Page, Dedication, Page 1, Chapter 1: It was a dark and stormy night… and they keep going until …and they lived happy ever after. They don’t plan as such, they just go where the breeze takes them and follow their authorial nose.
For these writers, the process is one of discovery. It’s a journey, a literary mystery tour. The theory being, I suppose, that the reader, following in their footsteps, will share the same sense of adventure the writer feels as they create. My problem with using this approach, which I have used in the past, is that it’s a bit of a tightrope act. It’s too easy (and there are too many ways) to lose your footing and fall off. Been there, done that, still got the bruises to prove it.
Other people are bullet-point people, a subset of which I have also been a member. Usually they’re those writers working to a long-established formula of their genre, such as romance: girl finds boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back again, which is a perfectly respectable three-act structure – a beginning, a middle, and an end. They work to a set number of words proven to appeal to the avid readers of the genre, with a set number of chapters, and they plan it out accordingly in the aforementioned bullet-points:
Chapter 1 (of10): A meets B while windsurfing. Immediate attraction. Accidentally see each other naked while changing. Part to go their separate ways, but can’t stop thinking about each other. Chapter 2 (of 10): A is invited by C and D to a party, to meet a man, X, they think may be right for her. X unfortunately turns out to be a total creep in chic clothing and A hates him. Just as A is about to leave, disappointed, she spots B in a corner talking to an attractive girl (F). A approaches…
It’s easy to see the attraction of this kind of black-and-white workmanlike approach. Everything is very clearly delineated, and it’s a perfect anatomical skeleton on which to later start adding flesh.
My own process, refined over the years, is actually a bit of a mixture of the above.
The first task of any new project is to set up a dedicated notebook, which can never be used for anything else. (Not even shopping lists, to my wife’s chagrin.) The first three pages are always left blank, for reasons I will explain later. I will already have a number of ideas in mind, apart from the main thrust of the plot or main characters, and I will begin to jot these down first. I will add to these notes over a period of weeks (or months if this is a long term project) as and when they occur.
These ideas will include:
Character descriptions, names, descriptions of locations, seasonal weather patterns, snatches of dialogue, connections between characters, sub-plots, back-stories, links, the outline of specific scenes, twists and turns, mirroring, time-scales, time-lines, bits and bobs of research, or lists of things to research before I start writing, and on and on…
All of these will be jotted down, usually entirely out of sequence, and while they’re in progress I won’t try to organise them. The only concession I make is that as I go along I put character names (once finalised) in the three blank pages at the start of the notebook, along with their function, to start building up a cast list for easy reference: John Johnson (brother of Kate, dentist, sadist), Kate Harper, nee Johnson (main character, degree in Psychology, in process of getting a divorce), etc.
When I run out of ideas to make note of, that’s the novel in the bag. Then it’s a process of organising all the ideas into an effective linear structure, moving things about until the shape is just right. Not all of the ideas pan out, of course, and others have to be amended or expanded, but in the main I will have everything I need to write the novel. (If I find I do need the rejects, after all, they’re sitting in the notebook, patiently waiting for me.) Then I just have to do it, having a well-thought out journey planned, but with the freedom to go out on a limb (or a tightrope), safe in the knowledge that if I should fall I have already installed my safety-net.
Writing’s so simple.
So why is it so difficult?