|By Antonio Litterio
Does your novel have a beginning, a muddle, and an end? Do you want to find out the secrets of a well-rounded, satisfying story? First, discover what kind of writer you are by answering these 3 simple questions:
1. At the supermarket, do you:
a) dash round grabbing the first things you see because you’ve run out of food, time, or both
b) Visit once a week at exactly the same time, with a list (and a full stomach).
2. Fancy a holiday?
a) Yay! When do we go? I love surprises!
b) No, thanks. Every year I rent the same little cottage for two weeks in August, in a place where all the locals know me.
3. Is your working day…
a) A roller coaster of triumphs and disasters, with snack and/or cigarette breaks here and there to liven up the mix
b) A production line of completed tasks and problem solving, and you always get ready for the next day’s work before you leave.
If you answered a) to those questions, you’re more likely to wing your way through your writing, without much forethought. Answering b) means you like the order outline and planning brings to your life. I’ve written successful novels using both methods, and each has their good and bad points.
ADVANTAGES: Just sitting down and letting the words pour out is a great way to get a first draft finished in record time. If you’re a planner who’s written their way into a cul-de-sac, letting your mind wander and writing free-form for a change can pole-vault you over your problems.
DISADVANTAGES: You don’t jump into a car without some idea of where you’re going (I hope). Winging it while writing might turn your original short story into a 100,000 word epic, which still has no end in sight. On the other hand, if you’ve planned in so much detail any suggested revisions have you reaching for the gin bottle, you’ve lost sight of the release (and enjoyment) writing can bring.
I wrote my historical novel, Jewel Under Siege, without any formal plan. Researching a non-fiction project on the eleventh-century daredevil, Robert Curthose, I discovered 3 things:
– Robert would make good comic relief for a serious story,
– Not all mediaeval ladies culled florets and sighed in solars—some rolled up their sleeves and ran successful businesses, and
– Talking rather than fighting is the best way to counter ignorance and bigotry.
I sat down and blasted my way through the first three chapters, and then wrote the last one. This was to give me an idea how my characters would get their Happy Ever After moment. Then I went back and filled in the thousands of words which were missing from the middle of the book.
With the first rough draft finished, I put the manuscript aside for a while to let it marinate (to find out why this is always a good idea, however you write, take a minute to read this).
In second and subsequent drafts of Jewel Under Siege, I tightened everything up, made sure timings agreed and all the continuity was right. By the time it was published, I’d had a whale of a time, but the whole process took me several months longer than the writing of my next release, His Majesty’s Secret Passion.
Before starting to write His Majesty’s Secret Passion, I spent a lot of time thinking how the internal conflicts of Sara, my career-obsessed heroine, could strike sparks off hero Leo, a man who has abandoned his own career for the sake of family loyalty. Once I’d filled out a sheet of details for both Sara and Leo, I was ready to start my first draft.
Send an email with the words Character Sheet in the subject line to christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, and I’ll send you a copy of the detailed form I fill in for each of my fictional characters.
I’ve written here about the joys and woes of the Scrivener writing package. It’s a kind of virtual filing cabinet where you collect every link, image and note you need, and produce your manuscript, all in one place. You can have hours of fun naming folders and dividing every chapter into individual scenes, complete with sidebar of notes for each one. If you use the basic Three Act Structure for your novels—I’ll be talking about that next time—writing sessions become an easy matter of opening your Scrivener project and seeing at a glance what you should be doing next.
I’m a Scrivener devotee, but I’ve also used Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake system with success. This is a more free-form approach. You start by identifying the big idea at the heart of your novel, then gradually add layer on layer of more detail. In the same way every snowflake is built up of simple shapes, your book grows organically into a novel of many facets. I like Snowflake a lot, but Scrivener stops my desk disappearing under a sea of Post-It notes and scrappy bits of paper!
If you don’t want to use a commercial word-processing package like Scrivener or Snowflake, try making a simple “And Then” list of all the important and exciting events in your story. This way you can make sure you’ve got plenty of page-turning action, and juggle the order before you start writing.
Here’s the “And Then” list I could have used for the beginning of His Majesty’s Secret Passion‘s first chapter—
Sara—shark attack? And then…
Leo saves her, and then…
She’s embarrassed —it was a false alarm. And then…
Attraction tussles with suspicion, until…
Leo’s distracted by his jealous PA, but…
He’d rather help an injured woman than socialise, although…
Sara’s recent history makes her put up barriers, and so…
Leo takes direct action…
There’s an added benefit of this type of brief list. It makes creating a detailed synopsis easy later on, when you’ve settled on the content and order of your story.
When it comes to writing, are you a free spirit, or a planner?