Starting a Second Novel: the Benefit of Hindsight
Writing my first novel has been a mammoth learning experience. At least 70% of the effort involved has been a question of learning craft, learning about the publishing industry, building an online platform. There’s a reason why most first novels take five years to write. I had to restart it so many times I feel as though I’ve written four novels, not one. But there’s also good news.
A method has emerged organically, by trial and error over the last five years, which will help me complete future books more fluently and efficiently.
I’m a very intuitive writer and have a lot of faith in the subconscious as the curator of emotional truth, but there comes a point (usually three to five chapters into a new book) when I have to stand back and ask “What am I writing here?”
- I find images that feel right for my characters, where they live, the stuff they own, the people they care about, and enter them into Scrivener. Sometimes I print them and stick them to a board I keep opposite my desk so I can see them when I look up.
- I construct several one page synopses, each one exploring different possible directions.
- I take this to my weekly critique group and ask them which is the most intriguing synopsis, or how I can tweak the best of the bunch to create a story they’d like to read. I also ask myself the same question.
- Then I start working with structure in a longer synopsis of 3-5 pages. Which are the five main scenes that the story can’t do without? What theme emerges from this skeletal outline?
- Put flesh on the bones, developing the characters further by asking them why they’re making certain choices, what they hope to gain, and what they perceive the obstacles to be (may be different than the actual obstacles because they have yet to achieve the growth that will allow them to prevail).
- At this point I choose which events need to happen around the skeletal five scenes the story can’t be without for that growth to be possible and believable.
- Consider what motifs, images, locations and supporting characters would best present and support these ideas to the reader.
- Finally, I take a look at what I’ve got and ask again: Would I want to read this book? Is it worth the investment of time required to read it? What kind of emotional roller coaster have I constructed—could I make the highs higher and the lows lower? Are they occurring at the right places in the ride? Have I given enough places for readers to catch their breath?
This is all done before writing any more chronological chapters, though I may write a few more random snippets, jumping around the story to explore ‘voice’, perspective, and motivations. Those things seem to come from my subconscious and can’t be coldly plotted. I have to write for them to emerge. I may use those scenes, incorporating them into the synopsis to see if they deserve a place there or not. Or I might glean the useful parts of the random snippets to use elsewhere.
While all this is going on I’m also researching. Haphazard research isn’t much use to anybody, but I use Scrivener to curb my natural tendency to scribble research on napkins and index cards that the cat sweeps off the desk and the dog subsequently chews. Check out a screenshot of it here:
But the bottom line is that in synopsis or outline form I can see the whole novel quickly and clearly.
It’s the difference between standing too close to an impressionist painting and standing back from it. When you stand back you can view the whole at a glance and the dizzying, kaleidoscopic dots of color suddenly make sense.
That’s how I work, but what about you? Do you prefer to write by the seat of your pants? Or do you have all sorts of plotting and character templates you fill in before you start? Do you write the first draft organically but use charts, cards and templates to edit?