Starting a Second Novel: the Benefit of Hindsight

By Posted in - Randomness on May 18th, 2010 7 Comments

This morning I started thinking about which book to write next, which means I’m closing in on the end of my current one, at last. Will I approach the next one differently? You bet.

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?

(7) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Rachna Chhabria - Reply

    May 18, 2010 at 11:22 am

    Lia, I have now developed a way to write the entire plot first in the outline form of 2 to 3 pages. If I am happy with it, then I proceed to do a chapter by chapter outline. Finally I start writing the book based on the detailed chapter summary. But things change as I start writing.
    .-= Rachna Chhabria´s last blog ..Our Internal Conflict Versus Character Conflict =-.

  • Victoria Dixon - Reply

    May 18, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    I wish I could work like this. It takes so much labor out of it, but I learned the hard way, this much pre-planning kills the story for me. I'm a pantser. ;D However, once I've got a first draft done, then I use a chapter by chapter break down of what happens, why and who is touched by it to determine where I'm missing things, what's superfluous, etc.
    .-= Victoria Dixon´s last blog ..Contests and Critiques =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    May 19, 2010 at 6:10 am

    I think my method is based in lack of self-confidence, actually. 🙂

    I'd love to write a first draft without doing any of this work and just blitz to see what comes out, but things didn't work out that way. I was offered representation on the basis of the first twenty pages at a workshop, which was all I had at that point. The agent then asked for a paragraph pitch, a synopsis and an outline because she wanted to stir up some interest with editors during a trip to New York, before I'd finished the first draft. Getting signed early was exciting but very stressful!

    I wonder how different my method would be if things had happened in a different order? But in a way, I'm grateful for this baptism of fire. I found that having to write a synopsis, in particular, helped me to see that I could actually finish this thing. That it has a shape that works and ideas I very much wanted to explore. Except that now I'd do so with my whole mind engaged, not just my subconscious.

    The subconscious is still at play and uppermost when I write the actual scenes. I love the magical surprises that happen then. I don't shoo them away and say "you're not in my synopsis". I get the synopsis out and see if it would be better with the new element included. So I'm not a complete planner. I just feel more confident if I know, at least in principle, where I'm heading.

  • Rachna Chhabria - Reply

    May 19, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Hi Lia… I initially write a short synopsis, a single page one: right down to the ending, then I write a chapter by chapter synopsis, If I am happy with it, then I start the first draft. But things change along the way, Sometimes I even tweak the synopsis to fit the rewrites.
    .-= Rachna Chhabria´s last blog ..Our Internal Conflict Versus Character Conflict =-.

  • nancy Lamb - Reply

    June 21, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    For the last novel I wrote (“completed” about two weeks ago), I began with an opening and an overall plan. Once I started writing, the pieces started to fall into place . . . pieces, I might add, that have been moved around to fit an ever-changing jigsaw puzzle. It took me a little less than a year to find the (semi) final picture. Because, to my mind, a book is never finished. Eventually, you just have to let it go.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    It’s interesting to read about your method for your latest novel, Nancy! Is it always the same for you, or do different books come to you in different ways?

  • nancy Lamb - Reply

    June 21, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    I think every story demands its own approach. In terms of story, my newest is different from anything I’ve ever done. And this one required a different approach. At one point I reversed the action in the entire story, and that meant scores of tiny little pieces flying all over the place. And oops! I just caught another boo-boo this evening, something I didn’t adjust to fit the new structure. Lesson? Never say you “finished” a book.

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