How I write a novel (1)

I wish there was a formula.
Do this, so that, and there you are.
But alas, there are as many different ways of writing as there are authors, and each author may not stick to the same method for each novel.

I would love to say that I’m ultra-organised – that I know exactly what I am going to write before I put fingers to the keys, that I have a chapter by chapter synopsis written, that I know how long each chapter will be, and indeed, how many chapters there will be..

There are authors that do it that way. I’m not one of them.

Here’s how it starts: I get an idea. I start mulling over it, usually while I am still writing the previous book. I think about it in the car, under the shower, while exercising or washing the dishes; any spare moment, in fact. I don’t write anything down at this stage.

Here’s how it worked for Heart of the Mirage. I read something about the Disappeared Ones in Argentina – the people who vanished during the Argentina military junta. And that connected with what I knew of the Lost Generation of Aboriginal Australians. And I started to wonder what it would have been like for the young children who were ‘disappeared’. How would they grow up? What sort of adults might they be?

So that’s the first idea. A single idea doesn’t make a book, though; only a short story. Gradually I add a whole lot of other ideas. And then gradually it starts to take form. I build a world and a story – in my mind – to put the ideas in. By the time I am ready to start writing, the basic book is there. I have the fantasy elements, I have a handful of main characters, I have the land, the beginning, the end and a couple of key scenes in between. I’ve jotted down a few key points.

Notice what’s not there: no minor characters, no minor sub-plots, no idea of how I get from the beginning to the next main scene. As I say, I am really disorganised. What I do have at this stage (which is at least a year from when I had the initial idea), is a detailed beginning. I know who is there and what they look like and how they feel. I know all about where they are, and why. I know their weaknesses, their motivations, the tensions between them. I know what they are going to be doing or talking about. I have a good idea of what the next major scene is, but very little idea of how I am going to get there.

That’s when I start writing.

It’s not a method that is going to work for most writers – it is far too unorganised. And yet it seems to work for me. As I begin writing, so much seems to immediately become clear. The characters are so real to me, that they seem to know what they are going to do, or say, all by themselves. They even surprise me sometimes.

It’s a method that has pitfalls. I often have to go back and rewrite bits in, or swap scenes around, or change something because I later realise that the plot needs its underpinnings tweaked before I proceed further. And it has a major advantage.

More about all that tomorrow.


How I write a novel (1) — 7 Comments

  1. As always, a very interesting post!

    I’d be interested in hearing about how you develop your character’s attitudes, dialogue, etc. How much do you draw on your experiences of people you know/have met in real life?



  2. Hi Andrew –
    I’ll talk about that down the road a bit.

    Bernita, you’re not another unorganised writer, are you? Maybe we are more common than I thought?

  3. Dunno about being unorganised. I think the imagination needs some place to breathe … if you structure the life out of something before it’s even been born the chances are it’ll be a fairly stultifying read!

    I too know where I’m starting, know where I’m heading, and have a sense along the way of how to get there. But so much story and character is revealed in the writing …

    I think there’s an enormous leap of faith that takes place when you start a novel. I think that’s one of the issues facing the over-planners: they are afraid of that leap, they are filled with doubts, so they procrastinate by inventing and planning and outlining and structuring — anything rather than closing their eyes and stepping off the cliff into the unknown story.

    I have 2 analaogies. Writing a first draft for me is like attempting to find my way through a room crowded with obstacles while wearing a blindfold.

    It’s also like standing on an enormous magic map. Every time I take a step a little of the upcoming route reveals itself to me … but I’ll never be able to reach my destination if I don’t keep on walking. It’s only by walking that the journey is revealed to me.

    Thanks for sharing your methods with the rest of us — it’s soothing and reassuring!

  4. Bernita, I didn’t say: “we have more in common than I thought”, I said: “We are more common than I thought”. Which – come to think of it – is open to misunderstanding. Hmmm, let me reword that. “There are more disorganised writers around than I thought.” Lol!

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