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How to write a novel: plan in advance, or not?

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What is the best way to write a novel?  Let’s explore two common methods.  I’ve tried both.  Each can work well: which is best for you will depend on how you write and what you are writing.

Before we look at that, let me cite the US fantasy author Stephen R Donaldson, who was once asked by an admirer how to achieve success in writing.  “Start today,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson’s advice is great.  If you want to start writing fiction, don’t wait until the conditions are perfect and all the stars are aligned (“I’m waiting until the kids grow up”; “I have to get some new writing software”; “I’m too busy right now”).  Set aside some time tonight, this afternoon or even this morning; get out a pen and paper;  and start writing.

How do you begin?

How to begin?  There are different ways of writing a novel

The first method is taught in writing courses and top universities across the world.  You should plan your story around a standard structure.  This structure is set out in a thousand primers – try googling “narrative structure” or “three act structure”.

This plan goes back to the ancient Greeks.  That’s no bad thing: it has stood the test of time.  In brief:

  • the first part (or “act”) of your story introduces your main characters and describes their situation, usually including a problem or conflict;
  • the second part involves an “inciting act” (eg: a letter in the post; discovery of a body; a glance across a crowded room) leading to, or highlighting, a conflict or problem.  This then escalates, perhaps via a series of mini-crises, to become a crisis;
  • the third part sees the main character or characters developing and changing (“digging deeper than ever before”) to a climax where they overcome the crisis, often preceded by a section where it seems that “all is lost”.  This leads on to the end of the story, with the main character in a new equilibrium.

To supplement this planning process, writing schools teach you that you should develop your characters.  You should know everything about them.  Each should have desires, goals, a past, maybe some secrets and surprises.  Again, if you google “how to craft compelling characters” you will find lots of good stuff.  You should know everything about your characters, as if they were your sister, your brother, or your best friend.  That way, they will come across in your fiction as realistic and fascinating.

You should also, according to conventional wisdom, do plenty of research to make sure your novel sits well in the period or setting in which you write it.

This method works brilliantly for many writers.  I recommend it.  This is how I wrote my successful Berlin thriller Blood Summit.  But it is not the only way to write a novel.  Indeed, the writer Martin Amis said: “The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block.”  (Amis also recommends writing in longhand.)

For some writers, all that planning, structure and preparation is like swimming through peanut butter: possible, but incredibly hard work.  Some writers may not have the time, the inclination or the patience to plan out their novels, do their research, and imagine their characters before they even start writing.  Or they may simply feel that all that structure doesn’t feel very creative.  

For such people, we have the second method of writing a novel.

The most famous exponent of this method is the fantastically successful novelist Stephen King.  He sets it out in his book “On Writing“.  Many professional writers and reviewers hate “On Writing”, but I like it both its short autobiography about how King became a writer (he didn’t find it easy) and his thoughts on how to write, which I found revolutionary.

King says he doesn’t plot or prepare his books at all.  He simply starts with a situation, eg: “two children lost in the woods find something sticking out of the ground”.  He then writes on, letting the story develop.  The lack of advance preparation means he can write quickly, producing a novel in around three months.  He then sets the novel aside (“in the drawer”) and does something else for another three months, before returning to review, rewrite and improve the novel, which may take months more.

I’ve tried this technique for two novels: my comedy “Sex and the Summit”, which is in the drawer for the time being, and my sequel to “Sex and the Summit”, code-named “The Boyfriend”, which is also in the drawer awaiting revision.

My experience was that using King’s method, I wrote the novels relatively quickly.  But when I came to revise them, they needed a lot of polishing and revision.  Taking these two stages together, this second method probably took me about the same amount of time to produce a decent first draft as the first method.  But there are big differences:

  • Method 1 is more predictable.  You know where you are going.  This may be important if, for example, you are planning a big twist or “reveal” in your plot.  Each time you sit down to write, you have some idea where you are in the story.
  • Method 2 is, for me, a bit scarier.  You have no idea where the plot is going.  You may sit down to revise what you wrote last time (see my blog How to write a novel: edit as you go along, or not?) and discover your characters have decided to do something quite unexpected and alarming.  You may sometimes puzzle over what to write today, or things may move forward at a cracking pace;
  • Method 2 is more spontaneous.  Some people may find it more fun.

Which method is right for you?  My advice is to try Method 1 as the default, because that is what most writing courses teach.  But bear in mind that Method 2 is an alternative; and consider using it if Method 1 isn’t working for you.

Two parting thoughts, both from famous writers I have had the privilege to hear speaking.  I once heard P D James, a consummate professional, say that when she was writing her detective whodunnits, she often did not know herself who had done it until the novel was completed.  This depressed me, as I enjoy guessing who the murderer is, and her revelation seemed to make any attempt to guess utterly pointless.  But I mention it because it shows that even a top suspense writer may not always plan his or her novels carefully in advance.

Finally, William Boyd, another favourite author of mine.  He once said at a reading that he’d written a story set in South East Asia (Indonesia, as I recall) which was praised for its verisimilitude.  But he had never visited the country concerned.  So research may not be all it is cracked up to be, either.

Finally, whichever method I use to write my novels, I always use the “scenes and sequels” structure I wrote about in an earlier blog.

Enjoy your writing!

P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please follow me on Facebook.  Or you can join my mailing list – I’ll be delighted to give you a free “Hotel Story” to say thanks.  Check out the range of writing on this site via my 5 pleasure paths.

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1 Comment

  1. Wolfgang Tumler says:

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    >

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