On Writing a Novel : Planning and Research, a Prologue

stephenking

This post will begin my three-part examination of writing a novel. I have written two manuscripts in the last two and half years, which makes me neither an authority nor a novice on the subject. However, writing and revising a manuscript is something I have done with a degree of success. If success in measured by the manuscripts being readable, agents responding to my query and pages, or my CPs not cringing when I send pages.

Since this is my blog, I choose to believe it is.

The first part of my examination will hit on Drafting — the horrible, rough, manic, shit-storm that makes beautiful novels possible.

The second part will cover the blood-bath that is Revision, which will steal your joy, and rob your faith, and create something actually worth reading.

The third part will delve into handling critique, revising on feedback, polishing and spit shining. In other words, getting that baby ready to query.

To have a novel you can pitch to agents you must have revised and polished it. To revise you must have a finished draft, and to that end you must also have some idea of what you are writing the book about, who is narrating, and so on.

Before we get to the three stages of writing a novel, we will spend some time in the land of pre-writing.

Prologue:

Planning and Research

Everyone handles this stage a little differently. I can tell you what I do, and you can tell me it is wrong, and we will somehow both be accurate. As a non-plotter, my planning does not include a written outline. I spend a lot of time listening to the narrative voice in my head. Asking questions. Trying to understand who this person is and why her story is worthy of telling.

This sounds mythical and unknowable, but what it really means is I cannot sit down to write until I have heard and defined the characters voice in my head.

Write Tip #1: Voice is the hardest thing to revise. If you do not have a distinct narrative voice, you will struggle with more in revision. Make sure you are listening to your protagonist from the beginning.

Once I am jiving with my MC, the plot begins to take shape in my mind. I am of the school of thought that “plotting” means knowing the large movements in the story in a vague and changeable way. You should know the big plot points, and you should have an idea of the goals, the stakes, and so on, but so much of writing (for me) is about the chase. If I know everything ahead of time, I loose that since of wonder at uncovering the true story.

Write Tip #2: You can always go back and add in, but you must keep moving forward in order to ever know what needs to be fixed.

Research is a funny thing, and can be done in a myriad of ways. My friend Lindsay Cummings took self-defense classes and handgun courses and walked around with a knife in her boot to better understand her protagonist Meadow. For my first manuscript, I researched as I drafted, which I do not recommend. But I was just learning, and my protagonist, she wasn’t too sure what was actually going on in her world.

For my second manuscript, Of Blood and Promises, I wrote 5,000 words and then I decided I should maybe have some things defined about this world — which has its foundations in Polynesian culture — before I went any further.

Write Tip #3: Research is essential. You can never write a book without some level of knowledge or inspiration backing you. Don’t think you have to know everything about your world up front, but know enough that you aren’t the blind leading the blind.

Once you have a grasp on your world, and you know what Trichotillomania (if you are writing a book with a protagonist that suffers from hair pulling disorder, like a friend of mine is), or when the fall of the Roman Empire occurred (if you’re writing an MC with an interest in world history), it’s time to bite the bullet and start drafting.

Write Tip #4: The blinking cursor in the blank Word doc is villain to your confidence. Just start typing. Be willing to put aside your research, to trash your outline, to start in the wrong place and write sentences that will make you cringe in shame. We all start somewhere. And it’s always slogging through shit at first.

Next up : Drafting until it’s Drafted

Processes

Lady Writer

I’m doing this workshop with author Nova Ren Suma. If you don’t know her books yet, or haven’t found her blog, you can follow my links below. She is brilliant, as a writer, and supremely cool as a person.

Nova stuff:

Blog

Goodreads for her books Imaginary Girls and 17 & Gone 

Twitter handle @novaren

Someone in the workshop, which is also full of talented budding writers, requested we share our specific writing process. I was formulating my response, and decided it would make a great blog post. Or, a decent one anyway.

The writing process is as subjective as reading can be. There is no ONE RIGHT WAY, just as there is no ONE RIGHT OPINION. By necessity, not desire, I am a very flexible writer. Which is why my process must be discussed in two parts.

New York:

We lived in Brooklyn for close to two years. I began writing my novel sometime in October of 2011. At that point I was writing during my son’s naps. I made my goal 1500 words a day. I usually achieved that, and if I didn’t, I tried to make up for it. (FYI this may have contributed to by first draft’s utter shittiness.) But I completed the first draft at 72,000 words in April of 2012. Then the revisions began, or the rewrites, or the slashings. Over the summer I got a college student friend of a very reliable friend to come keep my son five hours a day, three days a week. Then my son would nap, so I could write more.

That writing took place at a cafe. I wrote, tried to decipher the wonder of Twitter, and blogged, in the bustle. I have learned to tune everything out when writing. (Like, right now, my son is jumping up and down beside me on the couch. I DONT CARE.) Unfortunately, people in my life seem annoyed by my single-mindedness. I have a sibling who now thinks my only response to life-altering news is, “Umm-hmm, that’s interesting.” Followed by the tapping of keys.

We traveled a lot during our time in NYC. I wrote on airplanes, library’s, the obgyn. This meant that I also had to write through my exhaustion, or boredom, or desire to have some fun.

Texas:

(Current writing process, most of the time. Only been this way four weeks.)

Monday, Wednesday, & Friday my son attends Montessori school. I write pretty much the entire time he is there. Sometimes, I make my dear husband go get him from school to eek out a few more minutes. I have a dedicated workspace that may be my favorite place in the world. I have written about it before on my blog here. It’s up a ladder on the thrid floor of our house which overlooks an exspanse of oak trees budding out for spring.

My productivity is shocking in this environment. My husband has recently asked me, (to my standard self-absorbed response) if make-up and showering had gone out the window in the light grand inspiration.

I can honestly say, though, that I consider each incarnation of my writing process to be worthwhile. Being able to write no matter where you are and what is going on is really important. Certain kinds of writing are better in certain places. Certain foods and drink can encourage certain words and emotions, just like music can. I drank moonshine once for character development. (Not reccommended.) But all forms, all processes, are valid.

I don’t plot. I spend a lot of time revising and mulling because of this. At this stage in revision I do plan scenes and subsequent scenes when a rewrite is in order. I do a lot of jotting, and going, “Yeah, that’s better. I don’t want to punch that scene in the groin anymore.”

To each his own.

So, what’s your process? If you care to share.