On Writing a Novel : Planning and Research, a Prologue

Writing Rambles


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.


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