Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Two

In the first part of this blogpost, I talked about some of the pitfalls of writing a first novel and how the inexperienced novellist (ie. me) can find themselves swimming around in a sea of confusion; getting nowhere fast.  This often leads to the said novellist (again, me) giving up.  In today’s post, I’ll look at how, in my second attempt, I went about planning my idea before I set off on another writing journey.

Look everyone.  I’m writing a novel.  Pass me a floatation aidsea

As I explained yesterday, after the disappointment of my first novel-writing effort, I couldn’t bring myself to dive into the whole process again.  Oh no. It wasn’t for me.  It was far too big a venture.  I’d stick with short stories, thank you very much.

But slowly, curiosity got the better of me.  As my writing skills improved, I wondered if this time I could manage it.  Maybe.  Maybe, I could.

Of course, being of a tentative disposition, I decided that, if I put my toe into the waters of creativity again, it would require an enormous pair of artistic armbands.  This came in the form of some sensible research – what I probably should have done the first time.  I bought James McCreet’s Before You Write a Word.  Having come across his articles in Writing Magazine, I had faith that he would guide me safely through all the treacherous procedures, and show me how best to plan my novel.

An extremely useful book, McCreet advocates strict and thorough planning (giving really clear examples throughout).  If I’m honest, I read the book but struggled to follow everything he recommended.  It’s great advice (though the subject matter, at times, is as dry as planning itself), and though I’m sure it makes everything easier in the long run, personally, I needed a much looser method of structuring my ideas. My creativity doesn’t work in the same way as McCreet’s.  Until I start writing, my imagination doesn’t fire up.  By this I mean, it’s in the practical process of producing a story that the characters come alive for me; their relationships, actions and motivations becoming clear in my mind.  I couldn’t possibly plot an entire story in diagram or chart form before writing a word.  Not at this stage in my writing experience, anyway.

In a further search for guidance, I also checked out Randy Ingermanson’s The Snowflake Method on the internet.  In this approach, the writer builds up the story – in words – from one sentence defining the initial idea, into more detailed paragraphs, then into something much larger – pages and pages of character descriptions, and a synopsis, that is the basis of a book. McCreet’s method is mainly linked with charts and diagrams.  The Snowflake Method seems more concerned with planning through words.  At this point in time, I’m happiest with a combination of both.  However, I’m also aware that, in future, I need to rein myself in from the urge to write, and spend more time thinking the story through.

Got an idea?  Yee-haw!

So how did I go about planning my novel?  Initially, I started with a couple of characters, and from this came an idea – this was the way it worked for me.  I know, for others, it works in different ways.

1.       With my characters in mind, I got an A3 sheet of paper, and produced a spider diagram, starting with my main characters at the centre and all the jobs/places/characters connected with them, (and showing how they are inter-related) spinning off the main body. The advantage of this is that it’s easy to look at, and you get a handle on who’s who whenever you need to.

2.       Next, I wrote a list of all possible conflicts/resolutions linked with any of the characters in the story.  Although I ended up with lots of possibilities and storylines, which can be confusing at times, it also meant I could pick and choose which routes I wanted to follow and which I wanted to discard.

3.       For each main character I wrote a monologue.  This gave me a ‘feel’ of what I wanted the character to sound like in the book, making them distinct in my mind from the other characters.

4.       I wrote a loose plan (synopsis) of the story of about four A4 sides – which has helped me to visualise the plot in its entirety. 

5.       As I started to write, I could then pad out the original spider diagram (and the conflicts/resolutions) with more characters, as plotlines and situations arose.

Slow down, you move too fast

My planning methods have been far from perfect.  I now understand that I should have written a character monologue for most of the characters involved, not just the main ones.  Some of the minor personalities seem very weak; two dimensional representations of real people.  If they don’t feel real to me, then how on earth can a reader be fully drawn into the story?  writing-novel

I admit, I didn’t think I had to be too thorough, because I already had a clear mental image of each character’s behaviour and personality in advance.  But still, had I spent more time getting to know the intricacies of the characters (their likes, dislikes, mannerisms, musical tastes, figures of speech, etc) the novel-writing process would have been much smoother.  Instead, characters have evolved as I’ve been writing, and now, I shall have to go back and change a lot of the initial story.  Occasionally, my ideas haven’t worked out because I didn’t consider that a certain character’s behaviour might make a situation unlikely, which has taken me off track. 

Basically what I’m saying is, I know you’re in a rush to get writing, and yes the planning process is a chore, but try to spend as much time as you can focusing on the plot and characters before you even begin. 

As I’ve already said, part of my problem is that I find it difficult to define the entire plot until I actually get some prose onto paper, but this is where my character monologues come in.  When I’m writing a monologue, it’s actually a short story – an autobiography of one of the people who will make an appearance in the novel.  It’s written in the first person, and in their voice. 

Writing from the perspective and voice of the people in your story makes them more real to you, so take the time to get to know them.   It’s like you’re getting to know someone you’ve just met – the more time you spend with them, the more you absorb information about what makes them tick. 

It’s all part of planning, and the stronger your planning, and the more you know the characters, the easier it will be to write.  

And if you’re novel’s easier to write, you’re more likely to stick at it, aren’t you?

I’d be interested in hearing your tips for making the writing process simpler.


Filed under Novel, Planning, Writing

3 responses to “Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Two

  1. Hi Sally, I agree that flexibility is a key element in the planning process, and also find monologues a great device for getting to know characters thoroughly, (It turns them into real people) I did the reverse to you, wrote a book, and then shorter (first person POV) stories evolved out of it. I’m constantly learning new things about the characters as a result of the shorter stories and the book is now being edited with this in mind. It definitely makes the interaction more dynamic and realistic.

    • Cheryl, that’s a great idea (writing character stories that evolve from a longer work of fiction). There are always some characters that stand out more than others in a piece of writing, aren’t there? Those that you feel are quite enigmatic and you want to draw more out of, and those that are simply a pleasure to write about. I noticed on your blog that you’d had some work published – great that you are having some success with your wonderful talents. Thanks for commenting by the way. I loved your site, and I shall be revisiting it.

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