Saturday 19 August 2017

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel (a crooked path, of course)

Okay, I tricked you.  You thought this was going to be a humour column.  Not so fast.  Yes, it’s about writing humorous books,
because that’s what I write.  But I’m sure this could apply to most books.

Writing a novel, or even a novella, means hours and hours of work at a keyboard.  Hundreds of hours.  Maybe even a thousand hours for a full-length novel.

Some of those hours are great fun.  Others, not so much.  Why is it that some scenes are a kick to write, and others just drudgery?

Here’s what Agatha Christie said in the Foreword to Crooked House, one of her “special favourites.” 
“I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure…Again and again someone says to me: ‘How you must have enjoyed writing so and so!’ This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. “

Christie was referring to books, but I think the same can be said for scenes.  Some, you can’t wait to write.  Others are purgatory.  Here’s my own method for plodding through the fire.

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel

I always start with what I call a “light outline.”  Yes, I outline.  But I don’t outline every scene, or even list every scene.  Instead, I start with ‘Three Acts and a Finale.’  Here’s the minimum I know before I start a book:

Inciting moment , Crisis 1 (in a murder mystery, the first murder,) Crisis 2 (the second murder,) Crisis 3 (includes the black moment, usually danger for the protagonist,) Finale  (solving of crime.)

Yes, I write it down.  I use Excel for this.  When I have more thought out, I add it in.  When I get new ideas, I make notes on my schematic so I don’t forget them.  (I understand Scrivener is terrific for this.  Some people use post it notes on a white board.  Different strokes, but the same idea.)

So here’s the question I often get asked by my Crafting a Novel students:  Do I write in order, from A to Z?

No, I don’t.

I always write the beginning chapters first.  I do that, because I want to see if the characters are compelling enough to carry an entire book.  Meaning, do I like the protagonist, do I care about her, and am I really excited to write her story.  It may take a whole year to do so.  I better freaking well want to live her life for a while.

If that works (meaning, if I like the first few chapters) then I’ll usually skip to the end, and write Crisis 3 and the finale.  I’ve just said something big there:  Yes, I always know the ending before I start the book. 

I like to write the ending before I’m too invested in the project, because I want to know that it rocks.  If it doesn’t rock, then I’m probably not going to want to invest another 500 hours writing the middle of the book.

So once I’ve written the beginning and the end, THEN do I write in order?

Not always.

Here’s my trick:  I continue to move forward.  But sometimes I skip scenes I’m not in a mood to write.  I’ll put a note in brackets on the manuscript to fill in later.

I can’t explain it, but some scenes are just hard to write.  I put off writing them.  This is where many of my students go wrong.  When they hit a scene like that, they just stop.

The trick is not to walk away from the keyboard.  Instead, go on to another scene that you do want to write. 

When your manuscript is 90% finished, you will have the incentive to go back and complete those hard scenes.  It will still be work.  But the lure of the finish line makes it easier.

Why don’t I write a complete outline, scene by scene?  I’m one of those authors who gets bored if I know *exactly* what is coming next.  If I have to write a fully scripted story for an entire year, it feels like drudgery.  So this is what works for me:  know where I am going in each act, but not exactly how I will get there.  Be willing to make changes along the way, if I stumble across a brilliant new route to the ending.  Heck, even change the ending, if a better destination presents itself along the journey.

And that’s what makes it all fun.

 Coming Sept 5:  WORST DATE EVER!  A book that was great fun to write.  Christie would approve.

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