England, Italy, London, Milan, Minnesota, novel writing, organized crime, outline, Psych, St. Paul, synopsis, Uncategorized
So far I have written six novels, each of which is a standalone book. Three of them take place in the St. Paul, Minnesota and three of them are located in Europe (one in a fictitious prison camp somewhere in England, one in London and one mostly in Milan, Italy). In the past few years I haven’t written any novels at all, but instead concentrated on nonfiction and poetry. Nevertheless, I have, from time to time, tried to come up with plots that might lend themselves to a full-length novel. Here are just a few of the possible contenders:
1. A guy who is having a midlife crisis decides to quit his job and head off on a road trip across the USA. The story also involves his relationship with his father, whom he had always admired, until… he discovers a dark secret about him that changes his whole perspective. His route takes him through small towns and large cities and he has encounters with various people, including a number of weirdoes, criminals and crackpots. At one point he is held hostage during a bank robbery. The back story unfolds, as he travels, through the use of flashbacks.
Here it is unclear whether the story has “legs.” Is there enough of a basic plot to last a whole book? Possibly not. There would need to be several subplots tied to the main plot in order to make it credible as a 70k+ word novel. Also, the idea of a guys simply doing a road trip seems kind of aimless. He would need to be searching for something specific.
I used to write in a kind of haphazard way – just kind of threw words down in draft form – and relied on the revision process to make everything right. After a while I found that that strategy didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. The reason was that when I came to revise I always regretted not having done a better job first time around. I also found that when revising something I’d already written in draft format there was a huge reluctance to make anything other than minor changes to the text. It was even worse if something needed to be rewritten. I would tamper with it, tweak it or delete parts of it; anything to avoid doing what was obviously needing to be done.
Eventually I hit on the solution and made the decision that I would write the best I could first time round in order to avoid all the tedious rewriting and tinkering later. Kind of no-brainer, really. It worked. The only thing I found was that I had to be on form every time I sat down to write – or at least I had to force myself to be on form, to make what I wrote decent enough not to need the usual open heart surgery down the line. I’m sure that one decision has halved my writing workload over the years.
On the other hand, one area of revision that I have found indispensible is revising the plot. I usually write to a synopsis, which in this case is a condensed outline of the plot, chapter by chapter, stating roughly how the story moves along towards its conclusion. At some point, hopefully near the start, of writing a novel I come up with a full working synopsis to guide me through the book. However, I have also found that I have to keep making adjustments to it in order to get it to work properly. The last thing you need is to have written 40k-50k words, only to discover you’ve painted yourself into a corner and need to go back and rewrite chunks of the action or dialog, or worse, whole chapters. Don’t get me wrong; I still go back and rewrite from time to time, but writing a good synopsis, I have found, is one way of ensuring that it’s kept to a minimum.
There is more than one way of skinning a cat – if you happen to be of a particularly gruesome and revolting frame of mind – and there is more than one way of writing a novel. Mike Faricy, another indie novelist, doesn’t take that approach. He says that the plot unfolds as he is writing and that plot turns comes as just as much of a surprise to him as it does to the reader. I used to do that too, but it usually involved considerable rewriting and back-story insertion for me. Mike seems to have mastered it pretty well, because his plots hang together nicely as if he had planned the whole thing from the start. I like the idea of entertaining yourself as well as the reader. Maybe it’s something a lot of authors could learn from. Writing has to be fun; otherwise why do it?
To my mind there are no hard and fast rules about how to plan a work of literature. But what I have found is that my method changes depending on genre. I’ve written two non-fiction books and the method I used was to get a pile of research material and read through it and while reading take notes. The notes were my reflections on the source material and were fairly detailed. Once I had finished with research I would go through my notes and categories them according to theme. Then I would rearrange the notes into section, each section representing a theme. After reviewing the themes I found that some of theme seemed to go together. So I grouped the themes into chapters and hey presto! I had the first draft of a book along with footnotes stating the sources.
But for novels I have a different method. First of all I try out a few opening scenes to see if any of them have legs. Once I’ve written a couple of chapters and I can see where the story is beginning to go I write a synopsis.
It puzzled me for years what the difference was between a working synopsis and a synopsis meant for submission to a publisher. It was only after trial and error that it dawned on me. A working synopsis tends to be more of a description of what I hope to achieve in each chapter rather than a description of what’s actually there. This makes sense if you think about it. When you’re writing a book nothing IS there to begin with because you haven’t written it yet. So when you write a synopsis you’re really giving a description of what a chapter, or part of a chapter, should achieve in terms of the overall plot.
What works for me is to create a table in MS Word with two columns: column 1 for the chapter numbers and column 2 for the synopsis of each chapter.
Each novel I’ve written has been between 28 and 32 chapters, with each chapter being somewhere between 2,400 and 2,600 words.
Another thing I do is to take a note of the number of words I write each day and keep this in a spreadsheet. It’s heartening to glance at it now and then in the course of writing to see how much I’ve written already and how far there is to go.
For one novel, “The Blood Menagerie” I even drew up a flowchart of when each character appeared and what they did. The flowchart had the characters’ names along the top and the chapter numbers down the left hand side.
The only reason I do all this is not because I’m ultra-organized. It’s just that I like fiddling about with calculations and spreadsheets and things. There’s always the danger that I spend time fiddling instead of writing. I’m still waiting ruefully for the day when I put the finishing touches to a pristine and highly complex spreadsheet and suddenly realize that I haven’t actually written anything yet…