How do you go about writing a novel? Good question. I’ve been reading, studying, and analyzing different approaches by authors and writing coaches. Why? Because I have a novel basking in various stages of undress in both a computer file and three-ring notebook. A bit of a mess.
Putting together a novel seems similar to decorating a holiday tree. You’ve got this tree, also in a state of undress, set up and waiting for you. It stares at you much as an idea does. “Come on,” it says, “do something.” Boxes of ornaments wait nearby. You start with the tree topper, the first salvo, akin to writing that opening sentence. You step back, assess it, adjust it, look at it from several angles. You finally decide it’s looking good.
Then you start hanging the ornaments. Initially, they fly onto the tree, just as your words may fly onto the paper. Then you begin to slow down and get picky or thoughtful, but you’re still rolling. You step back. There are too many ornaments hanging in one spot, not enough in another. Like a story that’s too thin in some places and too thick in others.
Then you start moving the ornaments from branch to branch. Yup, there you go, moving those chapters or sentences around. Some are better in one place than another. Some just don’t fit at all. You keep stepping back and adjusting; you keep rereading and adjusting.
Finally you spread the tree skirt around the bottom of the tree – the final sentence. After last minute adjustments to the skirt, you place the presents under the tree and step back. Done. But wait. The tree topper is now askew from all the action of decorating. You adjust it. Then decide to change it from a star to a Santa. Then you change it to an angel. Then you put the Santa back. It’s like the opening sentence or chapter you thought was really working. It so often needs to be tweaked. And tweaked again.
On his website Storyfix.com, Larry Brooks deconstructed the novel The Martian by Andy Weir. I read the analysis and then, intrigued, I read the book, one I ordinarily wouldn’t because it’s outside my usual genres. The story is based on the dramatic question, “Will Mark Watney be able to survive on Mars until a rescue plan can be put in motion?” Using the information in the Storyfix.com post, I now plan to go back through the book and study the novel’s structure more closely. (Haven’t seen the film but the book was an exciting read.)
Several weeks ago, I saw Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, interviewed by author Eduardo Santiago. I came away with one of Fitch’s techniques for putting together a novel: decide on 12 scenes you can really see and write them in any order. Then sew them together. Eduardo Santiago, on the other hand, revealed he takes a more structured approach. Made for a good discussion. Pantser vs. Planner. I’m a combination of both. Sometimes I just write and discover, sometimes I plan and discover.
An aside. Because I write short stories, I liked this from Fitch: a short story makes a good screen play. More compact. Less cutting. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx comes to mind. This idea came into the discussion because White Oleander began as a short story. But then the story morphed into a novel and, ultimately, to a film.
I’m closer to having a completed Christmas tree, than I am a completed novel. I’ll keep studying, moving things around until I can step back and say, “Done decorating,” the novel that is – at least the first draft.