Avril requested a post…

Avril requested a post on novel-writing process (twice) (and Lori, I haven't forgotten your request for a post on the Ph.D. in creative writing; will get to it soon, hopefully), so here goes. (Oh, and btw, got a good four hours of revision work done yesterday, while Jed was here and helping us with Kavi. 11K words revised, 21K words left to revise, which I'm trying to do in the next three weeks at latest, so I can give the first chunk to my other workshop that meets then. And then a whole bunch more words to write...)

I have no clue how to write a novel. This YA is only my second novel, and I think I made a lot of mistakes with the first one. I think I wrote at least thirty short stories before I started to have any sense of how to write a short story, so it's not so surprising that novels bewilder me. Here's what I think I know, though.

With the first novel, I wrote to a detailed outline, which I generated in advance. First I wrote the outline, then I went through it and wrote a paragraph of detail for each chapter, then I broke it down by scene, and then I finally wrote it out.

This was a terrible idea for me (it may work for others, YMMV). The problem is that there were then no surprises as I wrote the book, so it was hard to maintain my interest levels. The book kind of bored me, and I think that makes for boring writing. I like a lot of the individual scenes of the book, I think because I could still surprise myself as I wrote them, adding cool details of dialogue, tension, etc. But the book overall felt like it had a very predictable shape to it, one that I'd carefully constructed in advance. It often felt dead on the page while I was writing, and while I managed to fix some of that in revision, it ended up feeling like much more work than I think it needed to be.

I think I got into this trouble because I'm used to short stories, and specifically, because when I write a short story, I can hold the whole thing in my head before I even start writing. I usually have the beginning, the ending, the characters, and even some chunks of dialogue all worked out before I begin typing. So all the creative bits happen there, in the flexible mind-space, before I get locked down into what's on the page, and I have a lot of room to shift things around to make the most interesting story I can.

I can't do that with a novel; it's too big. So what I'm trying to do with the YA is be much more open as I go. I have a vague idea of what the ending will be, and even some cool bits that will probably come in as I lead up to it. But no outline, detailed or otherwise. And even though I'm mostly writing sequentially (which I hadn't planned to do, because I thought it would be more lively if I just wrote the most interesting scenes to me as they came, but somehow that doesn't seem to be how it's coming out), I'm trying to keep it very fluid, very open to changes at every stage.

One nice thing about this is that at every step, I get to complicate the story as much as I want. In the previous book, I felt sort of trapped within the plot I'd initially set up. Here, I can get to a point where my workshop is telling me that the fantasy world is a bit short on interesting characters and say, okay, let's add in the prince's scheming mother, and his bastard half-brother assistant librarian, and a red-shirt servant girl, and there's plenty of room in the story for them all. It can expand to fit them as necessary.

So far, it's fun. So far, so good. Whether this is the best way to write a novel, I have no idea. I think you just have to jump in and see how it goes. Make up an interesting character, paint her a rich background, give her a big problem (or three), throw her into a difficult and complex situation, ideally with some urgency to solving the problems -- and go.

Avril, does this help at all?

Other novel-writers -- this would be a great time for you to add your thoughts on your process to the comments! I'd be fascinated to hear them. How do *you* write your novels?

4 thoughts on “Avril requested a post…”

  1. I am 100% in agreement with you about novel writing. If I have an outline, I get bored and stop writing. Most of the fun of writing for me is seeing where the writing takes me.

  2. Thanks for sharing.
    When I write short stories I pretty much know what will happen in the end and I just ride the wave of creativity to get there (and it’s thrilling). I thought one might need to be a little more organized for a novel but I hear what you’re saying – have a general outline and be willing to go where the story takes you.

    Do you do detailed character sketches or is that something that again starts out general and then gets specific over writing time?

    I think it’s the unwillingness to throw away pages (and ideas) that makes me a bit anxious to let loose. With a short story, you have a smaller world to shape whereas with a novel, there can be many threads and it seems logical to lay everything out…but then where are the surprises in that.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I don’t do any kind of character sketches these days; I just hold the rough outline in my head, and as the characters say things and do things, their characters get more and more defined, until by the end of the book, everything they do is pretty much inevitable. 🙂

    But that said, lots of writers do a lot of free writing exercises and such to help them brainstorm for their books, and seem to find it really helpful. You never know — I may try that at some point too. So this is just to say I’m not doing anything like that right now.

  4. MA – I’m in the middle of reading “Bodies in Motion” (I got it as a gift from a friend) and I’m absolutely enjoying it!!

    How did you come up with the idea? Did you start off wanting to write it as a novel-in-stories or did the idea just come to you? How long did it take you to write and revise all these stories?
    Is it true that it’s harder to sell stories than a novel?
    If you’ve addressed these questions in a post somewhere, let me know.

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