In this second post in the How I Write series I’m going to look at how I draft my novels. I should say up front that if you’re hoping for half a dozen easy-to-follow steps, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. The fact is, I think producing a first draft is an inherently messy process and that’s just the way it is. I do read the occasional blog post or book about how to structure a novel into three acts or which 15 essential beats you must include in your story. I think there’s a lot of good guidance out there and I’m not going to try and repeat any of it here. Instead I’m going to talk about some of the things I think about as I’m drafting a new novel.
At the beginning of the process I only have a vague idea of what the finished novel is going to look like. It’s like a shape gradually appearing out of the mist. I’ll have researched a particular subject enough to know what some of the key scenes should contain, although at this point I only have a general idea of who the characters are. I can usually visualise the opening scene quite well so I tend to start with that. Then I might try jotting down some other scenes in bullet points. At this point I don’t worry about the ending. I’ll probably want a “big showdown” followed by some sort of a resolution, but I can sort the details out later. There are more important things to decide at this stage, such as:
Point of View and Tense
The first draft is not just about working out what is going to happen, but how I am going to tell it. I wrote a blog post about this subject here. Deciding how to tell the story can help determine what the story is. Whether I choose third person with past tense or first person with present tense, or some other combination, are important decisions that affect not just the telling, but the details of the story. For example, a first person narrator using the past tense has lived to tell the tale and knows how the story will end. Such a narrator can use their knowledge to hint at the tragic events about to unfold and thereby build tension and suspense into the story. But a first person narrator who uses the present tense has no idea what is about to happen next. I chose this method of narration for Oranges for Christmas because I was using two first-person narrators and I didn’t want both of them knowing the outcome. In The Sleeping Angel the present day scenes are written in the third person past tense, but the Victorian scenes are written as first person diary extracts or as conversational first person narratives.
Structure and Plot
Deciding on a structure for your novel can help you plan it out. In Oranges for Christmas I decided to have two narrators, one in East Berlin and one in West Berlin and to alternate them every other chapter. Not only did this help to illustrate the divided nature of the city, but it gave me a concrete structure to work with and meant that I could create mini-cliffhangers along the way by leaving one character in a predicament and then immediately switching to the other side of the Wall to catch up with events over there. I was only able to develop this structure once I’d decided to have two points of view.
You need to understand your characters’ personalities to know how they will react to the story in which they find themselves. That goes without saying. But at the risk of starting to sound dull and tedious, I think it’s essential to know exactly how old your characters are, not just at the time of the story, but when they were born and what important events they will have witnessed in their lives. So, for example, in Oranges for Christmas Sabine is too young to remember the Second World War, but old enough to remember the 1953 uprising in which her father died. Frau Lange is old enough to remember not just the War but also the Reichstag fire in 1933 and how the Nazis hunted down and imprisoned communists. These experiences have made Frau Lange the person she is at the time of the story in 1961. I use a spreadsheet to calculate the age of my characters at moments of historical importance. It’s no use someone vividly recalling the bombing of Berlin if it turns out they were six months old at the time.
If plot is what your characters do and how they respond to the situation in which they find themselves, then you need to be able to visualise your characters in action. I find one of the most useful things to do when writing a first draft is to shut my eyes and try to picture what’s happening. Then, when I come to write a scene it’s as if I have a video playing in my mind’s eye and I’m just describing what I see. The experience is not so different to reading where you see the scene in your imagination at the same time as you see the words on the page.
I’m as anal as the next person when it comes to keeping track of word counts. However, I’ve come to the realisation that you really don’t have to churn out a given number of words each day. Sometimes it’s more valuable to think about where the story is going and come up with one really good idea than it is to type 1,000 words just for the sake of it.
I do have Scrivener but I haven’t yet used it to write a novel. So far I’ve used it for compiling ebooks once the novel is finished, although for my next book I’m going to try using it for writing too. But I have to say that I think Word is perfectly adequate. If I’m using Word I have a single Word document for the whole novel, but give each chapter an informative Heading along the lines of In which Pooh and Piglet go Hunting and nearly catch a Woozle. Then, with the Document Map feature turned on, I can see a list of all the chapters down the left-hand side of the screen and can go to any part of the novel with a single click of the mouse.
Just keep going
So once I’ve sorted out all of the above, I just keep going until I have something I can call a first draft. It will still be a long way from the finished novel, but it will look like a novel in the same way as a newly built house looks like a house, even though it doesn’t yet have electricity, plumbing, a tiled roof, a front door, a fitted kitchen, painted walls, furniture or any plants in the garden. In the next post in this series I’ll talk about how I go about revising my novels into something hopefully more readable.