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Thoughtful Research

Two Ways to Write a Novel


Perhaps you've heard the debates. Writing an outline for your novel's first draft stifles your creativity. But if you don't write an outline your plotline will get lost.


Before you take a sledgehammer to your laptop, be assured there is a solution. I presented this technique at a writer's convention and one writer told me, "I never thought I could write a novel before!"


As a writing support group moderator and published author I've talked to a lot of writers. Over and over, the one question asked is how I managed to finish a novel. I learned that when writers get stuck writing their novel, they generally get stuck at chapter three. Some, however, can write an entire first draft without an outline and not get lost. Those writers' comments encouraged me to develop this unique two-step process of writing the novel.


This article will help you decide if you're that kind of writer, and if not, what to do if you get stuck. Using the process shared here that combines both ways of writing a book, you will determine if you need to write an outline—which we will now call "the story treatment."


STEP ONE: You have to start with the idea that you can write a novel and you have to find a great idea for a novel—something worth writing, with the unique feel only you can give it.


When I came up with the idea for my first published novel, Felling of the Sons, the idea was what would Ben Cartwright do if all three of his sons were in danger at the same time and were off in different directions?


STEP TWO: A book has to start somewhere. Too many writers worry from the start where to start. By the time you finish your first draft, that beginning will probably no longer make sense. So never worry—just start. Start with tension— something is happening. Start with an event or trauma. If it makes you want to write the first draft, it should make the reader want to read it. I started with the villains in "Felling of the Sons," and their desire to kill a Cartwright. My publisher later said I shouldn't start with dialog. But I liked the tension of it.


STEP THREE: Keep writing. Write and write and write. When you hear people say "write what you know," this is probably what they mean. So with just enough research to know that your idea is do-able, keep writing. Write with all the inspiration your idea gives you.


STEP FOUR: Don't stop writing. The problem with writing a first draft is that few of us can complete 300 pages before doing something else—like sleeping. We can't, unless we're Stephen King, have the luxury of not also having a job. Before you know it, a week has gone by without a minute of writing time. Now you're re-reading what you've written to find out where you left off, what you named the secondary character, where you put little pieces of the puzzles, what they are …


If you start re-reading and re-editing those first three chapters and can't figure out what to do from there, you've killed your momentum. This is where outlining the rest of the book will help.


But say you got to those 200 plus pages, beginning to end and completed a first draft without stopping. Then you are one of those writers who doesn't need the story outline. To me, these people are simply legends. But this is the main point of this process that I recommend. Find out which kind you are by simply writing as far as you can go. Write the novel until you get stuck. You might not. It can demand on how your mind works, the kind of novel you're writing, or even how well structured your writing time is.


STEP FIVE: But if you've found out, instead, that by chapter three you don't know where to go next, you're reading to plot out the rest of it, to give yourself that guideline that will help you finish. If you're re-reading too much because you forgot what they did on whatever page that was, you don't want to give up, do you? Well, yes, if what you have so far bores you, maybe. But instead, give yourself another chance. Write the story treatment. Here's how.


1.Go back to your basic idea paragraph:


Jack and Jill were brother and sister. Their parents sent them for water. They had to climb a big hill. Both of them took buckets. They climbed the hill. They filled those buckets. But Jill bumped into Jack and he tumbled down the hill and broke his neck. What did Jill do next? She ran away, because she was afraid she would have to spend the rest of her life caring for a paralyzed brother. But where did she go? She ended up in the next town, where she had to find a job, but she was feeling so poorly about Jack that Clive, the local pimp, was able to force her into bondage. When no one hears from Jill, Jack, now a paraplegic, finds a way to use the internet to track her down. He gets in disguise and feigns a more totally inability as he rolls to her rescue and shoots the pimp. Jill is saved, and she realizes that her brother doesn't hold her responsible, after all.

2.This is an encapsulation of your novel, start to finish. Make sure you have a story at all by turning your idea into one paragraph, start to finish.

 

The Story Treatment (ST) gives your book cohesiveness so you don't lose yourself. In my current novel, the ST helped me learn in a novel I'm editing who Boone Tyler became along the way, and gave me the characters, the plot, and the novel's reason to exist. But from here you develop the story treatment (plot outline) even further.

 

3.The ST needs to be only about four pages; or it can be a page, or 20 pages. Keep adding to your idea paragraph until you have enough to finish the novel.


a)It's not necessarily easy to do. You need to spend some time with it. It needs to be complex enough to excite you.
b)Once you have the ST done, you will continue your novel without the pesky need to look back at what your characters did two days before.

 

But doesn't it rob my creativity? "Then I can't let my characters go off into new directions." The ST gives you the freedom to get into the plot and keep your characters moving. With this freedom they will come alive and start doing things you never expected.

 

4.Because characters do unexpected things, you will need to update the ST as you write the novel. I keep a printed one handy and make notes as I go. Petroglyphs are etched into rock. Your novel is not. You use the same imaginative juices to create the ST that you use to write the novel.


a)Do you think your mind will allow itself to be boxed in by one idea if another one comes along? Of course not! All you have to do is change the ST to keep it updated when those new ideas happen.


5.You'll find with an ST that you will now be able to handle a lot of intricate plots and subplots. Jean Auel wrote a series of novels that seem like they could have been created without a treatment. But she said the first one started as a short story, then she realized she had to know more about these people and immersed herself in research. The short story became an outline, she said, "into a plan for 6 epic novels."

 

For some writers, working on a novel without an ST is like building a house without a floor plan. You might force yourself to live in it, but try finding someone else to live there with you. With your ST done and as exciting as you can make it, you are ready and excited to finish the novel.

 

6.If you've kept the ST updated during the draft process, it is the perfect vehicle to turn into a synopsis. When a publisher asks for you, it will make you groan, but a story treatment is easy to turn into one if you've kept up on it along the way.

 

Whatever kind of writer you are, this process of writing a novel will work for you. Just start writing and see where that leads you. If you can't get all the way, plot it! Don't just throw it away.

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