How I Write a Novel
Thoughts, Tips and Tricks
For this week’s blog, I’ve jotted some notes on how I go about writing a novel. There was once a book on my shelves titled ‘The Three Rules of Novel Writing’, but I discarded that years ago because, according to some, there are no rules to writing a novel. That’s not true. Mark Twain agreed that there were three, “Write, write and write”, and endless websites and creative writing commentators come up with lists of what you should and shouldn’t do when you want to write a novel. I tend to side with Mr Twain: Write.
The word ‘novel’ originated from the Latin novella, a singular noun use of the neuter plural of novellus, diminutive of novus, meaning ‘new’. We’ve probably all used the word, as in, ‘That’s a novel idea,’ and that’s exactly what a novel should be; a novel idea expressed through the medium of storytelling, one of mankind’s oldest forms of communication. Take it to the extreme, and you could write anything and call it a novel. For example, I’ve seen some books that had no punctuation or no speech marks around dialogue… Hideously affected if you ask me, and they come across as publisher-wank, for want of a better way to put it, and being ‘original’ for the sake of it. My advice? Avoid!
But I am not here to lecture on the art and craft of writing a novel, simply to tell you how I do it and what my thoughts on novel writing are. So let’s leap straight into a common question I am asked when being interviewed. Are you a pantster or a plotter?
When I first came across the word pantster, I thought it was some fetish-related quirk or a typo, but soon discovered it refers to someone who makes it up as they go along. As in, flying by the seat of your pants, I guess. Famous pantster novelists include Margaret Atwood and Stephen King.
I’m in good company then, because I am sometimes a Pantster. In fact, I can confess that my entire Clearwater Mystery series has been written by pantstering, if “to pantster” can be a verb. I usually start with a question?
Deviant Desire: What if Jack the Ripper killed rent boys?
Twisted Tracks: What happened next?
Unspeakable Acts: Why not bring in a Cleveland Street scandal idea?
Fallen Splendour: What if the clue to a mystery was hidden in a Tennyson poem?
Bitter Bloodline: Why not expand the series to involve real-life characters of the time?
Artful Deception: How many twists can I get in one story?
Banyak & Fecks: Can I write a Victorian bromance?
Next, I usually have a beginning and an end. For the current work in progress (‘Something Exposure’, still not fully titled), I want a thrilling chase towards the edge of a cliff kind of climax followed by a massive twist that leaves the reader thinking, ‘Oh no! What next?’ I have both in my head, and I’m currently heading towards them.
For some stories, I have an opening. Example: ‘Home From Nowhere.’ Here, I wanted to start with Jasper being woken in the early hours and told to be ready to leave immediately. ‘Why?’ I asked myself and received the answer, ‘We’ll find out as we go along.’ As that story progressed, the ending came into sight about halfway through writing, before then, when I reached chapter five, I think, I had to ask myself, ‘So what’s the mystery?’ and then music popped into my head.
For other stories, I start with a setting, a ‘world’ in which the story takes place. Again, I can give you a list: Deviant Desire, Jack the Ripper. Unspeakable Acts, Opera. Banyak & Fecks, male prostitution in the 1880s. Something Exposure, Victorian, male pornography. Artful Deception, art. And so on.
For all of them, then, I have either a beginning to launch me into the story, or an end I know I have to aim for, and what happens in between is made up as I go along. Sometimes, the characters add the twists for me. I’ll be beavering away on a chapter, and it’s flowing, and I’m heading towards the last line which I imagine to be one thing, and one of the characters will suddenly say something I wasn’t expecting. Either that, or I throw in a line to see where it will lead to, and I take myself by surprise. There’s an example in ‘Fallen Splendour’ at the end of chapter four when Mr Norwood answers the door to find three men looking for Silas.
‘These men are here to see Mr Hawkins,’ Norwood announced.
‘Actually, Sir,’ the moustached man said, straightening his overcoat and squaring his shoulders. ‘We are here to arrest him.’
Believe it or not, I didn’t see that coming. My subconscious must have said, ‘What if…?’
Making it up as you go along is fun, but does require a lot of backpaddling, changing details in written chapters as you go, and making notes to remind yourself of things to tie up later, but it also offers the freedom to let the characters run wild. You can always tame them later.
Plotting, on the other hand, involves… well, plotting. When I was studying screenplay writing, I learnt an awful lot about structure. I am still a structuralist as having a structure is different from plotting. All of my novels have a basic four-act structure as you see in most mainstream films. 1) Ordinary world, 2) change of world 3) halfway twist or boost/change, 4) unravelling. That’s a very basic outline of the four-act, hero’s journey storytelling structure which I like to think of like this:
Act 1: There is no problem.
Act 2: What is this problem?
Act 3: How do we deal with this problem?
Act 4: Let’s put this problem to bed.
Okay, so you could say that’s an outline for a plot, but it’s not really. That’s the frame on which you’re going to build your story, and there are plenty of other tried and tested structures, for example, Shakespeare’s five-act structure, but let’s not go there right now.
Plotting, to me, means detailing the action and the character arcs, developments and relationships, as you would do very carefully if writing a film. That involves storyboarding and telling yourself, ‘In chapter six, X must do something in order to show her development from A to C via B.’ ‘In chapter seven, the relationship between Y and Z reaches the point where the subplot rides above the main plot, and the MC comes to terms with the IC’s resilience, forcing…’
Yeah, well, as you might imagine, that’s far too technical for me. I can do it and have done it when writing film scripts, but it’s simply too restrictive.
(Btw, MC = main character, and IC = impact character, the wall he hits, the man he falls in love with, the challenge character, etc.)
Having said that, I do have to do some basic plotting, particularly in a mystery. Mainly, that’s around pacing. Don’t give away too much yet, drop a clue here so the reader will know it but forget it long enough for it to be a pleasant twist later, make sure you foreshadow that, if a character’s going to escape by galloping a horse, make sure we know early on that he can ride… And so on. But I don’t outline each chapter and arc my characters in fine detail. I have done in the past; ‘Jason and the Sargonauts‘ was one of my first James Collins novels, and that took a lot of plotting because of timelines, and because I was new to writing. Now, I like to think I am more intuitive. Besides, if you get it wrong in draft one, you can always go back and untangle your plot in draft two onwards.
So, my process now is this:
I have an idea, a ‘what if?’, an ending I want to use, a twist to drop in at some point, a world I want to write in (Ripper, opera, art, music, early pornography…), or sometimes, simply a title. With Unspeakable Acts, the title came before the story.
I start at page one. Sounds obvious but often it’s the last chapter that’s in my head, and yet I leave that one and write chronologically to give myself something to aim for, and often, the ending changes or develops as I go as more and better ideas come to mind.
Actually, I messed with the chronology in ‘Artful Deception’ which opens a few days after the start of the story proper. We have the first scene, wonder what it’s all about, and find out later when the scene is fitted back into the storyline, although from a different point of view so as not to be repetitive. That’s a common film technique.
I make notes as I go. When writing anything, it’s vital that if you come up with an idea for later, you note it somewhere, else you’ll forget it. Similarly, I have a list of ‘Tie-ups’. These are ideas I have along the way and add in, intending to use them again later. The list is to make sure they do.
For my current Clearwater work in progress, I have a file titled ‘Ideas for act one onwards’ and running through it, I find these headings:
A ‘POC’ for each chapter. (POC = point of chapter, to ensure there’s a point to each part of the story and I’m not just indulging myself with interesting but unnecessary detail).
Time limit – to remind me of the timeline and pace.
The letter. In this case, a blackmail letter starts the mystery story, and it’s in my notes so I can easily refer to it as I go.
Notes on photographic ‘printing out’ paper, Eastman’s Solio paper (1888) very important!
Then there’s a whole section on train times because that’s one thing I like to be realistic about. I have notes from my friend, Andy, a railways’ expert who has copies of rare timetables books from my era.
TWISTS. In capitals, note. One of these rather alarmingly says, ‘CUT TO: Funeral’, but I will say no more.
A list of additional/cameo characters so I can add them to the ‘bible’ and maybe use them in later stories.
TIE UPS. Ah, there it is!
There then follow links to all kinds of research websites and title of books I’ve dipped into and might want to check back with.
My Rules for Writing a Novel
To summarise this rather rambling post, I’d say that my rules to writing a novel are simple. This list is not exhaustive.
- Don’t get it right, get it written, and then get it right.
- Write what you would like to read.
- Keep everything realistic within the world you create.
- Make sure everything ties up.
- Plot if you must but don’t let it restrict you.
- Write to the best of your ability.
- Constantly ask yourself, ‘Is that what I meant to say?’ and ‘Can I write this better?’
- Learn your grammar!
- Employ a professional proofreader.
- Write something every day, even if you think it’s rubbish.
- Don’t feel you must adhere to anyone’s rules.
And now, I shall thank you for reading, and head back to chapter 19 of ‘Something Exposure’ where one of my MCs is just about to confront the IC, while my other two MCs race to stop him. I must take what should be a cordial meeting to the point of fatality in a realistic and thrilling way without being ridiculous or allowing the pace to slacken. We’re at the crisis and climax stage, and I really can’t leave these boys hanging around a cold castle in the wilds of Scotland any longer.
See you next week!