This is the second post in the My Novel Writing Process series. To read the first post go here.
Often I would sit down knowing I wanted to write but not knowing what I wanted to write about. Now I know that the process of novel-writing begins before you turn up to your desk: it begins with the idea. The spark, the situation, or the character that intrigues you, the thing that makes you want to follow the path to see where your characters end up.
I know when I have it by the feeling inside me: my heart will skip a beat, I will feel that creative energy burning in my mind, the butterflies start up in my stomach. An idea must excite you. You will need that energy to burn bright to fuel the long process of drafting and then re-writing a novel. And then you have to take time to develop the idea, tease it out, follow the threads. You keep asking yourself “What will happen next?” because that is what you want the reader to do: to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
You do this by brainstorming. This concept was popular in class when I was a kid, and the word always made me think of the image of a brain on fire with ideas. All it means is that you keep the story idea alive and cooking by turning your mind to it every now and again. Feed it with conscious thought and your unconscious will go to work. I brainstorm best in the shower and when I’m driving. It’s amazing the way your unconscious will continue to collate ideas and grow the story even when you aren’t aware of it. You will begin to have those a-ha moments when a tangled plotline finally unloops itself. The story will begin to have a life of its own.
The Big Overview
Free-writing is the best way to tap into this unconscious process. After brainstorming, free-write about the story idea. Begin with “The book tells the story of…” Write as if you are a spectator in the present tense ie: he does, she says. This can be as long or as short as you want it to be. Just follow it until you run out of story. List any scene ideas as they come to you, some plot points or turning points, and how you envision the ending. During this process, you may begin to hear the character’s voices and what they say. Include this dialogue.
Expanding the Story Idea
Once you have your big overview of events, grab a fresh sheet of paper or a new file on your computer and plonk yourself right in the middle of the action. Live out the story step-by-step. Try to keep this brief, about 3-5 pages. We are not writing a detailed outline (we’re pantser-plotters, remember?) and we are not going to include every scene. Just write what you see happening, the scenes that may unfold. Sketch it out a little by writing about where we are and which character’s head we are in. You can skip around and brush over unclear parts, but the idea is to get down the main beats or pivotal points of action that keep the story moving.
Start asking yourself about the relationship between the characters and observe their interaction and conflict. Again, include dialogue if it comes to you. If it’s relevant to the story, you can also go back in time to detail past events that may be impacting on, or leading up to, the main events. This is helpful if you have flashbacks or past life threads.
Now read over all your notes and tease out plot threads, then list them in dot points. Write down what you see as being the main plot and sub-plots. For example: the main plot may be about a woman’s search for her missing sister, who she hasn’t seen since childhood. A sub-plot may be the woman’s deteriorating marriage which has compelled her to seek out her sister again. Then you may have a series of flashbacks about the events that happened twenty years ago surrounding the sister’s disappearance.
In the next post, we will begin to flesh out our characters.