Writing a Novel: What I have Learned

Mark Twain once said, “Quitting smoking is one of the easiest things I’ve ever done.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

I feel the same way about writing a novel.  I’ve tried starting various books dozens of times.  I’d get what I thought was a hot idea, crank out 50 pages, then run out of stream and throw it into a file folder where it still sits collecting dust.

The Greek story has been different.  I’ve been working on it for over two years, have a few hundred pages, and have yet to run out of stream.

What’s the difference?

For one, I started with more than I idea, I started with a plan.  The first thing I did was create a timeline of all the events in Herodotus that interested me.  Then I used the timeline to find my starting point.  After that I divided up the rest of the timeline into four sections that I figured would make four good books.  Then I took the first section and made an outline that would become the chapters of my book.  Once I’d done that I felt like I had a track to run on, which was one of my stumbling blocks in the past, I never knew where my story was going, so I’d end up throwing in the towel.  Not this time.

Interestingly, as I was going through this process, one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell, happened to be the featured writer on Barnes & Noble that month.  B&N had set up a forum where readers could ask him questions.  Cornwell has probably written 50 novels and is best known for his Sharpe’s series, though my favorite is his trilogy about King Arthur that starts with The Winter King.  Anyway, I asked Cornwell how he wrote his books.  Did he map out the plot beforehand?

Cornwell responded, no, he didn’t have a clue as to where his books were going when he started them.  If fact, when he sat down to write he had no idea where the story might go that day.  So I asked, what happens if you write yourself into a corner where there’s no way out?  Cornwell replied, that he just backed out, and went a different direction.  He went on to say he was a rather disorganized writer, that his office was poch-marked with dozens of yellow posted notes to remind him of various things.

None of which helped me.  I couldn’t help but feel amazed that Cornwell has published as many novels as he has, all without an outline.  He obviously does a lot of research, but as far as the plot, he wings it.  Which obviously works for him, and may work for you, but it doesn’t work for me.

Knowing the beginning, middle and ending, has helped me immensely.  It’s not that I know all the details, I just have a general notion of what I want to accomplish with each chapter.  Another thing that has helped me is looking at each chapter like a short story.  Each has it’s own mini plot, which makes them easier to write.

When I write the rough draft of the chapter my only goal is to get the whole thing down.  That’s the hardest part.  But once you have the rough draft down, the rest become easier.  Then it becomes a matter of simply going back and re-writing, polishing and fine turning.  I don’t try to come up with the finished product in the rough draft, I look at it as simply getting down the bones of the story, then I go back and flesh it out by filling in the details.

As I’m writing the rough draft if I introduce a new minor character instead of fussing over his name, I skip right over it and just type in ‘XXX’ and go back and think about a name for him later.  The same thing with settings, character descriptions and dialogue.  Just get down the bare bones.  Paint in the details later.

At least this is what is working best for me.

‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg stresses the importance of getting down your rough draft first, then going back and fleshing out your story later.


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