In writing a novel, I try to go
1) write brief notes about the the mythic/historic context -- make explicit important elements about everyday life that I might take for granted (e.g., common religious beliefs, motivations)
2) write the complete story -- everything that happens, in sequence; the actual story will Istart and end somewhere in the middle, but you need to know everything that happens before and after
3) write everything I know about the characters -- their backgrounds, their ages, their looks, their motivations, their interactions
4) pick the starting and ending points of the story I want to tell directly (a subset of the complete story) -- I might tell more of the complete story indirectly
5) decide what I will show or tell, what I will hint at and what I will leave untold
6) decide on the point of view
7) begin writing the novel
For me, the beginning stages are toughest. That's where I need the most advice and discipline.
Then, when I'm lucky, there comes a time when the characters come to life in my mind and start talking and acting, and I am more recording than creating, and they take me sometimes in directions that I never intended. That's the fun time.
The reactions of the characters to what happens and to one another can make a story three-dimensional -- like shadows, reflections, and shading in visual art. The better the reader knows those characters, the more profound the effect -- ideally making me feel like I am there myself.
I typically start with the main characters, usually with major life changes, and try to sort out the motivations and the interactions of the characters. For me the plot comes from the characters. I know a few things that must happen (the basic idea behind the book). Then understanding the characters leads me to understand what must have happened before and what must happen after.
While some writers have to "flesh out" the characters once they've firmed up the plot, I typically need to "flesh out" the plot once I've firmed up the characters.
Dialogue comes easily to me -- too easily. I wake up at night hearing my characters talk to one another. That works fine for plays and movie scripts. But when trying to write a novel, that presents problems.
Actors can, through facial expression, intonation, and gesture, convey a character's emotions and thoughts. But in a novel, you need to use perspective to do that -- letting the reader "overhear" the character's thoughts. It's a bizarre convention that characters think the same way they speak. (Only experimental novels, like Ulysses and the works of Virginia Woolf, try for a "stream-of-consciousness", which tends to be less readable than straight text, and probably isn't much closer to
the reality of how we actually think).
After the characters have come alive in my imagination enough to start talking to me, I need to go through another stage of composition, when I add their thoughts -- what they think but deliberately choose not to say, and what they think of and how they react to the other characters. And I need to do that with discipline -- only moving into the mind of one character in each chapter or major section of a chapter. (You lose your reader very quickly if you switch perspectives too quickly and too often). And that's how the elements of the plot (which comes after development of the characters) get woven into the narrative, setting up expectations, inserting foreshadowing, adding a sense of tension through the thoughts of the characters.
I'm sure that many writers put the words down the way they want them the first time around -- like painting with broad confident strokes of color. If I were a graphic artist, I'd begin with line sketches, and after lots of tries and erasures, add shading, I'd add color. And it would probably take me so long that I'd starve before the painting was done.
No one can find the theme of your novel but you. It must be something that fascinates you. When you sense the beginnings of such an attraction (that might turn out to be first love, that might be like discovery of magnetism affecting your own personal built-in compass), start scribbling whenever anything the least bit associated with this topic comes to mind (but especially when you wake up remembering your dreams).
Then keep these guidelines in mind:
1) When asking friends for reactions, push back hard when someone balks at a tiny detail. That detail could be symptomatic of a larger problem. Try to pinpoint exactly what elicited such a response.
2) The role of fiction is to make the improbable seem inevitable. All the details should feel natural given the circumstances of the characters -- natural enough to not need explanation. The reader to be able to make accurate assumptions about the characters what iss mentioned. That means the details have to be on target.
3) Sometimes takes some digging to determine why a particular reader has negative reactions to what you have written. The reader may have unique personal peculiar associations with certain words or phrases or situations that you used.
4) Sometimes, unintentionally, your writing may be therapeutic -- you may be caught up writing this story you need to deal with a personal issue. The story may be the vessel into which you are pouring your blood and guts -- making exterior what's interior, so I can look at it and try to make sense of it. In that case, it may be very important to you, but meaningless to anyone else.
5) A good line can be a hazard. You can like a line so much that you keep it, even though it wrecks the flow of the lines around it and of the story as a whole.
6) If you are writing a play, and in a reading with actors the actors stumble, that may not be the actors' fault. It could mean that the words and the rhythm don't feel natural.
7) The creative phase of writing is very different from the polishing and editing phase. To write something new or to significantly rewrite, I need to find a "generative" phrase -- a line that implies a whole character; a line that leads to another line and another and that generates a rhythm that carries the story forward.
8) When a story comes alive, the final edits (to take care of inconsistencies and weak plot points) depend not on invention and creativity, but rather on recognizing and bringing out the potential that's already there. If the story has legs, at some point the characters start to walk and run and dance on their own and the writer simply records what he/she sees and hears.
9) One measure of the power of an author is how little needs to happen to show the characters undergoing life-shifting changes. Inexperienced authors often have cataclysmic plots and have the main characters die. The best authors can tell a story with both subtlety and passion, where a look or a word has the narrative power of an earthquake. By that measure, Penelope Fitzgerald is one of the finest novelists of all time.
10) If you need to write because that’s who you are, keep at it and don’t give up, ever. The satisfaction comes from the writing itself and from the reactions of readers. If your aim is to get rich quick, forget it.
11) Writing a novel is about 5% of the job. 50% is building a network of contacts in the publishing world and fine-tuning your marketing pitch. The other 45% is rewriting again and again and again, until the story finally becomes what it can become (not just in your mind, but in the minds of your readers).
12) Read thousands of books/stories and try contacting the authors/agents/editors of those that resonate with you.
13) Submit stories and novel excerpts to magazines, regardless of how small they are and whether they pay. Try to get your work to readers, try to build an audience, solicit reactions, and learn from the feedback you get.
14) Start reading The Writer and Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers (your local library probably has back issues of those magazines) for advice on writing and marketing, and use the directories they publish for lists of agents and authors. If you can afford it, try some of the many writers’ workshops that are held in the summer, and take advantage of the opportunities there to meet and get to know published authors, agents, and editors. When you go to college, take creative writing courses. Maybe even go to graduate school for an MFA.
15) Lightning may strike. But be prepared for a long journey.
My ebook publishing business isn’t about “great” books, chosen by authorities and to be read with a sense of obligation.
I’m reminded of my childhood reading explorations.
My grandfather, who lived in Silver Spring, MD, had an attic stacked high with books, many of which I checked out during visits, and some of which now adorn my own shelves — authors like G.A.Henty. Those were my grandfather’s books when he was a child. My father (now in his 80’s) didn’t read them as a kid, but he’s now borrowing my Hentys and savoring those historically accurate adventures.
Later we moved to Plymouth, NH (a small town very much like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”), with party-line telephones and a town calendar published every year with everybody’s birthdays and anniversaries noted. The town library was a red clapboard building where Daniel Webster had pled and lost his first case. They had very little shelf space. So for every book they boought, they had to throw an old one away. I remember seeing the pile of rejects ready for the dumpster, including works by Mark Twain, George Eliot, William Prescott. That felt like a sacrilege. I “rescued” many boxes full of them. Even if I couldn’t read them all, I felt the need to “save” them.
I also went to estate auctions when they were held nearby, and bought for pennies works by Stanley about his explorations in Africa, an account of Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica, complete Plutarch, the works of Richard Harding Davis and Hornung.
During summer vacations, I’d read omnivorously, delighted by books and authors I had never heard of before. (I particularly remember “The Prince of India” by Lew Wallace — the life of a man who had insulted Jesus and was condemned to live forever; and “La Marche des Civilisations” which convincingly described the possibility of vast cycles of history, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, civilizations rising and falling to be replaced by new civilizations, with no memory of what had come before).
At some point the thousands of printed books I’ve accumulated over the years will be more a burden than a treasure. I won’t be able to take them with me when moving into smaller quarters (my father recently went through that trauma, moving into an assisted living community). And I’m sure my children will have no room for them all. And libraries will have no room for them either. If a libary accepted them as a donation (an unlikely possibility) it would only be to sell them like rummage at a quarter a piece and to throw out what didn’t sell. A sad fate.