The mysterious process of novel writing
I write mysteries, so perhaps I can explain how it’s done. At least, I can tell you how I go about writing a novel.
If you’ve done any research into the novel writing process, you’ll know there are two main groups of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters plan and outline their stories in detail before they start writing, while pantsers start writing to see what happens.
The first step in writing a novel is exploring an idea for a story. The difference between plotters and pantsers is the plotters do their exploring while they’re developing their outline, while the pantsers do their exploring while they’re writing the story.
Writing into the Unknown
I’ve tried the plotting and outlining method but it just doesn’t work for me. The writing process I use is called writing into the unknown. It’s a methodology that allows your story to unfold as it’s written. You start with an idea for a story, perhaps in the form of a question, and read what happens as you explore that idea with your words.
For example, in After, I explore the question: How does a man cope with the aftermath of his wife’s murder, especially if it exposes her secrets? In Holy Death, I explore what happens when two sexual abuse victims independently decide to exact revenge on the priest that abused them on the same night.
Despite the process being called writing into the unknown, there are a few knowns you need to be aware of for a story to work, no matter how you go about writing it.
Let’s start with an obvious but often overlooked fact. No book is written in a vacuum. It’s your life experiences that generate the words you use to write your story. Fortunately, the longer you live, the more material you have to draw on to inform the stories you write, and that material often surfaces subconsciously as you write.
To write crime fiction you need an understanding of human behaviour, acquired through observing people, reading, and analysing the movies you watch. My novels, for example, are influenced by two main insights: people live complicated lives within a web of relationships, and nothing is ever what it appears to be at first glance.
Before you start writing, you need an understanding of story structure, the framework around which a story is built. Basically, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end – a three act framework. Story structure is also seen through the lens of The Hero’s Journey, a trajectory which indicates where things should happen within a story.
If you’ve read a lot of books or watched a million movies, you may have a subconscious understanding of how a good story is put together. Having a subconscious understanding of story structure helps when you’re writing into the unknown, but that understanding usually comes from the experience of writing with a conscious awareness of story structure. Most of us need to study story structure to get that level of understanding. I had to do some study to get my head around it.
Story structure is a big topic. I found the following books helpful when I was starting out:
- The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson
- Super Structure: the Key to Unleashing the Power of Story by James Scott Bell
- The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
There are plenty of others, but you don’t want to spend too much time studying story structure if you want to write a novel. Any of those three will give you what you need to know to get started.
When you’re writing your first novel or the first book in a new series, your characters – the people of your story – are all unknowns, and part of the fun of writing is meeting them as they appear and perform. But, whether you intend it our not, they will resemble people you know. That’s how your subconscious works.
When you’re writing a subsequent book in a series, some of your characters, like your lead investigator, for example, will be known to you before you begin. You know what they’re like and how they’re likely to behave, and that knowledge informs your writing genius as you let it loose on your story.
As creative writers, we like to think we can write whatever we want. In truth, you can, but if you’re writing crime fiction – or any other popular genre for that matter – there are certain reader expectations you need to keep in mind if you’re going to develop a readership. The best way to get a feel for the expectations of your chosen genre is to read books like the ones you want to write.
I write murder mysteries, so there has to be a murder early in the story. There also has to be an investigating officer, a killer, and several complicating factors and red herrings to make it difficult for both the reader and the investigator to solve the crime. Towards the end, there needs be some sort of breakthrough that leads to the mystery being solved, and the whole story needs to be plausible within the context of its setting.
My writing process
My process starts when I have an idea for a story I want to explore. Initially, I play around with that idea and let it incubate for a bit. Sometimes for quite a bit. Then, I sketch out a few possibilities on paper, looking for a starting point. I identify the victim, think about where the murder will take place or where the body will be found, and start developing the victim’s backstory. If I’ve identified the killer, I’ll make notes about possible motives and any connections the killer may have with the victim. I don’t always know who the killer is when I start, and there are times when the story reveals that it’s actually somebody else, which is what happened during the writing of The East Park Syndicate.
The first draft
Once I have a starting point, I switch to working in Scrivener, my preferred writing app, where I create notes to transfer the thoughts from my pen and paper sessions and fill in character sheets for each of the characters I’ve identified. If I’m working on a subsequent book in a series, I copy the character sheets for the series’ main characters from the previous book’s file – which helps me maintain character consistency and development across the series. At this point, no aspect of the story is set in stone, except for the identity of the victim.
When I’ve completed my file set up in Scrivener, I write the first scene to see where the story takes me. Then, based on how that works out, I write the next scene, and so on until the story is told. If I get to a spot where the story stops flowing, I revert to pen and paper and play with possibilities until the next step suggests itself. Sometimes, that might take a few days, but if the story hasn’t finished, it’s never long before I’m back on the computer.
I set a target of 80,000 words for a novel and aim for around 2,000 words per chapter. That’s around 40 chapters, depending on how the scenes pan out. Setting a word count target helps me keep an eye on story structure. The first act, for example, gets the first 20,000 words in an 80,000 word novel, while the third act gets the last 20,000. Even though I set a word count target, that’s not set in stone either, especially for the first draft. No matter what the word count, I keep writing until the story lets me know it’s finished, which is something you know when you get there.
Once I start writing, I write around 1,000 words a day. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. I don’t let the daily word count stress me out. I simply write around 1,000 words each day until I’m finished. I read the last session’s scenes before I start each day and make any needed changes, including correcting typos and rewriting scenes. In other words, I revise as I go along to keep my copy as clean as possible, and if I decide a scene needs a complete rewrite, I save a copy of the original wording in the notes section and then rewrite the scene before continuing the story.
Sometimes, what happens in subsequent scenes means earlier scenes need updating to align with what comes later. I like to make those changes as they become apparent, since a crime novel is a complex web of words.
One of Scrivener’s features is each scene document has a synopsis card. I use that card to keep track of the story’s timeline and the main point of each scene. Scrivener’s outline view allows you to view the content of those cards in one document, which I use to review the overall progress of my story and keep track of events.
Drafts and revisions
Some writers generate multiple drafts before they’re ready to edit and revise their story into its final form. I’m not one of them. I use the first complete draft as the core of my story. I’m not a fan of churning out vomit drafts that need to be discarded and rewritten from scratch, which is why I edit and revise as I’m writing. But, no matter how polished my first draft appears to be when the story feels like it’s complete, it’s never finished.
When I finish a first draft, I put it aside for a week or so. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, but it does mean I don’t tinker with it. Most times, I distract myself with another writing project or one of the many other tasks associated with being an author.
After I’ve had some time away from the story, I pick it up and read it several times. I look for errors and gaps in the overall structure of the story. I check to see the storylines mesh the way I want them to and that I haven’t made any plotting errors. Then, l look at how the story works emotionally, which usually means adding layers of description and dialogue to bring the story to life, as I tend to write a fairly concise initial first draft with a focus on the action.
It takes me around three months to write a first draft and another three months to work that draft into its final form.
In a way, I think everyone writes into the unknown. From my perspective, the main difference between plotters and pantsers is the depth of their first draft. A plotter’s first draft is an outline, a concise summary of their story which they then expand and refine. A pantser’s first draft is an expanded outline, which they then refine into the final form of their story. Either way, writing a novel is both challenging and a lot of fun.
You can read more about my writing process and the mechanics of publishing a book in Field Notes for Writers: Tips for Independent Authors.
Feature image credit: Ray Kay | Death to Stock