My approach to writing a novel
This Thing of Darkness is my first YA novel. Before this, I’d written three adult crime fiction manuscripts that remain unpublished. The first of these crime fiction novels I wrote without a plan. I had an idea for a story (which was set very much in my world) and I just starting writing. It opened with a murder, but I didn’t know until I was about halfway through who the murderer was. I was very much ‘flying by the seat of my pants’. But, of course, once I worked out who did it, I had to go back and plant clues. I had to backtrack and leave little crumbs so the reader would find the resolution believable (although hopefully not predictable).
For the second one, another crime fiction, I tried to plan but didn’t get very far. I had a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go but very quickly got bored. Or maybe I just ran out of ideas and needed to start writing to get the cogs in my brain moving.
For the third, I persisted with the planning a bit longer but still found it hard. I didn’t feel like I knew the characters yet so couldn’t work out what they would do given the situations I was putting them in.
Writing This Thing of Darkness
For This Thing of Darkness, the themes of the book were pretty clear in my head from the beginning, and I knew what I wanted to say. It took some time to develop the characters and to know where I wanted them to end up, but once I did that, I pretty much just started writing and kept going until I got to the end. I finished it within about six months, which was a record for me, and I felt that it had come together pretty easily and pretty well. I kept working on it, of course – changed the third person perspective to first, changed it from past tense to present (although I reverted back to the past tense version soon after) – but the story itself stayed pretty much unchanged from those early drafts to the published book that will come out in 2018.
By the time it came to writing my second YA, Nothingville, I’d learnt a lot more about structure and pacing and turning points and scenes and scene sequels. I tried once again to plan, convinced that doing a lot of the plot work upfront would save me time down the track. It worked to a degree, with me writing little summaries of each chapter before I began the real writing, but once again I found myself getting stuck halfway through. I persisted, but at some point just had to start writing. Once I finished the first draft I went back and created a spreadsheet that summarised each scene and prompted me to ensure that every one had a clear goal, that it progressed the story and that there was conflict. I also created a timeline so I could see that everything made sense chronologically.
Planning every scene
For the next YA (my third, which I have just finished drafting), I decided that this time I really was going to plan the whole thing first. The structure of this one did lend itself to planning though. It is one story written from four different perspectives, so it had to all click together logically and without any overlap. I started making notes about each character and their stories, and once I’d nailed down important scenes and plot points, I wrote them on index cards and began sorting them into an order. The idea was to swap points of view with each new chapter and to keep jumping from one to the other until I got to the end. Once I’d assembled the scenes/cards into a structure I was happy with, I started a new spreadsheet. In this spreadsheet, I created columns for the scene number, whose point of view it was, the day of the week on which the scene took place, a one-line scene summary, a paragraph summary of the action and some other elements. I manually went through to check that each scene had a goal, conflict and disaster and that every scene sequel had a reaction, dilemma and decision (although I didn’t write these things down).
I took this plan to my writing group for feedback – all before investing time in any real words. It worked well for that particular book, and I can definitely see myself trying that approach again. But does planning to the nth degree kill creativity? Might talk about that in my next post.