Just like great people still put their pants on one leg at a time, all great novels start the same: with a nugget, an inspiration, an idea. Some unique or quirky character that must be shared, some plot that needs exploring. Something to get the brain started.
For me, often, it’s a topic I want to understand. This was Michael Shaara’s inspiration for Killer Angels, one of the outstanding fiction accounts of the Civil war. He used Stephen Crane (author of The Red Badge of Courage) as his mentor–
“reading the cold history was not enough; he wanted to know what it was like to be there, what the weather was like, what men’s faces looked like. In order to live it he had to write it. This book was written for much the same reason.”
- I create an Excel spreadsheet with columns for Section, Chapter, Purpose, Day, Time, Characters (major and minor), Setting (at the start and finish), character’s success or failure in each section, whether the section includes action or a reaction. Summary, Follow-up. These are the mechanics of a great novel. I know–sounds formulaic. It isn’t. I want to be sure I include all important parts of writing a story people want to read. I write for myself–yes–but I promise you, the writing is better–and more fun–if you follow conventions.
- Why Excel? It’s easy to map out the action. the columns insure I’ve included all dramatic requirements of a good novel and followed up on all the details. I can also move blocks of text around easily, with a better reference for where they should fit.
- I add my one-paragraph of skeletal details under Summary. This feels good. I’ve started.
- And right there, I’m stuck. What comes next?
- On a separate worksheet in the same Excel workbook, I define the plot, subplots, themes, goals, premise, idea, moral–not all of those, but enough I understand my purpose
- On that same worksheet, I plot the story–how does it start (life is pretty good), what happens to change that, what does my protagonist do to fix things, how does that not work (its failure creates the required drama), what’s my protagonist’s next and next plan and how do they also fail, what is the climax–the final unsolvable problem that will destroy my protagonist, how do I solve it. This forces me to understand a whole lot more about my characters, plot, even the setting because that will play into how my characters interact.
- The only way I can plot the story is to know my characters. As I’m working the timeline, I develop character biographies–what’s their background, their likes and dislikes, quirks, physical appearance, what drives them, how do they influence the story, what’s their ruling passion, what’s their purpose in the story (protagonist, antagonist, confidant, supporting actors), what are their emotional firestorms, what’s their psychological profile?
- Knowing my characters clarifies the subplots. Though my protagonist may be focused on rescuing her kidnapped child, those around her will have their own agendas that will dictate their participation in her goal. Therein live my subplots.
- Now I can return to my outline and fill it in. I create the Timeline portion (start/finish) early so I can be sure I’m including details of the day, time of day, month and year if required, in the Summary section. I want to know if it’s been a week or a day, if it’s winter or summer. These affect action.
- I map out which characters are involved in which sections early. This insures that my protagonist is indeed the main character, and the protagonist shows up regularly to botch up the plot. I also insure the confidant appears every time I must share details which I couldn’t otherwise get out.
- As I’m adding the pieces, I make notes for what must be researched, followed up later in the story, clarified, etc.
- I check the columns about Action/Reaction. Most readers want to know what the POV (point of view) character is thinking, why s/he’s doing what s/he’s doing. I add as much introspection as action (almost–and this will vary depending upon whether you’re writing a thriller or literary fiction) and be sure the reader understands only what the POV character gets. This is a good way to develop drama–fear for the future
- I add details of characters, settings to the outline. If this changes the plot, I work that change through
- I clean up my ‘Follow up’ column. this is harder than it sounds. Too often, I find out that following up on some innocuous detail changes the plot. Be rigorous about having this logical progression. In fiction, a willing suspension of disbelief is our greatest ally. Lose that and your reader puts the book down.
- I clean up transitions between all the parts.
- I convert the Excel spreadsheet into text, in a Word doc (or Google Docs)
- I clean it up.
Because I’m also a teacher, this takes me a year. By summer I get to the Word doc and spend my two months off–ten hours a day–working out my novel.
At least, that’s the plan. How about you?
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voicebook reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, an Editorial Review Board member forSIGCT, an IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything andTechnology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.