Essential writing skills: three steps to starting that novel from scratch

So you’ve got a novel lined up to write – maybe for NaNoWriMo. Where to now? My take is to start from the fundamental principles. What is the novel doing? And no, don’t tell me the plot. What is its purpose?

Another photo I took of Giverny, same specifications as the other.
Photo I took in Giverny – Monet’s garden. This garden was made for one purpose – to draw an emotional reaction through art. Identical purpose, in fact, to a novel.

I say all this rhetorically. A novel, like all writing, has to take the reader on an emotional journey – and it has to be able to first capture the readers with that journey, and then hold them. To do that it needs a specific structure – one that not only contains a well-paced plot, but which integrates that plot with the development arcs of the characters.

On the face of it that can be daunting to disentangle, but it’s absolutely essential. Books that fail to integrate plot, character and pace will also fail to capture readers. It’s one of the reasons why novice writers shouldn’t ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through a story, unplanned. Doing so reduces the act of writing to personal entertainment – a pastime that has meaning for the author – but the results aren’t likely to grab many others. Yes, there are ways of ‘pantsing’ and it’s a valid technique, but it has to be handled properly – more on that soon.

So how do you disentangle the complexities of character arc, plot and pace to produce an integrated whole? My take is this:

  1. Start with the lead character. This is the heart of the emotional journey. Use a piece of paper to plan out their character arc – the ‘start point’ for the character, how they change, grow or develop as characters; and where they end up. This is the basic pacing skeleton for the story. Why paper? Because it forces you to think differently than if you’re typing. It’s a key tool at this planning stage.
  2. Do the same for any supporting characters – noting that their character arcs need to be different. Indeed, the difference between needs, wants and the ‘turning points’ when a character grows is one of the essential elements needed to drive tension in the story.
  3. On another piece of paper, develop the plot skeleton – key events, the actual settings and so forth, structuring it around the fact that the key turning points in your lead character’s development arc are what gives true emotional drama to the events. Write down the key elements and line them up with the pacing skeleton based on the lead character’s arc.
  4. Stick the whole thing in a drawer for a week. Then pull it out, get a fresh piece of paper, and copy-write the structural lists on to it. Why? Because the act of doing so makes you think about it – and if a new idea occurs, include it. Wash, rinse and repeat as necessary until you’re satisfied that it all works together – that your character arc and the dramatic plot points are meshed.  Work on it. And, all going well, that should give a basic structure for the story.

Of course, there’s a lot more to writing fiction than this – a lot more, indeed, to planning content. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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14 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: three steps to starting that novel from scratch

  1. These are very helpful guidelines! I see a lot of novels where the author has only planned on one level, if that. “It’s the story of a journalist who gets caught up in the Spanish Civil War. The setting is really one of the characters.” Yeah, but what does the journalist LEARN from his adventures? How is he changed? Why are you even telling me about him?

    As you say, a mere plot isn’t enough. We want to get from A to B, sure, but we want that emotional satisfaction as well. Conversely, in a romance oozing with all that emotional satisfaction, there has to be some sort of plot, goddammit!

    Looking forward to your next Nanowrimo tips! Not going to tackle it myself this year as I have to finish my Reassuring Guide to Self Publishing asap, but your insights are always valuable.

    1. I’m not doing it either…I do have a novel planned and must get it started, but there are other writing priorities just now – won’t go into great detail other than to say that the word ‘aaaargh’ springs to mind as a concise description of the workload.

  2. I did NaNoWriMo once and actually did 65,000 words – shocked myself, even though it was an idea I had had for years. Put it away for about 2-3 months and pulled it out to re-read and edit. You would think a 5 year old wrote it!! Sentences I thought were brilliant at the time became rubbish! Now you know why I stick with NON-fiction – no imagination needed. 😉

    1. I figure there’s as much skill – or more – needed for non-fiction because the writer has to be able to take the reader on an emotional journey through a succession of fixed waypoints. Different from fiction but just as challenging!

  3. Thank you for the excellent guidelines. They will be helpful to use on my next novel. Busy with blogging and editing – no time for more at this time.

    Enjoy your informative posts!

  4. Not participating this year, either, as it has never really been a good fit for me. However, one of these years, I will participate again, as it is an interesting exercise. Thanks to your writing essentials posts, I am much more prepared for novel writing. Thanks, Matthew.
    Karen

    1. Thank you! Yes, I’ve not been really able to participate myself. I find myself embroiled in “NaNo” style writing pressure, for real – with contracts – sufficiently often that I feel disinclined to do it as a voluntary activity. I am trying right now to schedule time to sort out my fiction projects, this is the field where I started many years ago. When I do, it’s liable to be a ‘NaNo’ type writing exercise, given my other obligations, but I don’t need NaNo word-count targeting to do it!🙂

  5. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I thought I was making good notes as I wrote my novel so that I could keep track of things. I’ve been doing the read-through and do believe a two-year-old could have done better. Wow, what a disaster. I should have done an outline on paper so things would not get confused. Working on it while I was so sick was not a good idea either. I now have the timeline and characters straightened out on paper, and started back in chapter 1 rereading so I can finish this novel and have it make sense. If I’m confused, certainly the reader will be also!

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