Are you protesting this title yet? You should be, because there is no such thing as one right way to write a novel. Novel-writing is a process and that process varies, depending on the writer. In general, there are four main types of writers:
The word builder – has done no written preparation before she begins, but when she does start writing, she works and reworks each sentence until it’s perfect. She won’t proceed to the second sentence until she’s happy with the first, won’t precede to the third sentence until she’s happy with the second, etc. (This kind of writer is rare, but a former writing teacher of mine knew of a successful novelist who wrote this way. Not surprisingly, each novel took her several years to write, but this was the method that worked for her.)
The intuitive writer – doesn’t know where she’s headed but fully trusts her intuition. She has such a strong, innate sense of storytelling that no planning is required. She begins her novel with no idea of the twists and turns it might take or where it will end. She constantly surprises herself and allows her characters to surprise her too. (Ursula Dubosarsky, a highly original, multi-award-winning children’s and YA writer, works this way.)
The detailed planner – knows exactly where she’s headed for she has planned out every chapter before she begins. This writer will rarely deviate from her well thought-out plan – she knows before she starts that this story works. There are no surprises. (Writers who work this way usually finish their novels quickly. This is the method used by the popular, critically acclaimed and prolific children’s writer Morris Gleitzman.)
The relaxed yet focused traveller – has a strong idea of where she’s headed, but doesn’t know precisely what she’ll encounter on the journey. Somewhere between the intuitive writer and the detailed planner, this writer may know how the story ends, but often discovers twists and turns along the way. (Most writers, myself included, fall into this category.)
When aspiring writers ask, “How should I go about writing a novel? Where should I start?” they usually mean:
Should I start with an idea, a character, an image, a setting, a conflict, a plot or a theme?
b) How much do I need to know about my story before I begin?
The truth is, while a novel must contain six basic elements (plot, setting, character, structure, voice and theme), it doesn’t much matter where you start, as long as you’ve incorporated and integrated all these elements into your novel by the time you’ve finished.
As for how much you need to know about your story before you begin, that depends on whether you are a word-builder, an intuitive writer, a detailed planner or a relaxed yet focused traveller.
While I can’t tell you what you need to know before you begin, I can tell you what I need to know – and this will be true for the majority of writers.
Before I begin writing my novel, I need a concept. A concept is more than a mere idea. Let me explain.
I could write about dance. That’s an idea; it’s not a concept.
I could write about religion. That too is an idea; it’s not a concept.
I could write a book about both dance and religion. That’s still an idea; it’s not yet a concept.
I could write about a girl from an orthodox Jewish family who longs to take ballet lessons but, for religious reasons, her parents don’t let her. We’re getting closer, but it’s still not a concept because I can’t see a story here yet. I need to know how she reacts to her parents’ refusal. If she accepts their refusal there is no story.
I could write about a girl from an orthodox Jewish family who longs to take ballet lessons and, when her parents refuse their permission, begins to dance in secret, and is soon caught up in a web of deception. That’s a concept, because I can see the story. I can see the girl sneaking out to class, lying to her parents and wrestling with her conscience. I can see how this will become a novel (and, in fact, did become my debut novel Dancing in the Dark).
A strong concept suggests a story. It suggests character, plot, setting and theme, but that’s not all I need before starting my story. I need to know who is telling the story. The protagonist? A third person narrator? Somebody else? I also need a sense of my story’s structure. Sometimes I have to experiment a little with voice and structure to find what works. Finally, I need names for my main characters. The sooner I name them the sooner I can get to know them.
I don’t need to know my sub-plots before I begin. Nor do I need to know the names of all my minor characters, the roles they’ll play or even how many minor characters there will be.
I jot down ideas for scenes, characters, conversations or internal monologue pop into my head.
When I have several pages of written snippets, a strong idea of where my major plot is headed and a clear idea of what needs to go into the first few chapters, I’m ready to begin with Chapter One. Although, what starts as Chapter One might end up as Chapter Three, as was the case with my second novel, Pirouette, or be deleted later on, as was the case with Dancing in the Dark, where too much backstory was cut in favour of a snappier beginning that would plunge the reader straight into the story.
If you’re the kind of writer I am then you too will need, at the very least, a strong concept and a voice before you begin, but only you can know whether you’re a word builder, an intuitive writer, a detailed planner or a relaxed yet focused traveller.
Trust yourself and let your story emerge.
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Writing Novels in Australia