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How to start a novel

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Jul 9, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >feel myself intuitively moving
    That's the key phrase that jumped out at me. At some point you're still building the foundation, getting it RIGHT. At some other point, you're writing. Moving from the one to the other is more intuitive than objective. Have I got that right?

    I've been trying to pay attention to how I do it, and I'm saddened to report we may be in the same boat. You know, the HMS Intuitive. I outline, research, structure, make notes. I jot down snippets, write exploratory scenes, and somewhere along the line I look around and realize that, apparently, I've begun the book.

    I have no real objection to the HMS Intuitive, but the damn thing does have an uncanny ability to sneak up on a fellow.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    This isn't quite a necro-thread. It's only mostly dead.

    I'm hard at work in the planning on The Falconer. I realized I needed some way to know where I was, more or less, in that process. I'm developing characters, working on plot, thinking about theme, browsing pictures for settings, but where was I last Monday on any one of these?


    So I came up with this. I can invent a metric for each item (50% done, etc.), even if I do move the goal post often. I can also leave notes to myself: here's where you were last Monday on thinking about symbols that relate to your theme. That sort of thing. The goal is to have a single document I can consult at the start of each writing day (ok, planning day) that will allow me to gain some momentum rather than wandering with Willy and Nilly. So here's the list I made, in case anyone else might find it useful. You pantsers are dismissed for this exercise.

    For reference, the "link to specific document" in each part is an internal link in Scrivener, but you Wordies can make similar links. (poor dears <g>)

    Beats (acts, turning points, pinch points, etc.) (each needs characters and settings and maybe theme)
    Scene list (can be viewed as a more detailed version of Beats)
    Each should include a target number of words and a link to specific document

    Name and nicknames, titles
    Role (relationship to other characters, plus role in story; e.g., comic relief)
    Backstory (how this character came to the point in the story where they first appear)
    Link to all scenes where they appear
    Needs and wants

    Name and alternative names
    Description (sights, sounds, smells; these should be my own descriptions—at least one)
    Background (flora, fauna, geography)
    Pictures (more important settings require more images)
    Season, weather
    Link to document(s) where this setting appears

    General statement of theme
    Scenes that relate or state the theme
    Settings that can relate to the theme
    Symbols or objects that can relate to the theme
    Link to specific document(s) where these appear

    Questions and comments are weclome
    Heliotrope likes this.
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I do a similar thing, but I have a running draft that I start with first... I use One Note for my planning. My planning process goes like this:

    Summary (me telling myself what I already know about the story). Goal is to try to make sure it is a character driven as possible (character calling the shots) but it is usually filled with holes and questions I have to brainstorm/flesh out later.

    So I will start with my summary, which will look something like this:

    Glass Gods

    Character (name? man? woman? age?) is an inventor? Related to an inventor? Somehow has access to a new technology to develop an energy source that is not radioactive (currently the energy sources is radioactive glass mined in very dangerous mines and is highly volatile).

    She needs the funding to develop this tech (not sure what that is yet. Brainstorm Tech) and she (oh! It's a she!) seeks out investors. (Who? Flesh out two or three examples of people she would go to). She has no buyers.

    Her brother? is an employee at the mine and is organizing a workplace safety rally? Labor relations rally? Better pay rally? The rally goes sour and people get violent. *why? Make this personal.

    The brother is arrested. MC needs bail money? Money for a lawyer? What would her choices be? Think of three or four possible choices:

    1) Leave the tech for a while and get a job doing something else (what?)
    2) Don't help her brother. He got himself into this mess. She has her own life to lead.
    3) Use investor's money to pay for a lawyer... but then how does she pay them back?
    4) Steal money? Meh.

    Etc, etc, etc.

    As I go, I open up a new page in One Note for each of the questions I have re: the story as I go. I'll have categories for each, like characters, tech, world building, theme, symbols/metaphors etc.

    Last edited: Sep 11, 2019
    skip.knox likes this.
  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    How I started Solineus, the fourth book (or 2.5) in Sundering the Gods...

    Solineus needs to get to the other end of the mountains while making as many allies as possible to find Y... but he doesn’t know what Y is... It’s a bit like algebra.

    He has to go through these kingdoms to get there. This could be one part The Odyssey and one part Josey Wales and one part buddy cop.. who the hells knows? (Yes, I’ve written hells so many time I now think that and say it) And throw in a McGuffin.

    Hmm. Good. Crack the Whip! Yeeha!

    Go man go!

    Know the ending, have fun getting there.

    Of course, being part of a series, all the foundation is basically laid, but! I had no frigging idea what was going to happen going from point A to B and it was a blast. The biggest issue was too many things that could happen, and I didn’t want a full 100k plus novel.
    skip.knox and Heliotrope like this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The outline I gave in my previous post seems to be working well for me. Here's just one benefit.

    I have sections in Scrivener called Plot, Setting, Characters, Theme. In Plot I have what was titled Scene List. In there I have things like Sicily,e Lipari Islands, Gaeta, Genoa, Mantova, and so on. Over in Setting I have files for Sicily, Lipari Islands, Gaeta, etc.

    Hm, sez I, being a clever sort, it appears the one is much like the other. Aha! Once again I triumphantly realize the painfully obvious: I don't have a scene list, I have a list of settings. That's not a plot. It's not even scenes.

    I'm now pulling out descriptions and background from the Scene List and putting that info over in Setting where it belongs. This allows me to look at the scenes the way they should, as units of action and reaction, decisions and consequences.

    Oh sure, maybe *you* never chase your own tail and always have scene/sequel nicely arranged. If so, good on ya, mate. This humble pupil needs as many study aids as he can lay hands on. Getting all the pieces of the puzzle laid out on the table is helping me. Even if I don't know what all the pieces look like, or if I even have them all yet.
    Heliotrope and Demesnedenoir like this.
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    So long as the dog doesn’t eat the final piece to the puzzle and you have to wait for it to come out.
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The dog eats the final piece ...

    Plot twist!
    Demesnedenoir and Chessie2 like this.
  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

    They say everyone has stories. Apparently, I don't.

    I can never come up with any plot that could be justified to be stretched out to novel length.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Another benefit: character development.

    I have three main characters. Once I laid out my Plan, I quickly saw that while I had a good idea of who was in the circle around Frederick, I had only place-holders for Maddig and nothing much at all for poor Odo. This drew my attention to figuring out who would be friends with each of these three, what role they might play. That, in turn, added more color to the MCs themselves.er s

    I also have four levels of characters now, each of which having its own level of development. The MCs require the most background and building. Secondary characters require some, but probably less backstory. I'm still playing that by ear. Tertiary characters are ones who appear but then disappear. They die or leave. These need only enough to figure out their role and motives. Finally, there's the spear-carriers. These need little more than a name or brief description.

    For each level I'll have a character sheet. Not because character sheets so great, but they do let me see at a glance that while I know what Character A looks like, I haven't done that for Character B. It lets me see that while I have a dozen friends listed for this MC, I have none for that. And so on. Overall, it's another way for me to decide whether I've done enough on the character development front and can start writing, or whether more work is needed.

    So, yeah. Still working, for me.
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    So, a bit more on knowing when to start writing. I find myself approaching my novel from four angles: plot, character, setting, theme. The notion occurred to me, as notions will, that for each angle I might be able to say I've begun, I've made progress, I'm maybe half done, and so on.

    I started laying this out and it's working well for me. I have a master "progress" page that as of today shows this:
    Scene List
    Twists or reversals
    Payoff scenes
    One page Summary

    Make Character Sheets for primary and secondary
    Fill out Character Sheet for Primary and for Secondary
    Make it clear which characters are in which camp. Use a mind map?

    Write some descriptions
    Choose some specific places for scenes

    Think about symbols or settings that can reflect the theme
    The rest needs to wait until I have actual scenes written

    Now, the percentages are somewhere between best guess and utterly fictitious. But it's a marker. I can adjust because nobody's watching, it's just me. I don't think I need to get everything to 100% (and if I did, it would be an illusion), but if each area is three-quarters or better, then somewhere along in there is going to be time to write. But so long as my settings are so underdeveloped and I've barely thought about themes, then clearly it's not time. That's all I'm really after.
  11. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

    I feel like I've contributed to a thread like this a dozen times, but I guess also that I never get sick of it...so here is my contribution...again.

    I still work full time so writing is a passion rather than a profession (although I have had four books published by small press so it's a passion that has started to pay its way...a little). That means I don't have infinite time for writing - what time there is has to be used well.

    Rule 1 - I put no pressure on myself. I write how, what and when I feel like it.

    So if I have an idea I don't rush into full on prose generation until I have what I call the framing idea. I'm the sort of chap who always has a million ideas rattling around in my head, but every now and then I'll have an idea which is basically a major plot kicker. It starts something by asking a major question, which is somehow connected to a key aspect of the protagonist. Usually, the plot kicker and protagonist will come to me in the same burst of inspiration.

    At the same time, I'll feel a number of my other rattling ideas clunk into the frame and be just bursting to start writing. Typically I'll dash off about 20 - 30 pp and then just stop. The basis of the story will be locked into those 20 - 30 pp and usually I'll then put it down for a while to think about it - sometimes for years - until I start having new plot kicker ideas and suddenly, a project will become my main project and I'll zoom along until the first draft is complete.

    But I never force it. I only write anything when I feel like it. Fortunately, that's pretty much every day and I always have several projects on the go.

    Rule 2 - I have to know the end before I start major draft generation.

    The proviso to this rule is that the end NEVER turns out to be the real end. Every book I've written, I was working towards a particular end, but when I got there I had a much better idea - the potential end was buried in the story's DNA and smote me between the eyes at the 11th hour. No-one ever sees my twists coming and I think that's why.
    skip.knox likes this.
  12. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I've always been thinking of a story as "someone does something". Because you want protagonists who have agency and villains often end up being much more interesting than the heroes because they have a goal and show initiative instead of just reacting. But coming up with an interesting plot like that has always been frustratingly ineffective.

    Today I came across the statement that a story is "something happening to someone". And thinking for a few moments about it, this doesn't have to mean that the story is a generic three act hero's journey where the protagonist is along for the ride. It only means that the first plot point has to be the protagonist reacting to something. You can continue the story by having the character react to a wise old mentor's advice or to new misdeeds by the villain. But you can also can switch to the protagonist "doing something" at any point in the story. Even right after the inciting incident.

    And that sounds actually a lot easier as a way to get a goal for the protagonist and the first plot point. Throw the protagonist in the water and tell him to swim instead of putting the protagonist next to the water and asking him what he wants to do with it. Coming up with a compelling goal in a blank void is frustrating and never actually worked for me. But imagining some interesting strange event seems much easier. Then you can consider what impact it could have on the protagonist and what the protagonist wants to do about it.
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    That's certainly how it worked with my first novel. I had an event: a quarter million goblins invade the Roman Empire. I knew the goblins didn't win, and I knew that magic came into the world along with them.

    That was it. I didn't even have a protagonist; or, rather, I had the fellow I thought was going to be the protagonist and wrote some scenes with him. My eventual protagonist was a junior officer sitting at the table making snarky comments.

    So, much of the book is events happening *to* Julian. Fairly late in the book I realized that Julian's story arc was him coming around to taking command--of himself as well as of his legion. He never really wanted to do either, but in order to survive, he had to. Then he realized that for Rome itself to survive, he had to go even further than that.

    Anyway, it is absolutely okay to cook up a fire then throw your lead into it along with all his friends. A good many "man against nature" stories do that.

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