Writing a novel can be a daunting experience, taking months or years of your life (depending on what you’re writing). You may have a great idea but no way of knowing whether, once written, the book will work or even make sense.
A novel is a vast territory compared to a short story or screenplay. I have no difficulty holding a whole film in my head – the feel and shape of the story for a screenplay sits easily in my imagination. I can turn it around in my head without getting queasy. But I find it impossible to hold a whole novel in my mind at once – there’s always something you can’t quite see, details get lost, subplots vanish.
This is where the plan or outline comes into its own. Some people seem able to launch themselves into writing a novel with no planning or forethought – they just jump in and discover the story as they go. I find that approach terrifying and suspect I would end up waffling, finishing up with reams of nonsense and a lot of wasted ink and paper.
I recently completed the second draft of my novel Addled – a year in the life of Zoe Popper, a reluctant modern mystic, struggling to find the truth in a world where everything is relative and nothing is sacred. The first draft was written in the 3rd person and I jumped around a bit between characters – basically whenever I felt like it.
On reading it back I was disappointed. It didn’t feel the way I had hoped. The passages that worked best were, unsurprisingly, the ones told from the main character’s perspective. So I took a deep breath and rewrote the whole thing in the 1st person. This required a certain amount of plot re-jigging, but I’ve now got something more coherent – ready for draft number three.
Plan for Victory
Before writing the 1st draft I wrote an outline. This was really just a ‘notes’ version of the novel – a basic breakdown of what was happening in each scene, with as much or as little detail as I needed. I simply wrote down everything I had in my head. Not all of it made it into the finished draft, and some of it changed as I went. It gave me a basic outline of the story and the main plot points so I didn’t get lost and wander off.
However, for the 2nd draft I needed to make some changes. I added some subplots to bring some of the other characters to life, and changed the way the plot worked for the bits I couldn’t show now I was restricted to the first person. For this I created a much simpler document – a plot breakdown. Each scene is described in headlines, telling you the main action points. For a screenplay it would be called a beat sheet, as it shows all the main story beats.
Inevitably, even this basic rendering of the story changed as I rewrote. My crisp and clear plot breakdown ended up covered in scribbles, notes and arrows, asterisks and afterthoughts.
Still, I made it to the end. The manuscript has been sitting expectantly in a corner since I finished it. Now I need to steel myself to read it through once more, notebook in hand. I’m hoping draft three won’t need a radical overhaul. I already know which bits suck, without even looking at them. The bits that don’t suck are often a wonderful surprise. Any day now I’ll sit down to read it. I will. I promise. I just need to write another screenplay in the meantime – so back to the planning…
Do you launch yourself into a novel blind or are you a planner? Share your tips below…