First Steps in a Novel: My Method of Operation

Whether the seminal idea is a theme, character, setting or plot; before I actually write a first draft, I do a lot of preliminary writing.  I create a cast of characters who will  enact the events that I will unfold in the story. I write character sketches for each of them in which I describe their physical and personality traits.  I ascribe age, profession, family background, likes and dislikes, pastimes and other pertinent data to fully understand who the character is.  I summarize in a few pages the arc of the plot, the major conflicts and complications. This is a framework around which, as I write, additional or different directions may arise from my preliminary conception of the story.  I also write several pages that describe the setting. I want to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the objects in that environment.  The main theme or point of the story is central to the choices I make about the details of character, plot, and setting. I must know the point of my story, or why bother to write it?  If I can’t tell the reader why I wanted to write the story in the first place, they can’t decide if they want to read it.

Even after I am well into the first draft, I record possibilities for incidents, confrontations, and motivations in the novel.  The physical act of writing these mental meanderings helps to solidify my purpose and to decide what alternative will work the best.  I have pages of these musings for every book I’ve written. I may write out mini-scenes or sections of dialogue and then later work them into the novel at an appropriate point.

Do I know what my ending is when I start?  Not all the time. Some time it is only the general notion that it will be happy or tragic, that the main character will change or remain the same. If I have conceived a specific ending, it is open to modification or change as the story evolves.  Most novelists report that their characters take on a life of their own as the action progresses and what was not conceivable at first, becomes the logical outcome to a chain of events, consistent with that character’s previous behavior. That’s what makes writing so exciting, those turn of events, that surprise even the writer.

When the first draft is done, the work is just beginning.  There must be readers for that newborn babe, readers who are not bosom buddies apt to lie through their teeth how great the novel is, when you know there are dung piles smothering the solitary wild rose scattered here and there in the manuscript.  There’s an Arab saying: “The monkey’s mother thinks he’s beautiful.” That adage serves to remind me  my brain child is ugly at this stage. I have an ugly duckling that with the help of several perceptive, objective and critical readers, I could turn into a graceful swan.  When I first started writing, I hated the revision stage–ugh–too much work. But now I like digging in the dirt like an avid gardener, pulling weeds left and right, so those flowers have room to grow.  But we can leave the topic of revision for another time.

Readers, please tell me about your method of operation in your creative activity.  I would love to hear about them.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing. (Sylvia Plath). Have I got a dung pile fermenting!


    • After my last writing conference, I decided to publish my pile. I’m not sure what Plath meant. But we may as well let some readers be the arbiters of how bad the writing stinks, or if it does have a more pleasant odor than we suppose. Besides, we all have read published writing that we think stinks as well as published reading lost in the shuffle of bestsellers that pleased us immensely. Hang your sheets on the line in the open air and let them get some fresh air.


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