In Which Our Heroine Gets Into Nuts and Bolts

30 January 2006

Long-time journal-reader Adam has asked me about the nuts and bolts of how I go about setting up a novel. And since I'm in the process of doing just that -- though I'm not yet clear on which one, a minor technicality -- I figured I could post about it.

First I get the general idea for a few characters and their plot. I write this down -- usually swearing -- in my paper journal, with the notation, "novel:" beginning the line. (Other notations include "story:" and "title:" and "idea:" and "fragment:", so there's no confusion about how much more detail is supposed to already be known.) Usually I also write about four lines of dialog at this point -- whatever is in my head. Since I start not from plot or from character but from relationship, one of the very first things I know about a novel is how the characters relate to each other, usually in words even if they're not always very vocal characters.

At that point, usually I'm working on other things fairly heavily. If other ideas related to the new novel occur to me, I start a file and put them into it, in some kind of rough order of appearance in the book if at all possible. Eventually I am writing down bits and pieces consistently, including early in the morning and/or late at night. That's when I know it's time to write that book for serious.

So I sit down with the file of bits and pieces, snippets of dialog, scenes and scenelets, plot ideas, and I make them into the Incredible Disappearing Outline. (I forget who else uses these. Somebody more famous than me, though.) The plot points that have not made it into prose narrative yet, or even little details of character interaction, all stay in the same file as the prose text. When I've done what they say ("Orvokki tells beginning of Sampo story," for example), that bit gets deleted. Eventually what I have is a manuscript without summarized notes: Orvokki actually tells the beginning of the Sampo story where I have noted that she should do so, and the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Some of these bits and pieces sometimes pertain to factual research, depending on the project. Sometimes not.

Usually major plot points are all noted in the Incredible Disappearing Outline. Minor plot points can be added without trouble. When I add major plot points, there's trouble, so I try to know them in advance. This doesn't always work -- which is why Sampo is taking so freaking long to revise -- but I try. I am an outliner. I am an organizer. The seat-of-the-pants stuff is best -- for me -- when it happens while the novel is percolating, not when I'm drafting it. This is why it's very hard for me to say how long it takes me to write a novel: because a lot of the important weird woowoo stuff that has to happen for made-up people to have their made-up story go clicketa-whirrr and not thunk-thunk-thunk has already happened by the time I'm sitting down to work on the same book every day.

I am very clear on the fact that there are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and at least a couple dozen of them are right. (I think the idea that there is no wrong way to construct a tribal lay is about as silly as the idea that there is no wrong way to eat a Reese's peanut butter cup. With your nose, for example, is the wrong way to eat a Reese's peanut butter cup. Probably the wrong way to construct a tribal lay, too, if you have another option.) This is not the way to write a novel, it's my way to write a novel.

Also, at some point I have Kevin Costner's voice in my head telling me not to think, because it can only hurt the ball club. This is annoying, and usually it goes away.

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