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Novel writing, upside down (and inside out)

I must admit that my approach to novel writing so far has been wrong. So wrong, that I haven’t been able to finish the damn thing in five years, even though the plot is clear and characters are living in my head constantly chattering, impatient to see the light of the day.

Not only I, but most of my writing group buddies have chosen the obvious but wrong approach to write our novels.

The usual and amateurish approach is to come up with an idea, flesh it out, identify the main plot point and start writing. Character development is done on the fly. Research is non-existent. The point of view is selected at the beginning and is very hard to change because we are already into writing chapters.

Believe it or not, this is what most amateur writers (including myself) do when it comes to novel writing. And then we expect, whatever that comes out of our pen to be of publishable quality.

There is a better way to write a novel.

The way of professionals.

I first read about this approach in the ‘Searching for the Secret River‘ the book Kate Grenville wrote about writing her most admired novel ‘The Secret River

The last night I was watching a documentary on Margaret Atwood, an all-time great writer of our times, and she admitted to the same approach.

As I researched more writers, successful writers who have written several books, it started becoming evident how they are able to write so much consistently while the amateur writers struggle to finish one.

The secret lies in your first draft.

I always thought the first draft is very much like the final draft with the perfect opening line, a cliff hanger first chapter and then page-turning subsequent chapters leading to a satisfying end. All this is left to do in the subsequent revisions is polishing the language and filling any minor gaps.

I couldn’t be wrong.

I had written 12 chapters of the book even before I had fleshed out all the characters, their wants and desires, their motivations, and their quirks. I hadn’t figure out the subplots and I had no idea how to fill in the middle part.

This is where Kate Grenville’s revelation came to rescue. She said when she had a hundred pages worth of material from the research she was doing for ‘The Secret River,’ she knew she was ready to write the book.

Think of it, one hundred pages worth of material before starting the first chapter. All her research was done prior to writing the book.

Remember ‘The Moby Dick’, the 400 hundred page novel. Herman Melville talked to the survivor of the shipwreck and wrote down the whole story. He knew the whole story before he commenced. He didn’t have to figure it out as he went along.

The first draft of a novel is where you tell the story to yourself to figure it out. And I do mean tell not show. Just like you would tell the story of a movie you recently watched on TV that your friend missed out on.

This is where you will ‘fish out’ the story. You will create characters and you would figure out everything about them. Where were they born, where did they go to school, how they reacted to childhood traumas and what their motives are. This is where you will capture all the research you would do. You will find gaps and fill them. You will make the storyboard and figure out the mirror moment.

This is like writing a synopsis of your story but not after finishing your book but before commencing it.

And it is for not for agents or publishers but for yourself.

Some people call it a detailed outline.

Tomorrow I will talk about different approaches to write a 100-page outline of your novel.

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