How I write a novel

Another writer wrote to me recently:

the other problem i have.. or maybe it is part of the same problem..(overthinking) is too many ideas all clamoring for attention.. Pick Me! Pick Me! and then i get bogged down trying to decide if they should be included or not sigh.. And then i get fed up and think maybe i should just give up on the whole idea of writing.

This is what I told her:

It seems like you have a focus problem, as well as the internal editor/creativity overdrive.

I know that some people just can’t do it, but have you tried picking a theme and general internal/external conflict, and then writing a summary and outline? Nothing spectatular, just something to carry you through and keep you on track.

For example, I’m currently working on a novel about a kid who finds a wish-granting genie.

I wrote a brief summary first: “Zeke hates his life. His parents are mean, and everyone seems to hate him. His luck seems to change when he finds an old bottle that happens to contain Paribanu – a genie, a fairy godmother, a guardian angel. Zeke now has the power to change his life with a few simple wishes. But getting one’s way has unintended consequences, a lesson he learns and forgets over the course of his life.”

It tells me what the story is about generally (external conflict), as well as a theme – your actions have consequences.

What about an internal conflict? Most character-driven stories have something that the MC is struggling with, and over the course of the story the character grows into a different person, either by changing their views on an issue/life or overcoming (or falling victim to) a flaw/fear/weakness.

To help me with this in my story, I decided to follow Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. So therefore, my MC’s internal conflict is becoming a better person more concerned with the world than himself.

The next step was an outline. I tend to keep mine very basic, and fill in the bits as necessary. This outline serves two purposes for me: 1. it tells me where I’m headed, and 2. it shows me where I’ve been. For stories with lots of plot twists, the second part can be especially helpful.

Here’s part of my outline of chapters:

  1. Meets Cornelius, gets Pari at the end.
  2. Gets to know Pari, small wishes – ice cream, Tommy leave him alone, Cornelius dies and parents oppose him, ends with making #1 – wish I don’t live with my parents.
  3. Cornelius’s funeral, going through his stuff, learning more about him. Ends with parents’ death.
  4. Wish #1 – wish I never saw my parents again –> parents die, blames Paribanu for not listening to him and twisting his words (avoid punishment)
  5. Accidentally wishes that the paper would stop being thrown at him, makes a deal with Stanley to stop the bullying, finds the bottle in his locker.
  6. 1957, age 12 – wish #2 – wish I was rich –> adopted by mean uncle (self-interest)
  7. 1963, age 18 – wish #3 – wish I was popular and like everyone else –> full ride to college on uncle’s rep (social norms)

I haven’t written past chapter 5, so the next chapters are pretty vague. I’ll definitely flesh them out and then add the detail to my outline, but right now they do what I need, which is to show me where I’m going.

With the novel I’m currently editing, I did the same thing. As I was writing, I noticed bits that I had to go back and change as more ideas came to me, but I just made a note to go back and edit it in. And by the time I was done, some of those ideas made sense and some didn’t. While I wanted a few subplots, I made sure that all of them tied into my main plot, which is where having that summary is helpful. If it didn’t relate to that, it didn’t go in.

However, I didn’t throw any of the scenes away. A lot of them, especially whole scenes, can be altered enough to give you either a new short story or another novel.

I realize this method doesn’t work for everyone, but if you can’t seem to stay focused and your plot is wandering all over, if you meant to write a YA paranormal romance and it turned into an obscenity-laced space cowboy thriller – you might want to give my suggestions a try.

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