I am in the middle of writing a novel I started ten years ago. I started it, then left it to pursue other projects. Then I started it again, and drifted away to other books. Now I’m back. The book is about an art heist that takes place in Milan, Italy and it is fun writing it and I hope it will be fun reading it. A lot of the local color I gleaned from working over there for a bank. I have memories of fancy restaurants, ancient architecture and working my butt off 12-14 hours a day! So I have an almost magisterial amount of authority when it comes to the rigors of surviving Milan!
For the book, I had to do a lot of research into quite a number of different areas: art pricing, art forgery, art history, safecracking, weapons, state-of-the-art security and a whole host of other background detail.
This is not the sort of novel you can just begin and go with the flow, wondering where it will take you and so far it’s taken meticulous planning (just as, I expect, a real heist would!). When I looked at the synopsis, I found that it was around 7,000 words in length – mostly because I included a whole bunch of reminders on background detail for myself as I went along. However, I’ve tried to write it in such a way that it I’m not hide-bound by the planning but instead make it sound at least believable and compelling.
I was talking with my friend Mike Faricy recently. He too is a novelist and he has taken the opposite approach with his novels. He sits down and begins to write and is constantly pleasantly surprised by plot turns and character development, which, of course, makes it fun to write. His novels are also fun to read, so it’s obviously a perfectly valid way of approaching novel writing – in fact I’ve used that approach with other novels I’ve written.
So the question is: when do you do meticulous planning and when do you go with the flow?
To my mind there are no hard and fast rules about how to plan a work of literature. But what I have found is that my method changes depending on genre. I’ve written two non-fiction books and the method I used was to get a pile of research material and read through it and while reading take notes. The notes were my reflections on the source material and were fairly detailed. Once I had finished with research I would go through my notes and categories them according to theme. Then I would rearrange the notes into section, each section representing a theme. After reviewing the themes I found that some of theme seemed to go together. So I grouped the themes into chapters and hey presto! I had the first draft of a book along with footnotes stating the sources.
But for novels I have a different method. First of all I try out a few opening scenes to see if any of them have legs. Once I’ve written a couple of chapters and I can see where the story is beginning to go I write a synopsis.
It puzzled me for years what the difference was between a working synopsis and a synopsis meant for submission to a publisher. It was only after trial and error that it dawned on me. A working synopsis tends to be more of a description of what I hope to achieve in each chapter rather than a description of what’s actually there. This makes sense if you think about it. When you’re writing a book nothing IS there to begin with because you haven’t written it yet. So when you write a synopsis you’re really giving a description of what a chapter, or part of a chapter, should achieve in terms of the overall plot.
What works for me is to create a table in MS Word with two columns: column 1 for the chapter numbers and column 2 for the synopsis of each chapter.
Each novel I’ve written has been between 28 and 32 chapters, with each chapter being somewhere between 2,400 and 2,600 words.
Another thing I do is to take a note of the number of words I write each day and keep this in a spreadsheet. It’s heartening to glance at it now and then in the course of writing to see how much I’ve written already and how far there is to go.
For one novel, “The Blood Menagerie” I even drew up a flowchart of when each character appeared and what they did. The flowchart had the characters’ names along the top and the chapter numbers down the left hand side.
The only reason I do all this is not because I’m ultra-organized. It’s just that I like fiddling about with calculations and spreadsheets and things. There’s always the danger that I spend time fiddling instead of writing. I’m still waiting ruefully for the day when I put the finishing touches to a pristine and highly complex spreadsheet and suddenly realize that I haven’t actually written anything yet…