A NOVEL – FROM INCEPTION TO FINISHED PRODUCT
ONE – GETTING STARTED
There is no one roadmap, of course. And just as different authors have different methods of working, so my method of writing has been known to differ from novel to novel – but I am going to write about a novel in process at the moment.
I have had this idea for a novel in my head for years. A man returns from work to discover that his house has been blown up – which is an eventful beginning and we can all sympathise with anyone who has to deal with something like that. The first chapter really writes itself. It is full of description and the protagonist’s reactions. The problem, of course, is what happens next, which is why this notion has hung around at the back of my head for so long. But I’ve always really liked the idea and finally decided to get down to the task and start writing it.
The first question I had to answer was: why has the house blown up? I didn’t want it to be accidental, like a gas mains explosion, though, in some writers’ hands, that could work too. No. I wanted this to be deliberate, which would suggest a bomb of some kind. This means the perpetrator has to have access to explosives, which led to me wondering what kind of person that might be. This led to imagining a terrorist of some kind with access to Semtex. One thing that would involve would be research into the availability and use of the explosive. It did occur to me that could lead to embarrassing questions if anyone in authority came across my Google search. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about the IRA or any other terrorist group. In the first place, I don’t know anything about them.
Anyway, the kind of novel I wanted to write was one involving ordinary people in extraordinary situations, which is what the original idea was, that an average sort of person comes home from work to find his house is no longer there. So I scrapped the original idea of the house being blown up and decided his house would be destroyed by fire.
Where and when does this happen? I decided to make this a contemporary novel as, after all, why not? Writing about the world I live in is surely meaningful to me – and the first advice a budding writer is given is to write about what he or she knows. So I decided to make this a novel set in the present day and to have it take place in Nairn, the town I live in.
Then a sequence of events started to play out in my mind. The protagonist is away from home at a conference to do with his work when he receives a phone call telling him his house is on fire. He travels home to find fire engines outside his house – and the police. Our hero reacts to the fire and interacts with the professionals involved, also some of the many neighbours who have gathered round to see what is happening.
I thought that sounded all right so far, but I still only had a beginning. All the same, it is one that leads to consequences and situations that the main character has to deal with. Where does he live now? What does he do for stuff now that everything he owns has gone up in smoke? I have an INITIATING EVENT from which the rest of the novel can follow.
Now if I make the fire deliberate that adds to the interest because the fire has to be set by someone and that person has to have a motive. Also it means there will be a police investigation and my main character will not only have to cope with rebuilding his home but with being one of the suspects. He will be interviewed and have to deal with his feelings about that.
I now have two strands to my narrative. In one, the main character is trying to cope with the destruction wrought on his life by that fire. In the other, there is a police investigation.
But, before I can go any further, I need to know something about my characters, which is what I will write about next.
TWO – THE CHARACTERS
(i) – The Main Character
The first character to decide on is the protagonist, in this case the person whose house burns down. I give him the name Alex Ross, and make him a middle-aged man who is already in the middle of some of life’s conflicts before the novel begins: he is mid-marriage, mid-career, mid-mortgage, and having problems with all of them. By giving him all of these difficulties I have discovered the theme of my novel – which is the rumbling discontent of middle-age.
Developing him further, I make him a man particularly aware of his ageing body, and who decides on a running regime. He is also someone who finds to his chagrin he cannot stop noticing young women; it is even becoming an obsession. So, I take that into my plot and describe him as starting an affair with a work colleague when he is away at this work conference on the night of the fire which adds to the conflict he finds himself in.
To add another layer to the character and try to avoid him being a cliche, I try to imagine hime when he was starting out on his marriage and describe a scene when he is with his wife, whom I am calling Heather, one early June morning when they are out paddle-boarding on the sea off Nairn, and when they are very much together and in love with each other. This is an image that he himself harks back to. One of his problems is that, though he does hanker after young women, he is still in love with Heather.
I am creating a character who is a flawed man, which is not to be flinched from in the writing, but, at the same time, I want my reader to sympathise with him, so I just have to write him well. Who said writing was easy?
But, before starting to write, I put all my ideas about the character in a character plan. I take the headings for mine from Scrivener, which is a writing programme, and acknowledge the source.
CHARACTER – ALEX ROSS
ROLE IN STORY – It should be clear from the beginning what part the character is intended to play in the novel – Alex Ross will be the protagonist.
OCCUPATION – Characters spend a great deal of time at work – we all do – so it is necessary to know what part this plays in this character’s life, and show this.
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION – It is often said what a character looks like should be shown to the reader as soon as possible because the reader will form their own image of him or her quickly and it is important this should be as the novelist intends. The writer also needs a clear description in the character plan so that this can be referred to at any time. It would be bad if the writer forgot he gave a woman blonde hair on page eighteen and proceeded to describe her as having black hair on page thirty. Discrepancies such as that should always be checked for in the editing stage.
PERSONALITY – From the beginning, It should be clear to the writer what his character’s personality is like because it is reflected in all of his behaviour.
HABITS/MANNERISMS – These are useful for SHOWING the character to the reader. Again, these should be consistent.
BACKGROUND – Where a character has come from affects his behaviour. The writer should know what this is.
INTERNAL CONFLICTS – We are all affected by these. Alex suffers from an internal conflict in that he is attracted to young women even though he is still in love with his wife. This is something he has to struggle with and it affects his behaviour.
EXTERNAL CONFLICT – This occurs in the character’s relationships with others. Alex is under investigation by the police.
NOTES – These will include anything else that might occur to you about the character at this stage.
All of the above is only a plan. At this stage I am still getting to know my characters who may evolve from this initial idea as I write the novel. But the plan is a building block I can keep referring to as I write.
DEVELOPMENT OF CHARACTER AS THE NOVEL PROGRESSES – Circumstances will test the character. How will he react to them? How will he develop?
(ii) Other Characters
Alex has a family.
I have already mentioned Alex’s wife, Heather. I imagine her as an attractive woman the same age as Alex. Her personality type is important in this novel and I have made her a woman who tends to be over-anxious.
Alex also has a daughter called Anna who is a first-year university student living away from home in Aberdeen. Her relationship with Heather is difficult as Heather tends to be over-protective, and Anna tends to be rebellious.
Anna has a boyfriend called Zac. He is an unemployed garage mechanic with a large Celtic tattoo across his forehead. Heather is fraught about him. This is not the kind of boyfriend she thought of Anna meeting when she went to university. Zac is the source of a lot of arguments between Heather and Anna.
Heather also has a secret love, a man called Stuart, who is much younger than her.
For each of these characters I now write a character plan.
NOTE – I not only have individual characters I also have a character dynamic. There are ongoing relationships between all of these characters before the novel even begins.
THREE – LET ME SUM UP WHAT I HAVE CREATED SO FAR.
1 – I have an initiating incident – the fire.
2 – I have characters with ongoing tensions between them.
The fire will affect the dynamics between all of the characters. For example, Zac may come under suspicion as being the fire-raiser. What will that do to the relationship between mother and daughter?
I NOW HAVE THREE STRANDS TO MY NARRATIVE.
- The initiating incident – the fire – how do Heather and Alex cope with their house and everything they own being burned down?
- The police investigation – various people will come under suspicion at different stages, including, and especially Alex.
- How do these first two strands affect the dynamics in the family relationships?
I AM NOW READY TO START WRITING A PLOT – and that is the process I will go on to describe next.
FOUR – THE PLOT
I now attempt to write a plot according to the ideas I have outlined above. This may or may not be as detailed as it is below. The sections under the heading ALEX are to be written from Alex’s point of view. Those under the heading HEATHER are to be from Heather’s point of view.
Memory of dawn with Heather in early years of marriage – a memory which symbolises their togetherness and optimism. On paddleboards opposite Nairn one June when encounter basking shark.
The above was recounted as dream experienced on waking twenty years later but is now tinged with different emotions – some bitterness seems to have crept in over the years and the optimism has dissipated. Alex goes on an early morning run. We learn what has happened to him in his life since then, the house they bought together, the career he has had, the daughter they have had. His constant mid-life grumbles and incipient dissatisfaction. And he worries that he is losing Heather.
We meet Alex at a weekend work conference. He is with his secretary Jasmine and there is an undercurrent of mutual attraction between them.
Alex receives a phone call telling him that his house is on fire and he drives back straight away. He thinks Heather must be inside it. He is questioned when he gets there by police and firemen. There are lots of neighbours milling around, including Elsa their cleaner, whom we get to know. Then Heather turns up to Alex’s relief. She has not been caught up in the fire after all. It turns out she was at a friend’s – she was with Margaret Affleck.
Alex and Heather go to Inverness to buy stuff as everything has been burned to a cinder in the fire. They discuss their reactions to their experience of the night before. A doubt appears in Alex’s mind. Was Heather at Margaret Affleck’s as she claimed?
Inspector Black turns up and asks them questions.
Alex phones up his mother to let her know about the fire.
Alex and Heather go to the scene of the fire to poke around – and so Alex can pick up documents from their safe. Alex ruminates on possible suspicions of Heather.
They meet up with Elsa who offers them somewhere to stay.
Alex phones up Anna, their daughter, to let her know what has been happening. She says she can come over from Aberdeen and back in one day to visit. And she intends to bring Zac, her boyfriend, with her.
Elsa shows Alex and Heather round the flat she is offering them. Heather hates it but is polite about it. They accept the offer of the flat.
Anna arrives with Zac and is met by Alex and Heather.
They look at the remains of their house. There is a huge row between Heather and Zac, whom Heather really does not like. Anna sides with Zac and she and Zac walk out in a huff.
Inspector Black talks with Alex and Heather again except this time he is less supportive and more inquisitorial. He tells them off for not going down to the station to make their statements as they had been asked to do. He finds out about their financial circumstances, which aren’t good, and Alex’s job situation, which might be precarious. In other words, Black establishes the motivation for an insurance fraud.
Then Black admits this fire fits the MO of others there have been in the area lately. He asks if they know anyone fitting the profile of possibly a maladjusted teenage boy. Alex gives some thought to Zac as a possible suspect but does not voice this to Black.
Heather in a park by herself. She ruminates about what Alex has been like lately. She wonders if he might be seeing someone. Eventually she summons the courage to do what she has come to the park to do – ring her parents. She does this and tells them about the fire – and comes to the conclusion her life is in a mess.
Heather visits Margaret Affleck. There is one problem with her alibi. She was with Margaret on the Friday afternoon and she needs her to say it was Friday evening.
Heather meets up with Anna at a Costa’s in Aberdeen. They are trying to get on a bit better though there are still undercurrents about Zac. Anna checks up on how mother is coping. Heather shares her concern Alex might be having an affair which Anna thinks unlikely though she does ask her mother if she is having one.
Heather meets up with Elsa. If she is borrowing a flat from her, she really ought to know more about her. The question occurs – could Alex be having an affair with Elsa?
Heather in a hotel bedroom with Stuart whom SHE is having an affair with. She wonders if she should just acknowledge the place she has reaching in her relationship with Alex and make a decision.
I have only given the plot for eighteen sections of the novel because I do not want to include spoilers.
When writing the plot as above I write it from the beginning to the end of the novel – if I can. But it should be noted that this is just a plan. The novel, in particular the ending, may not turn out to be as I originally intended it to be.
Next, I will discuss the nature of the creative process.
FIVE – THE CREATIVE PROCESS
With my plot and character outlines beside me, I proceed to write the novel. Some writers do the first draft by writing it long hand. I type it straight onto the Word programme on my computer. Writers use the programme that suits them best and there are various ones on the market, such as Scrivener, but Microsoft Word suits me.
I write it from beginning to end without doing any major revisions. I am only writing the first draft and what I am mostly doing when writing that is discovering what my story is. But, you might say, you already have a plot. I have a plan, certainly, but the novel will take its own shape as it progresses and may shift from it. In the case of the novel whose progress I am describing I followed my plot faithfully until about three-quarters of the way through, when my characters decided they didn’t like the ending I had decided on, and I had to agree to let them have the one that they wanted.
What do I mean when I say this? There are two different parts of the brain the writer makes use of. One is the rational, logical part, which is what they are using when drawing up the plan. The other is the instinctive creative part which tends to follow its own logic. It is when the second part of the brain kicks in that the writing becomes good. And it is essential to follow it when working towards the ending.
When writing a short story, I never know what the ending will be before I start. I write TOWARDS MY ENDING and, at some point in the writing of the novel, that is what I start doing.
So why, you might ask, do I write a plan of my novel from beginning to end in the first place? A lot of writers don’t. In fact, a lot of them don’t have a plan at all when they start their novels. In my case, I just can’t do that. I feel as if I’m writing off into a fog and get lost in it.
I have a plan because I need to have one. I have to know where I intend to end up – even if I depart from the planned route. It’s the way my mind works. Writers’ brains work in different ways, so when you are learning to write novels, you have to find the way that suits you best as an individual.
It takes a long time to write the first draft, of course, but it is important not to take too long over it. I try to spend no more than three months over it.
I have a writing routine that helps me do this. I write for two hours per day or as long as it takes to write a thousand words. I do this five days a week, allowing myself the weekend off. That’s the minimum. I may write more than that when inspiration strikes me. But, if I force myself to do my minimum each day, I will get the novel done. It’s discipline rather than inspiration that makes sure of that.
I now have the novel. I know it at last, and it has the shape I want. But it is not finished.
With the first draft beside me, I proceed to re-write it. I type a completely new copy. That allows me to concentrate on the words. Have I chosen the right ones? Do I need to miss any out? Have I used too many adjectives or adverbs? Am I telling instead of showing? These are only some of the questions the writer asks himself as he revises.
Then, when I have finished the second draft, I have the novel that I am going to keep, not that it is finished even yet. I now go through that version again, editing and revising – and keep on doing that until it is finished.
Then I lay it aside for a couple of weeks and read it again. If I now decide it is indeed truly finished, I send it to my publisher to see what his reaction is.
LOVELY OCTOBER DAY
It was a particularly pleasant autumn morning so I went out for a stroll along the seafront and ended up at James’ cafe nicely situated on the Links as you can see from the photograph above. I sat and read from my Kindle and enjoyed the weather, with cake and coffee of course, as I mulled over the last twelve months. These have seen the publication of four books, which is unusual for me at least. It took much longer than that to write them so please forgive me for boasting.
My trilogy of crime novels set just after the Great War, all featuring Inspector Blades, has now all been written and published. The first came out last November, the second in December, when I started writing the third, which was published this September.
It has also been a good year for events. I read from my poetry books in April at Cafe Fike in Forres, then read from my novels at Nairn Bookshop with Helen Forbes in May, and also at the Nairn Book and Arts Festival in September. I took my books along to the Nigg Book Fair in September as well.
My third poetry book, The City That Moved, has also just been published and I will be arranging events for that.
Now that this website is up and running, I will be able to concentrate on my fourth Blades novel, as I plan to develop this into a series now. The book has been researched and planned; and the characters have all been mapped out. I have even started writing it – and that is what I will be continuing with now. I look forward to it.
This is the cover for the first Inspector Blades book. Blades has found his way through three different murder mysteries, and I am now writing the fourth for him. I love the cover for the first book. This, to me, is the central image for that novel, a young, attractive woman walking out into the dunes. She is in the midst of exploring and enjoying her life – but it comes to a premature end. And the innocence and the joy in that image I find haunting because it is the last walk of her short life, and there is nothing to suggest she deserves such an end – as she doesn’t. In the fourth book, Inspector Blades is engaged in searching for another missing young woman, and he really hopes that he will find this one alive. I am yet to find out myself the end to this mystery and look forward to knowing what happens next. I will just have to keep on writing it. I am about half way through and have reached the stage you always do half-way through a novel, where you have gone a bit flat, and just have to keep plodding on till the structure comes together and the ideas flow properly again. So, onwards. One foot after another.
Christmas was great. I enjoyed a good meal and good company, and, feeling in a relaxed and energetic frame of mind again, I have returned to work on the fourth novel in the Inspector Blades series. I finished the first draft of this just before Christmas so have a lot of editing and polishing ahead of me, tasks that I usually enjoy. Inspector Blades, I am glad to say, manages to solve yet another puzzling case, and, though the seaside town of Birtleby that he works in is not a large place
., ( Itit is about the same size that Eastbourne was at the time – the 1920s) it is an alarmingly dangerous place to live in, and someone else has come to a sticky end. At least that’s what seems to have happened when a young woman disappears and blood stains are discovered where she lived. Inspector Blades’ first task is to establish the nature of the crime. If you are wondering who that is in the picture above, it is a policeman from that period, an Detective Lieutenant John Thomson Trench, a Glasgow policeman, well known for his courage, integrity, and determination in cases that he worked. He looks not unlike the Inspector Stephen Blades that I imagine when I am writing my crime novels. He has what looks like a parcel under his arm and I can tell you nothing about that, but I imagine it to be a clue in his latest case.
As you can see I have a cheerful time with my hiking group. On one such trip we explored Auldearn which is close to Nairn where I live and afterwards I wrote a poem about it. This was given first prize in the Robin Lloyd-Jones Autumn Voices poetry competition, judged by Sally Evans. This won from a field of about one hundred entries, so I was well pleased. The poem itself is listed in the section of this website called The Poems if you want to read it.
SEPTEMBER BLOG 2020
It is a while since I wrote in this blog, not since the beginning of the first lockdown, about six months ago. It must have been a traumatic experience. I have been doing some writing, starting off with weekly poetry exercises, some of which were published. This is a poem which was published on the Hampden Collection/ Primo Poetica site. I think I was really missing my football at the time. And Along With The Rest The Cancelled Football Footballers become greater in the mind the longer it is since they played. George Best, he of the double-jointed ankles, wove patterns between players so intricate they might have been done with a needle and thread. But he didn't forget the goalposts. That's where the ball nestled, home again, hence all the shouting. With all the effort it took to put it there, why take it out and start all over again? Because it's football, the game of the masses, which also becomes greater the longer it is since it played.