I toyed with naming this series of articles, How to Write (Good) Novels, but I realised that everything I want to discuss with you applies to all fiction, no matter the form, genre, or length.
Once you have several decent works of fiction under your belt, it’s only a matter of retrospectively picking apart formulas and process to see how all the pieces fit together. That’s fine for experienced writers – although it’s a long, arduous path in itself – but how do new and/or rusty writers know how to tackle a big project like a novel?
An infamous piece of advice is: ‘Write, write more, write every day until you’ve penned a million words, and then you might be half decent.’ While I agree that theory can never replace practising your craft (sorry), having a roadmap before you begin can smooth out some unnecessary bumps while you’re working on a future bestseller/underappreciated work of genius.
Where do I even start?
I’m guessing that you haven’t literally just decided you’re going to write fiction and opened a blank document only to stare at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike. Right? At least not straight away. You probably have some idea of the type of story you want to tell. So the first questions you must answer are:
- What do I want to say/explore through fiction?
- What type of fiction would best suit my theme or message?
- What genre will I use?
What do I want to say/explore through fiction?
There’s no point venturing out on a journey that will force you to question every aspect of yourself and your abilities without some clue as to the destination. Think about what inspired you to write fiction in the first place. If nothing comes to mind, consider the books you have read that have made the greatest impact on your life; it’s likely that the most memorable texts have common themes, emotions, and ideas that speak to you on a deep level.
You shouldn’t rush this step because you’ll need to pause in the future in order to compare your progress with your original intention. Yes, sometimes your chosen path will diverge from expectations, but that should be a conscious choice rather than a random foray into no man’s land.
Jot down any strong images, ideas, and feelings that pop into your mind during this process, as these notes will help you create scenes, plotlines, settings, and characters when the time comes.
What type of fiction would best suit my theme or message?
A lot of new writers get bogged down at the very beginning because they aren’t sure how to proceed with a mere bundle of ideas bobbing about like tumbleweeds in their mind palace. Flash fiction, short story, poetry, novella, novel, epic trilogy?
It’s usually an instinctual decision, whether your core idea is suited to short or long-form fiction, but not always. If you are struggling to choose between short story and novel, perhaps spend some time writing the short story first, and then a single scene plucked from any point in a novel. What possibilities excite you most?
Initially, it might not seem that you have enough of an idea to fill a whole book. That’s okay. Ideas tend to grow organically around the core theme like candyfloss on a stick. This isn’t a race! Sometimes, the initial stages of planning a piece of fiction take the longest time. But once you have decided what form of fiction to use, it will allow you to explore your message in the way you’re aiming for so you can focus on creating an outline, which we will talk about in Part Two.
What genre will I use?
Think carefully about common tropes and trends apparent in the major fiction genres, and how this ties to the prevalent emotions and situations you wish to highlight in your work. For example, contemporary romance is driven by the interplay of relationships and uses the environment and circumstances of the characters to manipulate and explore complex emotional ties. Crime and thrillers allow for plot-driven, fast-paced action that often delves deep into the dark heart of humanity. Epic fantasy can use the backdrop of pure escapism to allow readers to explore the highs and lows of the real world in an exciting and intriguing way.
Closely related to genre is characterisation. That is genre, to a large degree, gives you types of characters to adapt to your own uses. Vampires are one example. Vampires are so popular because they speak to the hidden desires of many readers. They allow reads to play with the idea of darkness, immortality, and the suppression (or not) of unsavoury desires. Perhaps this is why young, teenage girls have so often been caught up by these creatures, girls who perhaps feel physically vulnerable, marginalised, or pressured by society’s expectations to always be good. That’s not to say, however, that every character you pick should be a cardboard cut-out – far from it! Humans, whether natural or supernatural – or fictional! – are highly complex beings.
Now we have found some answers, your homework for this week is to focus on digging a little deeper so that you are prepared to create your story outline. Review your favourite authors in your chosen genre and see what common themes you can find in their work. Consider how they structure their stories, including whether they use first person or third person points of view. Note down common plot devices, character types, and any surprising plot twists. By next week, you should feel inspired and ready to sketch out your story.
Ciao for now,