by Julie L. Cannon
In the world of novel writing, there are no rule books. There’s no concise course you can enroll in, study hard, take the final, pass it and know you know how to write a novel the right way. I’ve often heard writing a novel compared to being a brain surgeon, but I don’t agree with that. Yes, both take years and years of study, of practice, but one has fairly specific guidelines for the procedure (I hope).
I’m a voracious collector and reader/studier of how-to-write books. Each one gives me a fresh perspective, and after I read it, I come away saying, “Yes! That’s it! That’s how I’m going to write my next novel.” But when it gets down to it, and I’m sitting behind my keyboard, my fingers tingling with the thrill of beginning a new book, I realize I’ve got to follow my own way.
Turns out my own way is mixing and matching bits and pieces from all the different books on writing that I’ve studied over the years, along with stuff I’ve gleaned from all manner of writing classes I’ve taken, along with a few of my own discoveries I made as I read my way through stacks of other authors’ novels (That’s my favorite way to study novel writing) .
Though I’ve now sold four books, and have two more finished and out with my agent (along with a number sitting in folders in my laundry room), I feel no more like I could say “Okay, let me tell you about my process” than I could after the very first one. I wonder if there ever comes a point when any novelist can say: Here’s the formula. This is how you do it. I’ve arrived and I am done studying the craft of writing.”
So, what I guess I’ll do here is just try to put in words those things that I do consistently. The things that help me birth each new book. First, of course, comes the idea. My ideas can come from anywhere: Mother, roadside signs, playing the “what if?” game, newspaper and magazine articles, or just out-of-the-blue. Once I get the idea, the Muse, or whatever it is, grabs a hold of me and will not let me go. I get obsessed, literally. I scribble a few sentences so it won’t slip away from me.
Some writers claim they write organically, with no outline. They just sit down at the keyboard after they get their idea and it comes pouring out like blood from a severed vein. Not me. After the fever of getting my idea and putting my couple of sentences down, I’ve got to take a deep breath, sit my butt in a chair and methodically work through the idea. I want to make sure it’s really enough of an idea to fill an entire book.
I’ve heard of lots of writers who use index cards - writing scenes on them and laying them out in lines, even taping them to the wall in some long stream of plot points. What I do is tape two sheets of typewriter paper together end to end so I have this long, narrow piece of paper, and then I’ll write on it with a pencil First I draw a long, straight diagonal line from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. I section it off and make marks about every quarter of it, assuming a novel is around 80,000 words. I begin with ‘The Catalyst’ and ‘Act One,’ where I introduce the characters and their clashing agendas, and at around the 20,000 word mark, I put ‘Key Scene Containing a Twist/ Turning Point.’ Next I move on to ‘Midpoint,’ which is along about the 40,000 word mark and also close to where ‘Act Two’ comes along, which is where I throw in some more complications and confrontations. When I get to around the 60,000 word mark, I put in a ‘Climax.’ followed by ‘Act Three,’ also called ‘The Resolution.’ Finally, I scratch my head and think up the ‘Catharsis,’ and then the ‘Wrap-Up,’ which is where I try to tie up all loose ends, and show how my character or story is moving on. From this long piece of paper filled with chicken scratch, I write a fairly detailed synopsis.
Without this outline/synopsis I really won’t sit down and write any more than those first sentences. Because, for me, it is necessary that I have some sort of guide. It may change, in fact, it will change, but first I’ve got to have it thought out from Concept to Crisis to Climax to Conclusion. I don’t know everything about the book I’m writing, but I do have a kind of road map. What’s exciting, what keeps me writing through the long days of forcing words that do occur even in a story you’re excited about, is that I really don’t know what might happen.
When I was beginning to write my first novel I carried around this huge black notebook with the words Writer’s Digest School printed on the spine. Tab dividers inside had topics such as: Characters, Ideas, Market Research, Plot, Published Novels, Scenes, Theme, Viewpoint. I literally absorbed that thing. Inhaled it. I highlighted sentences, wrote in the margin. I followed each and every shred of its instruction to the letter. Along with this notebook, I acquired two books: The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, by Writer’s Digest Books, and The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing, from the editors of Writer’s Digest. These I also poured over. Then, I took baby steps forward and
I interrupt this blog to give you the following news: MY AGENT JUST CALLED AND SHE HAS A TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR ME AND IT’S BEEN A WHILE SINCE A SALE AND MAYBE THIS MEANS I WON’T HAVE TO GO BACK TO SCORING ESSAYS FOR THE STATE OF GEORGIA WHILE I WAIT ON A SALE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!OH, THANK GOD!!!!!! I MEAN THAT LITERALLY!!!!!!!!
P.S. Sorry if this blog is so disjointed and messy. Usually I try to go back and smooth things out because I know and you know that good writing is re-writing, but I’m literally bursting with this news and I’ll be doing good just to get this posted!!!!!!
Read more about my writing at julielcannon.com