Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Different Methods To Write a Novel

For any first-time writer, figuring out exactly how to write a novel is no small task. I myself found that leaving the comfort of short story-writing and venturing into the unknown territory of novel-writing quite intimidating. A quick Google search reveals many helpful articles on the subject, but the bottom line is that there is no single best way to write a novel. It is up to each individual person to experiment and discover how they prefer to write a book.

In my experience, every single method for writing a book can be distilled into only two different methods. I am currently experimenting with both of these methods as, for the first time, I write two different novels at the same time.

My Novel-Writing History

My first real attempt at writing a fiction novel (not counting that one time when I was 14 and thought ten short paragraphs, if separated into their own pages, constituted a complete novel) ended in 2012 when a classroom of students told me it was terrible. I had based the idea off a series of romantic fantasies I'd had which were inspired by awful chick flicks and my own desire to have that perfect Hollywood love (spoiler: it was dating me the whole time). If you read my blog post about it (linked above) you'll notice just how optimistic I was about taking the novel in a new direction based on my peer feedback.

Well here's the post where I talk about restarting it for yet a second time. In the end it turned out that the idea I had for a novel wasn't fleshed out enough to actually be a novel; it lacked any real meaning or planning. I then decided to move onto writing a different idea that I'd actually been thinking about and taking notes on for a while (what a concept!), but then I got bored of that one and put it on the back-burner so I could write more short stories. What a tragic series of errors!

Eventually I wrote a short story that my classroom loved and even demanded that I continue. I realized that, having failed three times before, if I was going to set out to write a novel I was going to have to do it right this time.

Method 1: Plan Everything

For this method, it helps to have real novel-writing software. Believe it or not, Microsoft Word isn't the best word-processing software out there, at least it isn't when it comes to long-form creative writing. Around when I decided to give novel-writing another try, I heard about the novel-writing software known as Scrivener from one of my favorite professors. There are other similar programs out there, so feel free to look around, but Scrivener is a powerful and extensive tool for writing that allows you to organize and plan your novel to an extent that standard word-processing software doesn't even touch.

Scrivener allowed me to easily start at a very high concept level of my novel and work my way downward, slowly expanding on my ideas into an intricate web in a very easy-to-use way. Again, I'm not trying to sell you on Scrivener, I'm trying to sell you on the method that a novel must be nearly entirely written in your head before you start actually writing it.

One very popular version of this method is known as the snowflake method, which has you starting out with a single paragraph that encapsulates your entire novel, then slowly expanding on that until you've got pages written on each character, location, and scene before you even start your first draft. I don't adhere to this exact formula, but reading about it certainly helped me to find a method that worked for me. I found it much easier and less stressful to start writing a novel that I never meant to be a novel by making an outline of the story including plot points, characters, locations, and themes. Some people might then want to adhere strictly to that outline, but I found myself constantly changing details as I developed a clearer vision of what I wanted to write.

I've been writing that novel on and off for a year now, and despite the outline I've gone back and rewritten loads of pages based on my new and changing ideas, but the outline has still been very helpful in keeping my rewrites in line with the ultimate end goal. The scenes and characters may change as I write, but I can always go back to that first outline to see exactly how those changes can serve the overall original idea.

The drawback to this method, in my experience, is that I sometimes find myself wanting to take a character or event in one direction and then having to work/think hard to make that idea fit into the overall plot of the novel. It can sometimes feel like trying to force a square peg into a round hole; even though I know that square peg is going to look really, really good in that round hole, it won't fit until I make it fit. At times I was spending more time rewriting old scenes than I was writing new ones, which was more difficult and felt less rewarding since my novel's overall word count would fluctuate around the same number rather than going up.

Method 2: Let it Flow

This method is actually nearly identical to how I failed my first three attempts at writing a novel, but there's one vital difference; I'm more experienced now than I was back then.

Planning everything out is great, especially for someone new to the process like I was who wanted to write something with complex characters, foreshadowing, and an overall theme for the first time, but now that I've done that for a while and have grown weary of writing everything with an endgame in mind (and rewriting everything when parts of that endgame changes) I wanted to switch it up.

A few weeks ago I had a dream that I wanted to turn into a story. I considered turning it into a short story based solely on the dream, but the vision grew quite rapidly until I realized that I wanted to write another novel. Rather than start from a very high level, work my way downwards, and then write my way back up, I decided to start with the dream as a base on the lowest level and then work my way up from there.

Attempting this method was partially inspired by movie sequels and long-running fictional television shows; since I find it fascinating that people sometimes completely unrelated to the previous writers of a television show or movie must work within the confines of the entire history of that show or movie to put out something new and interesting.

After less than a month of writing using this method, I already had the urge to go back and change a large detail of it, but I decided instead to just roll with it and make it work. I've now made it a rule for myself that I am not allowed to go back and change anything other than the smallest nagging details while writing the first draft of this novel, and to regard everything else previously written as absolute fact within that novel's world. It is both challenging and fun to resist the urge to go back and rewrite something that I've reconsidered. The reason it is working now more than it did before (so far) is that I have no particular ending in mind, and yet I have developed a clear vision for what the base ingredients are, even if they aren't revealed to me until the very second I write them.

Now let us see which novel turns out the best, and which method I prefer in the end.