This is a guest post by Rachael Cooper.
So, you’ve decided to write a novel. Committing to the process is the easy part; sitting down and actually starting to write is where the challenge really begins. There’s more to completing a novel than simply putting word after word onto the page. You must consider every single step, and choosing the right method for planning and writing is the first.
Crafting a novel can be tricky enough, so I’ve taken the challenge out of your planning by looking at five useful methods you could use to start writing your novel today.
The Snowflake Method
As you might guess from the name, the Snowflake Method is accumulative, building up from a single point of inspiration and exploring ideas exponentially. If you have an initial idea or premise but need a structured way to develop the layers of your characters and plot, then this method would work well for you.
Using the Snowflake Method is straightforward. Start by writing your story through a simple sentence. Then, do the same with your main protagonists and setting.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale would begin with ‘A woman trapped in a dystopian, totalitarian state is forced to procreate with her commander, until she discovers an underground society that could help her to escape.’ And the character of June/Offred may have started life as ‘A strong, progressive editor in her past life, June now finds herself under the power of Gilead. She is one of few fertile women still to exist in society.’
From here, you may add further detail to each, as and when the inspiration comes to you. Over time you’ll find that your characters and plot grow until you have a detailed plan and are ready to begin writing.
For those of you who need to plan, the Snowflake Method provides the creative space for natural plot development, but with the structure of a carefully considered plan.
Some writers enjoy the freedom of writing without restriction. They like to start writing and see where it takes them. Stephen King despises outlines suggesting that they are ‘the last resource of bad fiction writers.’ And a plan can indeed feel restrictive. Explorative writing gives you that freedom. You are putting pen to paper and ‘exploring’ something as you write.
Most writers find that there is an element of both planning and exploration in their writing. Still, explorative writing can be suited to writers who prefer to let their imaginations run wild and who don’t want to feel limited by a prescriptive plan.
Try explorative writing if you have come up with a premise or concept but haven’t really got any further in terms of character or plot.
Alternatively, take a prompt from a writing magazine or website and see where explorative writing might take you.
Characters, conflicts, and characters in conflict
A story is essentially dramatising the conflict between two or more characters. Those characters might be inside one person’s head (Rabbit, Run by John Updike), between people (A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood), people and aliens (War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells) or whatever the writer can pit against their characters.
It doesn’t really matter who, or what, the conflict is between; you just need conflict.
‘Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict,’ says Robert McKee, and it serves storytellers to remember it.
While we might not all want to write genre fiction, even the great experimental modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce knew that you needed some good old existential conflict to keep their reader turning the pages.
When you’re first setting out on your novel-writing adventure, it’s a good idea to have a solid conflict in mind. You’ll also want well-developed, well-rounded characters whose journeys through that conflict will absorb the reader from beginning to end.
If in doubt, add another layer of conflict, and watch your characters try to save themselves from it.
Detailed arc planning
It may be traditional, but all good storytelling moves through a series of defined plot points. Use the narrative or character arc as a starting point to plan your writing, and you are guaranteed to find yourself with a workable plot.
All narrative arcs begin with a protagonist, their equilibrium and motivation. You then need to consider an initiating incident, the development of that incident and the crisis or climax of the story. Once you have all that in place, you just need to consider your ending or resolution.
J.K. Rowling says that she always ‘has a basic plot outline’ and that she likes ‘to leave some things to be decided while I write.’ With seven Harry Potter novels, there’s no doubt that Rowling must have had a loose outline in her head before she started writing. But, I’m sure she also had a lot of fun exploring other things as she wrote.
Remember that the narrative arc is only there as a guide. You can play around and experiment with each of the plot points, including how many times they occur or in what order.
Start from the climax
It seems only fair to consider starting from the climax of your novel having looked at starting with the beginning and the end. The peak of your narrative is a critical point for one or more of your characters. There is likely to be a moment of action or high tension where the protagonist realises something about themselves. It will be crucial to how the rest of the novel plays out and you will need to consider how your character gets there in the first place.
Starting from the climax is particularly beneficial for those writers who create character-driven narratives. Exploring this key moment for your character can help make them more realistic and three dimensional.
Ray Bradbury says, ‘First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!’
So, consider the crisis point in your narrative. What will your protagonist realise about themselves? Does their motivation change? Is there a particularly dramatic moment where the truth about them or a relationship reveals itself? Explore this moment, and the beginning and end of your novel will write itself.
Just go with the flow
The beauty of writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. You can use one or more of the strategies above, individually or in collaboration with each other. You may begin with explorative writing but discover that what you are actually writing is the beginning of the Snowflake Method. It could be that you want the traditional security of the detailed outline, but quickly find out that you already know how your story ends and so you start from there.
However you decide to approach writing your novel, you have taken the first step by committing to it and considering how you might begin. Persevere.
And just because one method doesn’t work out for you, doesn’t mean you should give up. Simply reframe your thinking and start looking at your novel in a different way.
Rachael Cooper is the SEO & Publishing Manager for Jericho Writers, a writers services company based in the UK and US. Rachael has a Masters in eighteenth-century literature, and specialises in female sociability. In her free time she writes articles on her favourite eighteenth-century authors and, if all else fails, you can generally find her reading and drinking tea!