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How To Gather Ideas, Turn Them Into A Novel - & Finish It

In her third article for Writers & Artists, Nail Your Novel author Roz Morris gives her advice for researching and developing your book ideas.


Writing a novel is a lengthy undertaking. Many novices launch in, compelled to write by an idea, a situation, a character or a world. But often the story runs out of steam; they paint themselves into a corner and invent so much they can’t keep it under control.

So how do professional writers create novels that hang together well, juggle subplots and characters, add subtext, themes, ingenious levels of literary resonance... in fact, how do they even get to the end?

The answer is surprisingly simple. We have methods. Systems.

No two authors will be alike, of course. Writers' modus operandi are as individual as our imaginations. And that's aside from the odd artistic idiosyncrasy such as a love for a particular pen or battered laptop, the need for coffee fumes, or a yen for monastic silence.

Different as we all are, there are certain things most of us do to get from Chapter 1 to The End.


1. Don't plunge into the writing immediately

Professional authors rarely start bashing the keys as soon as they’ve had the idea. By the time they start the 'proper' text, they've usually put in a lot of preparation.

That doesn’t mean they don’t chase the muse, they just do it in other ways.


2. Establish the basics

In order to finish a novel, you need to roughly know where it's going. Planning may sound like the very antithesis of creativity, but it's a totally creative process.


Usually we try to establish these basics: 

Who are the characters? 
Where is the story set and does that present interesting problems or add to its appeal?
What are the characters trying to do and why is it worth telling a story about them?
Why is it a long story, not a short one?
What could go wrong and provide plot twists?
• By the end, what has changed and why does that provide a feeling of resolution?

Many novice writers are inspired by an interesting situation but have no idea where they're going to take it. This usually dawns on them after the first rush of enthusiasm, and at that point the writing often becomes a chore. However, it’s hard for anyone to create a coherent novel if they tackle it in that way. If you brainstorm the big picture, the actual writing is even more rewarding - you know you will have a cracking tale to tell.


3. Use your genre to guide creative decisions

Genres have their own conventions. If your story has a romance, it can be handled in an infinite variety of ways depending on the kind of novel you’re writing. In a straightforward romance, the pair must end up together. In a literary novel, the romance and the way it turns out might be used to illuminate a more complex truth about the human condition, which may not be simple and happy.

Murders in fiction have infinite uses too. In a cosy mystery a murder disturbs the lives of nice folk and must be solved. In a novel about a serial killer, you turn up the gore and depravity. In a literary novel you might focus on the murderer and a life shadowed by guilt.

Knowing these conventions will help guide your story decisions. They can also give you more ideas.

That doesn’t mean you have to write a predictable, box-ticking plot. Once you know what the readers are used to and the set pieces they expect, you can play with their expectations and put your individual stamp on them.

And if you’re writing the kind of literary novel where you create a new and original type of plot, it helps to know what the clichés are so you can avoid them.


4. Research and develop your story world

Once you know roughly what your characters are doing and the kinds of activities they might be involved in (eg deep-sea fishing, solving murders in Regency London), you can find the details to bring them to life.

Check what detailed knowledge readers expect from your genre. Readers are often attracted by exciting worlds and settings. Sometimes they’re very knowledgeable about them, so you need to become convincingly expert to give them a satisfying story.

Even if your novel is set in an everyday world, it pays to develop its setting and routines. Novels of family life will need a solidly-created household with the preoccupations that a reader will recognise and enjoy. If you prepare these in advance, the writing goes more smoothly because you don’t have to stop to invent them.

And if you're writing fantasy or science fiction, create some rules for your world – concentrate on the technology, magic, draconian political regimes and bizarre social customs. If you try to make these up as you write, you could get in a big muddle – you often create inconsistencies that irritate the reader.

Research can give you plot ideas and solve story problems - for instance, if you need a reason for a character to be delayed on their way home, or a device to get your characters out of a fix. Here’s a tip: don’t write it on a list. Lists tend to suggest an order of events and this isn’t the stage to decide that. Put it on a slip of paper and keep them all in a box (yes really!). Later, you can pull them out and decide which ideas will be useful and where they should go.

Research, of course, means you don't have to limit your story to what you have personally experienced. As a ghostwriter, I've written as people who have had far more adventurous lives than me, travelled to places and situations I wouldn't dare venture near. Readers were convinced, though. And it was all done with imagination and research. 


5. Make an outline

Most professional writers make an outline. It might be a formal document written as a synopsis. It might be a mind map of highlights they want to include. Some writers have a closing line they’re aiming for; others devise the main climax and let the rest sort itself out. Some writers keep everything in their head, but even so, they have a rough idea of where they're going, and imaginative fuel for the whole journey.

Here’s a tip for outlining: sometimes you can get a more dramatic story if you change the order of events. I summarise each scene on index cards and lay them out on my lounge floor, then swap them around to choose the most exciting order.


Tips for the writing

1. Keep revising your plan

Your story plan isn’t a straitjacket. There will still be plenty to invent and discover and you’ll have more ideas as you go. You might also find that your characters simply won’t behave a certain way, or an idea that looked neat in the synopsis is clichéd or bland when you try to write it.

If a scene pulls you in an unexpected direction, go with it - but don’t abandon your plan. Work out the consequences, decide if you like them and tweak your route map. This is how your story becomes more individual, unique and exciting.

2. Don’t try to edit as you write

Writing and editing require different mindsets. For one you need to be confident; for the other you are critically evaluating. The two don’t work well together; you can’t invent if you’re asking yourself if your ideas are wrong. You could compare drafting to dreaming – you follow the plan and let the ideas flow.

Some writers don’t even correct the typos until they’ve finished the entire first draft, because if they allow themselves to see any mistakes - no matter how minor - it pulls them out of their creative zone. Other authors prefer to write one day, edit the next.
So write your first draft in a mindset of exploration. No one need see it; write it for yourself and enjoy the creativity.

When you’re ready to edit, there’s a heap of tips for that in my previous post.

If you prepare your novel rather than leap straight in, you can enjoy the storytelling, the characters and the world you’ve created. There’s still plenty of room for discovery, but you can craft a richer novel with a beginning, middle and (most importantly) an end.


Roz Morris is an author, editor, writing tutor and book doctor.  She has worked in publishing for more than 20 years, run editorial departments, ghostwritten bestselling novels for other writers, critiqued for Cornerstones literary consultancy and also written fiction as herself.  A manuscript she appraised in draft form recently went on to win the 2012 Roald Dahl Funny Prize.  She has a no-nonsense blog for writers and self-publishers, Nail Your Novela series of writing booksby the same name (Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence and Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life) and her first novel is now available (My Memories of a Future Life).  Follow her on Twitter as @NailYourNovel.


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