How do you put together a novel? There are 1,001 and one ways, every one of them right. I thought I’d talk about how I do it in hopes that it might be of some use to others, or at least a good place to have a discussion of ways and means. So here’s the first part of my process using the book Black School as my model.
Before I start writing the actual book.
Conception of idea: What do you want to write about? This is question one. In my case I usually start with a world or magic system. Starting with a character or a scene or a situation all work too. It helps if you can articulate the idea in a sentence–I want to write about ___________. Or a pitch “World War II with sacrifice magic and dark fey Nazis” for example. That’s a gross oversimplification, but when I say it, my listeners will have an instant sense of where I’m going, and so do I.
Basic blocking: Write out the idea in some detail. Shoot for at least two to five single spaced pages. Put flesh on the bones of the one-sentence description above. Try and think through the ramifications of the ideas, i.e. How would a military magic school work when the magic is built around sacrifice? How big a school? How many students? How many teachers? Where is the school? What is its relationship with the local military? Etc.
By the time I reached the end of this process for The Black School I knew the number of buildings on the campus and what their purpose and design was, my total student body, student rank in relation to general military, class schedule, dorm arrangements, etc. That let me open the first day of the book knowing where my lead character had to be and when, if he followed his schedule. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I needed to know, but it gives the flavor. I come back to this and add to it all through the writing of the novel as more details become clear.
Narrative Outline: What is my actual story? In my case I started with a solid idea of where I wanted the story to start, where I wanted it to end, what kind of general transformation I wanted in my main character, and who that character was. That’s a good start for this model. Other models can work just as well and may mean knowing a lot less about the overall story.
For the narrative outline I typically end with a five page overview (standard length in 12pt Courier). In this case, a page on the school, magic system, and main character, to set the scene. Then I started with my opening scene and wrote a very loose description of events over the next four pages, introducing new characters as they came into the story.
The outline had to answer the following questions: What does the main character want? What do they need? What are they going to get? What obstacles do they have to overcome to get there? What do they have to give up to get what they need? How are they going to fail on the way? Failure is key to plot. If the main character doesn’t fail from time to time, then there’s no dramatic tension or payoff when they succeed.
The final version of the narrative outline should tell the main points of the story in a voice as close to the actual fiction as possible.