New writers ask me all the time about writing a novel, like it was some secret that only the anointed few could ever know. I tell them novel writing is fun, but it is time consuming. Itís not just the time putting words to paper, but also the cycles your brain goes through plotting out your idea. A writerís mind will start to wander while driving, listing to music, being in a really boring meeting, or watching mindless television. Your thoughts will drift into this exciting world where you or your characters are getting into fights, killing people, exploding stuff, or enjoying an amorous love scene. Your mind is full of ideas that materialize at inopportune times, sometimes it becomes overwhelming. A lot of writers start their novels by flying by the seat of their pants, preferring an improvisational form to their story. They allow the spur of the moment to create what happens to their characters, daily changing the outcome of their story. Iíve written novels both ways, and I prefer something more concrete.
I wrote my first novel, Malaise, in 2007. I never charted out the chapters or even the scenes, but I had the characters and I knew where it was going, I had an ending. I finished the first draft in 45 days (about thirty writing days), writing sequentially chapter after chapter, and it was difficult figuring out a dayís worth of work from thin air, but I plodded through. After that rush, I put it away, not wanted to even look at it. I didnít have the patience, at the time, to be an editor, and the thoughts of continuing to work with it was repugnant to me.
I had ideas for a second novel, Mainline, but they never materialized until 2011 for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The second book was difficult to get started. I had the idea for the plot, but mapping the where and when to interject my story line was daunting, and after my first novel, I didnít want to go through the same with the second. I wanted it to be easier. I wanted to know where the story was going to go day after day, not just what the ending was. At that time I started going to writing groups, and reading up on writing techniques. I donít know if I read it or heard it somewhere, but my solution to the chaos in my head was using index cards. I started writing on index cards the plot points of the story (things that change the direction of the story, about every one-third of the novel) and every time I had an idea for a scene, a character trait, or just a thought about the book, I would write it down on these 3 X 5 inch blue colored beauties. I wrote a bunch of cards from 2010 to 2011, in preparation for writing the book. By the time I was ready to write in November 2011, had over 50 cards, some like:
ē Nanny is an opera singer
ē Scene brother doing heroin, while baby in room
ē Babyís death by falling down the stairs
ē Scar on hand
Some of the cards made sense, others I had to figure out what the heck I was thinking. I filtered out the character trait cards and put them in a pile, for later creating a full profile of each of the main characters. I took the scene cards and started to piece together a novel, thinking now where each idea would go best in the novel. I arranged them on a table, with the plot points as the anchors in the novel. I moved and swapped the thoughts into a logical order until I was happy with the direction. I then transferred each chapter idea down into an Excel spreadsheet in the decided path. When November came I was ready. I would read one card a day before leaving home, think about the chapter while I drove to work, and write a good 1000 words on the subject on my one-hour lunch break at work. There were times when I didnít want to write a "big scene" and continued with another scene out of order. The cards helped me focus on one chapter a day. With the storyís backbone, I was able to continue writing throughout the month. I didnít reach the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo, but I did have the opportunity to exceed 25,000 words. I use the same approach now after several years of writing and another novel, Spoon Girl, Iíve found by writing the chapters consecutively I can avoid fixes in later drafts.
Whether you use index cards to organize your thoughts, a spreadsheet, a digital recorder, or something electronic (Iíve started using a program call Scrivener), organization can help with daunting task of writing a novel or even a short story. I donít know how many ideas I might have forgotten without writing them down first.