How to Write a Novel

If you ask me, there are two basic ways to write a novel. You can either make it up as you go along–a style known as pantsing, as in flying by the seat of one’s pants. Or you can plan the story out from start to finish and then start writing. No doubt there are endless permutations and combinations of these two approaches. The essential difference is you either make it up as you go along or plan it out ahead of time. Or at least, that’s what I thought. Seems maybe I was half right.

I’ve done it both ways, pantsing my way through Until Thanksgiving and outlining my second novel. Having just about finished After Christmas Eve, I’ve been thinking about how I want to go about writing my third novel. Each approach has its merits.

Beyond any doubt, After Christmas Eve is better than either of its predecessors. Experience is definitely a factor. Writing three books (my unpublished memoir and two novels) has taught me a lot. Now I feel more like I know what I’m doing. Even though I had to abandon the outline about 25 chapters in, having it made a difference. Knowing where the story was going from page one gave me the opportunity to mislead, build suspense, and foreshadow things to come.

That said, writing an outline is not the same as writing the novel. My outline just hit the high points. In a way, writing the chapters was like pantsing with Mapquest directions. And as has happened to me many, many times, I got dumped in a pasture just shy of my actual destination a couple of times. While I was trying to find my way back, the story got highjacked by several supporting characters. I had to go back to the beginning to dial up the protagonist, and ended up discarding the last chapter I’d written because nothing in it made sense after all the changes I’d made.

Yesterday I discovered that I need to pay more attention to the when of my stories. The timeline has been a problem I’ve had to work out in final drafts of all three books. I backtracked to the beginning of After Christmas Eve yet again, this time to figure out when each chapter takes place. In the process I discovered the need to rearrange the last fifteen chapters to make the timing of major events make sense.  This is the kind of revising I most hate doing because it’s so easy to miss something.

Back in June when I wrote the outline for After Christmas Eve, I said whether or not it would make writing the novel any easier remained to be seen.  My sense at the time was that any problems would be more about my outline than anything else. And that turned out to be true.

What I’ve learned is that with or without an outline, pantsing is an essential part of the writing process. When I’m making it up as I write–and I know other writers have the same experience–random things end up on the page that later turn out to be important. I worried that outlining would somehow keep this from happening. But it didn’t, not one little bit.

When I’m pantsing, the characters say and do surprising things that simply had never occurred to me.  They’re like real people to me–except of course, they’re not. They have a story to tell and they’re not going to let me screw it up. When I don’t hear them correctly–which happens a lot–they speak through the other writers in my group, demanding that I respect who they are and quit fucking up their story. They mean it, too.

Right now, I’m tossing around ideas for three different novels. Two would be immediate sequels to After Christmas Eve. One continues Philip’s story. The other follows Terrence as he moves to New York and ends up being present for the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that launched the modern gay rights movement. The third would take place in the late 1970s/early 1980s and revolve around Trauma Car and a long distance romance between the city boy in Lexington and the boy from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Sound familiar?

Before I decide which one to write first, I’m going to try to outline all three ideas. These outlines will include a timeline, but otherwise will be more or less the same as what I just did: three sentence descriptions of every chapter and several paragraphs about each character. In fact, I need to just get in the habit of putting these outlines together when they come to me instead of waiting until I’m between manuscripts. I need to keep something with me to record ideas that pop into my head, too. My memory ain’t what it used to be.

The challenge is keeping things consistent across the series. This time, things worked out to where I was able to make minor adjustments to Until Thanksgiving instead of having to figure out a way to work them into After Christmas Eve. The more outlines I have, the easier it will be to avoid getting into that kind of trouble. Once the book is published, I can’t make any changes.

The big surprise is that I’ve only been working on After Christmas Eve since June. Even with the move and everything else that’s going on in my life right now, it will be finished by Thanksgiving. (Insert joke about writing my ass off…until Thanksgiving.) That means it took me about five months to write it–much less than the nine months I was expecting. (Insert joke about premature birth.)

With all that’s happened in the last few months, I’ve had a hard time finding time to write. By the end of this month, the new normal I’ve been imagining for the last few months will be a reality. Finding time to write won’t be the challenge it’s been this year. I’m thinking I can cut that five months down to four. Maybe even three. Who knows, maybe you’ll be reading more about all three of those stories in 2013, here on…

My Glass House


2 responses to “How to Write a Novel”

  1. I think you’re absolutely right that pantsing is an essential part of writing with ot without an outline. When I first started writing, I outlined everything in excruciating detail, and I followed the outline like it was the word of god whether or not it made sense with the way the book was actually going. Learning t trust my instincts on when to veer from the outline was a scary but necessary things for me.