Today I started proper work on my second novel, and the first truly original one, not based in anyone else’s universe. This time I’m carefully filing off the numbers from so many other people’s pieces of work before throwing them all together that with luck it’ll look like my own ideas, which is all one can hope for in a piece of (hopefully) commercial fiction.
I don’t know if it’ll get completed, but I think that doing the work in semi-public might help, so what I’m going to do is every so often do a progress report here, talking about the process of writing. I’m also going to send the first draft, in 5000-word increments, to people backing my Patreon funding thing, partly as a backer reward (though whether it’ll be very rewarding is open) but also because the people backing it so far are friends whose opinions I value, and so their feedback would be useful (I’m not drafting them in as unpaid beta-readers — they don’t have to say anything — but if they want to that’d be great. And yes, I am aware that I have 23,000 words of fiction by one of them to provide feedback on myself — I’ve not forgotten).
So I thought that I’d make the first of these irregular writing-in-public posts about the actual process of structuring the novel. I know a lot of people find writing process blog posts tedious — this is for the 1% like me who find them fascinating.
For my first novel, I had been wanting to write a Faction Paradox novel for a while, and was in fact kicking around a space opera plotline which I still may use one day, but it was getting me nowhere, when suddenly, walking through Piccadilly Station in Manchester, I got two images in my head, more or less simultaneously — Scheharazade telling her last story after being beheaded, and a Presidential assassination attempt in modern-day America. I knew the two images were connected, and I could see ways to connect both to the Faction Paradox mythos, but not to each other. Working out the way to connect them was the major part of the effort — once that was done there was only one possible structure for the book, and the plot fell out of the connections.
This one’s rather different. Four hours ago, I didn’t have a plot at all, just an idea — I wanted to do a novel based on a conspiracy theory that some people take seriously, but have it be a supernatural comedy thriller. I knew precisely the mood I wanted to evoke, and could think of many pieces of fiction that played in the same area, but basically all I had was the idea that the connection between four real people could easily create a good basis for a novel.
You can’t base a novel on a single idea, though. You can’t even really base a short story on a single idea — The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate, my most successful short story by far, needed at least five — and so I have used a two-stage process to go from a single idea to something which can become a novel.
The first stage was to get a lot more ideas. A commercial genre novel is usually between 80,000 and 100,000 words, and I want this novel to be publishable by a trad publisher, so I have to aim for about that. I’m going for the low end, because I tend to underwrite, and find writing at longer lengths uncomfortable. I find the natural length at which I can write on any one subject is usually about 1000 words, so that means I had to find eighty things to write about.
So I sat down in front of a word processor, created a numbered list, and free-associated eighty things that are either subjects I want to write about or are connected in some way to the real people who will be characters in the novel. After an hour or two thinking, I had a list of eighty characters, places, and topics to write about, some of them two or three sentence descriptions, others single words. Not all of these will make it into the novel of course — I suspect “eating boiled eggs and constipated”, “Sapir-Worf hypothesis” and “Apples” will make the cut, while “Independent Labour Party” and “Time travel” probably won’t — but by doing this I forced myself to come up with not only a lot of subjects that can be diversions or add thematic resonance, but a lot of images and scenes that seem to go together.
I still needed a structure, however, so I cheated a bit and took a list of plot beats that all pulp fiction follows, and got a series of headers from that. Normally I wouldn’t do that — my last novel is among other things about subverting that kind of narrative totally — but in this case, two of my characters are writers whose own books fit that template perfectly, and part of the idea is having them trapped in their own story.
I then cut and pasted elements from the list under whichever of those headers they seemed best to fit, and just by doing that, they suddenly became a plot. There’s a narrative through-line, a B-plot, a major villain, a minor villain, and all the other stuff you need for rip-roaring pulp adventure.
That won’t, of course, be the plot that I finally use, but it’s something to work from. Tomorrow, I intend to use that edited list to write up a 1500-word-ish synopsis, telling the story to myself, and I’ll then use that as the basis from which I actually write the novel. Unlike the last one, though, I won’t have to get approval from anyone else before starting to write, so I can deviate as much as I want. And I will — the process of writing is the process of discarding ideas as you get better ones, and of discovering a structure as you go. The most exciting thing for me is when I’m writing with no real idea how I’m going to pull together the five things I threw in earlier because they seemed like a good idea, but just don’t fit with each other. That’s when I always do my best work.
But I always need a structure, even if I later throw it out, and that’s what I’ve got now. Tomorrow, the writing proper can begin.