Once you’ve riffed for a while on your characters, it’s time to dig into their story. If plot arcs haven’t already cohered in your mind, start instead with a theme. Why are you writing a story about these characters? What’s at the heart of the story? William Burroughs once said (in his Review of the Reviewers), that “all ‘good’ writing must get at the human condition, it must have something of ‘high seriousness’ to it.” It’s hard to say just how literally he intended for us to take the word “high.” All the same, this is a valid point. Fulfilling this requirement should answer the question “why should this story be told in the first place?”
Most intro to writing teachers will tell you at this point to look for the conflict, since that is generally the easiest way to put your characters into motion. But there are plenty of modern novels where very little happens at all outside the minds of the characters. Take Joyce’s Ulysses for instance. This isn’t to say it isn’t rife with conflict, it just happens to be primarily psychological. If you want to talk brass-tacks, it’s about another boring day in Dublin. (On the other hand, not all of us can be James Joyce.)
This “brass-tacks” approach misses the heart of a story like that. As I said, a story isn’t so much about what happened. No matter how bizarre your narrative style, there is still going to be a theme, which is rooted in your ultimate intention in writing the story in the first place. It is only in relation to this theme, and the underlying intent, that you can tell if you’re on or off the bar as you move into the process of actually writing your story, so hold onto it.
For example, with my first novel (Join My Cult!), I was writing from experience about the plunge into the subconscious and out of the surrounding culture that can occur with some adolescents. The entire story, (if you want to call it a story), is centered around that painfully vital, melodramatic and sometimes even terrifying feeling of not belonging, of perceiving a world that no one but your closest friends seem to see. It’s about that, and not what happened at the beginning or end of the story. If you are telling a story that focuses on the internal, rather than the external, then the theme and characters become even more essential, because there’s nothing else there to move it forward. Most of the content amounts to the deranged ramblings of the characters themselves.
With my second, (Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning), you have many of the same characters rising out of that state and coming into their own, if in their own bizarre, rockstar-messiah kind of way. I recently adapted this story into screenplay format with a regular writing collaborator and good friend, Jason Stackhouse. This process, too, was different. We spent the first two nights drawing out plot arcs on his kitchen table with dry erase pen, and only then did we begin divvying up scenes and actually writing. In that format, every beat and every page counts for time. There might be some argument to be made that if you want to write a tight novel, rather than a more meandering one (arguably like my first two, especially the first), then you should plot it out as if you’re writing a screenplay. Every action and motivation plays counterpoint to something else.
Even though many of the central characters are the same, these three projects seem very different because they are being approached with different methodologies. Try to match your methodology with the intention of your project. In a sense, each time you write a book, you have to re-learn how to write a book, if you don’t want to write the same thing over and again.
Every book you write should in this sense be your first. Each theme, each grouping of characters, each intention demands a completely different execution. Different characters demand a different use of the language, and a unique means of exploring the story. Consequently you have a different writing style that is going to arise in the process of bringing that to life. You have to re-discover and re-interpret your voice and your approach to writing, which is why it’s so damn hard to give a step by step process for how to write a novel.
We may all fall back on conventions, turns of phrase or techniques that availed us in the past, but the more we can avoid that the better. It’s very much like the cliches that musicians resort to when improvising. Some writers will tell you to never resort to cliché. I disagree. However, cliché should only be utilized intentionally.
A final note on the topic of your theme: if you find yourself purposelessly rehashing your style, it’s time to zero back in on the vital kernel inside your story, and try to be true to that, or there’s really no sense in wasting your time. Or the time of your would-be readers.
Now that you have a sense of your characters, and probably a bunch of disconnected scene sketches that you wrote in the process of coming to know them, you can get to the actual story.
If your story does require a fairly complicated plot, I suggest diagramming it out, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. When diagramming Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning, I got out a big ream of paper with a co-conspirator and created a plot arc for each character with a different colored crayon. At the points where events would make different characters paths cross, the lines would cross. Start playing around with your story visually on a time-line. The screenplay, as I said, involved an even more methodical process. We decided on a three act arc, and broke each act into three piece, each of which had between three and five “action points,” most of which became individual scenes. Make flow-charts in Viseo if you feel the need. Your diagram will either come, or it won’t.
If it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. You can probably move on to the next step, at least for a short while. You’ve spent quite some time – probably several months – preparing to write your novel. Now comes the part where you write it. During this phase, you need to turn off all the critical voices in your head. All the editors and naysayers. Show the text to no one that will throw you off track. Just be as true to your characters and your theme as you can be, and write.
Remember: this is the fun part. So have fun now, because you may not during the editing phase, and if you’re like me, you sure as hell won’t during marketing.
There is too much to be said about the details of writing a book. For the most part you pick it up as you go along, and if all goes well, your voice will come out of that struggle. However I want to point out the importance of dialogue. It may be naturalistic, it might be more poetic or formal depending entirely on the intention and tone of the piece as a whole. My first novel might seem a horrible example of “natural dialogue,” mainly because the primary characters talk like 19th century Philosophers stuck in 18-year-old bodies. But really, you need to be true to the characters…
If that’s how they talk, be true to it. If you’re unable to hear their voice, write a couple scenes just in dialogue. Add the other details later. If you still can’t find their voice, you need to get back at your character, and try to find examples of those personality traits in the people and media around you. Find their voice, and come back to the writing process.
If you get stuck at any point, put down the pencil. (Or the keyboard.) Write something else. Or try this. Lie down, and close your eyes. Do some deep breathing, move yourself close to sleep without slipping away, and then focus in on that character again. Imagine them in your minds eye, at the point that you got stuck at. And just watch. Now sometimes of course you’ll get nothing. They’ll turn into giant pink elephants or you’ll get distracted thinking about crazy zero-G sex or what you’re going to cook for dinner. But sometimes the characters will take over, and that block will melt away.
This leads me to another point. If in the process of actually writing, your characters feel like they want to go in a direction that wasn’t in your plot diagram, for the love of God let them. If it hits a dead end, the worst thing that happens is you have to delete a couple pages. As a general rule of thumb, if your characters don’t overtake you and your well planned structure and lead it in a totally unplanned direction at least a couple times in the course of writing a novel, you probably need to spend more time breathing life into those characters.
Finally, and this one can’t be under-stressed: write something every day. Or barring that, as frequently as you can manage without learning to completely loathe writing. That sounds really obvious, right? But you’d be amazed how many people do all the planning, and then peter out when it comes to the work ethic.
I’m told the average novel runs somewhere between 75,000 – 250,000 words. You may have this romantic idea in your head of an author going in and hammering out his opus in a brief, intensely melodramatic fugue, like Handel in fact did with his Messiah. Every word is perfect, and it comes out full-formed.
More likely than not, most of your favorite books were written slowly and consistently, a couple thousand words a day. At the end of the process 30,000 words might have been shaved off, and then another 10,000 added to tie together those desiccated loose ends. Not every day is going to give you a gem, that doesn’t mean you didn’t benefit from the effort. Just get up the next day and keep at it.
Good luck! Next I’ll be getting into the editorial process, branding, and the other intermediary steps between your first draft and the PDF you send to the printer.
James Curcio is a multi-media artist, writer, and theorist, who has spent most of his adult life exploring modern myths. This exploration has taken the form of collaborative novels, essays on myth, culture, the occult and sexuality, scripts for film and comic production, “round-table” musical albums, soundtracks, podcasts, live performances and installations. He has written for Disinformation, New Falcon Press, Reality Sandwich, Immanion Press, Alterati, and Jive Magazine. He will sleep when he is dead.