Archive | December 2016

Anatomy of a Novel: Part 3: Synopsis

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In this series on the writing of a novel, I’ve already covered setting here and characters here. Now comes the fun part of putting it all together into an actual story – the synopsis. Despite dealing with setting, characters and synopsis one by one, it’s important to remember that the creation of a novel never moves evenly, one complete step at a time. Rather, it is a mix of various steps taken bit-by-bit, and usually simultaneously.

Due to the wonderfully invigorating interruption of NaNoWriMo last month, it’s been two months since I last wrote a blog-post about this novel-writing process. It’s probably just as well that I waited an extra month before writing this, because the synopsis for my current novel evolved so much during the month of November.

Previously, I explained about the process of creating characters, and how they are invented to enhance and complement the plot. With all of the characters and their setting whirling around in my head, I usually sit down and write a one-page synopsis of the proposed plot action. There will be details to fill in later, more secondary characters and possible changes in setting, but the gist of it will be there.

I can’t create fully-rounded characters until I know what they’re up against in the story. Likewise, I can’t invent the perfect synopsis until I have a good idea of how each character’s own desires, goals, habits, quirks and fears will add to that story. The half-formed synopsis I have in my head can only be finalised once the characters have been fleshed out.

And once I begin writing the novel, it all changes even more!

I write romantic mysteries, so in all my novels there is a mystery which initially draws two unconnected people toward each other, changes all their immediate individual plans and forces them to work together. The solving of this mystery causes them to fall in love, keeps them on the trot and eventually makes them fear for their lives.

Along the way I’ll throw in some deception, betrayal and a bad guy who may or may not be likeable at first, and then I’ll wind it all up in a glorious Big Climax from which no one looks set to escape alive, but hopefully the relevant romantic couple will survive with only a few scars, and live happily ever after.

When I have my one page synopsis, I put it aside and start to create the finer points of the main characters. While I might have had an initial idea or two about them, they each need to have some kind of attribute which will later come to the fore when it is most needed but least expected. A kind of temporary deception between me and the reader, because at the crucial moment I want the reader to think: “Oh, of course this character would do that – I’d forgotten that he/she knows all about this kind of stuff/grew up doing that/spent his/her childhood in that environment, etc.”

I should also mention here that the Big Climax always ends up taking place in a completely different way from how it was first envisaged. This is not for lack of planning, but because so much depends on the characters themselves. Their evolving goals and motivations inevitably change as I write and sometimes they steer the action in a different direction.

In my current novel Oxford Baggage the heroine is left a dubious legacy by her late ex-husband – the guardianship of his daughter from a previous marriage. It’s 1955 and Amy has felt bored and directionless since her secret government work ended at the close of the Second World War. She must now travel back to Oxford – the scene of her unhappy marriage to David – and live in his house as stepmother to his sixteen year old daughter for the next nine years until the girl reaches the age of twenty-five and gets her inheritance. That’s the set-up.

The mystery? Victoria – the stepdaughter – believes that her father was murdered. The love interest? There are two men: Simon, the lawyer dealing with David’s estate; and Richard, the younger brother of David and uncle to Victoria. Both men have secrets from the war, and Amy is attracted to both, but could one of them have caused the accident that killed David, as Victoria suspects? Or is Victoria just being difficult and trying to stir trouble?

When I wrote the original one-page synopsis for this novel, I had no idea about the character of one of these men. By the time I reached the 50,000 word mark at the end of November, I had a better idea of who he was, but I had also realized by then that the entire character of the other had changed along the way.

One of my major settings for the novel became largely redundant during the writing of the first draft, when I discovered a setting closer to the heart of the novel, which in itself opened up a channel of history that, when explored, became a far better choice for the plot I had in mind.

And if that sounds complicated, wait until we start expanding that one-page synopsis into the outline!

The outline is the most important document apart from the manuscript itself, because it will serve as the blueprint for the novel, from day one of writing, until I push the Publish button to turn the finished manuscript into an eBook months, or even years, later.

However, that outline cannot happen until there is a precise, concise, well worked out synopsis. And in the writing of a synopsis, nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone and nothing continues as it was started…

Winning NaNoWriMo – the Pros and Cons

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Well, it’s over at last and it was an interesting experience. I clocked up 51,106 words in 28 days, with an average of 1703 words per day. Despite the progress made so far, my story is nowhere near finished.

Would I do it again? Yes, if the time frame of starting a first draft ever coincides with the beginning of November again, I will probably join up and give it another go. It’s certainly a good way to get the writing juices flowing.

So what have I learned from this experience? Having now proved to myself that I can write over 50,000 words in a month, next time around I wouldn’t attempt to finish the actual draft, but would choose from the start to view those 50,000 words as only part of a draft.

First the good stuff:

  • I needed to do this, and I’ll always be glad that I joined in and did my best. I had been in a bit of a rut and had been procrastinating for a few months about starting my next novel so NaNoWriMo gave me the incentive to sit down in October, thrash out a storyline from my original synopsis, and flesh out some characters.
  • It gave me a deadline by which to get my initial research done, so that by the end of October I was as ready to roll as it was possible for me to be.
  • The build up to it was fun – signing up to the website and finding some writing buddies, getting emails of encouragement and so on, made it all very festive and encouraging.
  • During the month of November, NaNoWriMo literally gave me a reason to wake up early each morning and write at least 1,667 words before the day intruded with its problems. I had been busy with a soul-annihilating job-search for the previous four months which was – quite frankly – depressing, and I needed an injection of fun in my mornings, but was still free to job-search each afternoon.
  • NaNoWriMo also allowed me to plough through two thirds of a first draft faster than I’ve ever done before, and that’s quite an exhilarating feeling.

And now we come to the not-so-good news. First, some background:

When writing a novel, no matter how prepared I am (and I was for this one, I promise!), there will always be new ideas that I think of along the way. This happens to me every time, and it’s a good thing. It means I am thinking on my feet, leaving a certain amount of the story to chance, and definitely open to new ideas.

It also means that, while I’m writing, I need to adapt my outline constantly as I find new bits to put in. And I need to research those bits before I put them in, because there’s nothing more time-wasting than writing screeds of stuff that I imagine to be possible but haven’t had the time to research properly yet. It’s all very well to type in the words: “research this bit later” and carry on writing, but I don’t want to find out 20,000 words down the track that it’s just not going to work.

Ask anyone I’ve ever worked with and they’ll tell you that I really do hate doing a job twice because some idiot didn’t think things through properly the first time. When that thoughtless idiot turns out to be me because I was trying to keep to a pre-determined word count, I want to spit blood and rage at the universe for allowing me to screw myself around like that. And none of that contributes to making me a happy writer.

It’s worth taking a week (or even longer) to rethink, re-research and rewrite the bit that doesn’t work in order to progress towards a product that is ultimately better.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • In Benicio’s Bequest which is set in Italy, I swapped around a trip to Venice and a trip to Florence because the story flowed better when I re-thought that sequence. This involved a certain amount of re-plotting and re-writing of two whole sections, and it all had to be done before I could move on to the next sequence because any change like that has a knock-on effect. The new sequence also gave rise to a car chase that hadn’t been in the original storyline but turned out to be one of its highlights.
  • In The Trojan Legacy I planned the first part of the historic half of the novel to be set in the mountains of Peru, in the jungle near Machu Picchu, but 12,000 words into the first draft I knew it was never going to work because I didn’t have enough personal experience of that place. I decided to re-set that part in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa which I knew well (and which was one of the settings for later in the story anyway), but it took me a week to reshape the beginning of my story and rewrite that section before I could continue.

So what did NaNoWriMo do to me that prevented me from letting my first draft develop naturally? Here we come to the bad stuff:

  • After two weeks of writing according to my word count I hit a snag at the beginning of the third week. I realised that I needed to research some British history about Elizabeth the First’s persecution of the Catholics, and the construction of secret passages and priest holes in buildings of that time. This took me almost two days and set my word count back considerably. If this had been a normal first draft and not a NaNoWriMo first draft, I wouldn’t have let the lost days and lack of words worry me, but in running to catch up afterwards, my writing became sloppy and sub-standard.
  • One of the other problems I had with the fast pace of NaNoWriMo was that this re-structuring and rewriting is part of what makes writing enjoyable for me. I enjoy the craft of creating something that grows organically and plots its own path no matter what my outline says it should be doing. When this happens, the last thing I want to do is rush to catch up and lose the magic of those moments and the added value they bring to the story.
  • Another of the ultimate joys of writing is when my characters decide to race off on a different path and I have to follow them to find out what they’re up to because they refuse to listen to me or let me dictate their lives. (This is how I ended up with an unscheduled car chase between Florence and Verona in Benicio’s Bequest.) In my current novel, however, my poor strait-jacketed characters haven’t yet had a chance to break out of their constraints.
  • No matter what writers tell you, we all have imaginary conversations running through our heads. The characters converse and the writer has to lunge for pen and paper or phone to scribble it down as fast as those voices are spewing it. This is a sign that our characters really do have a life of their own outside of what we created for them. I remember chuckling at whole discussions between three of the characters in Benicio’s Bequest as members of the same family bickered and argued about past events and what to do next. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often in this draft.

So how was I able to make NaNoWriMo work for me during the third week? My mood of hopelessness only changed once I realised three things:

  • I don’t write short novels. My novels are always longer than 50,000 words. They end up between 80,000 and 98,000. The last novel was 92,000 when finally ready for publication after ten drafts, but its first draft had been 66,000 words.
  • Come the end of November, my draft wouldn’t be a complete draft, even if I reached 50,000. There would still be at least another 25,000 words to write just to get the basic draft down, and I could fix a lot of things then.
  • It was okay to write two thirds of a draft for NaNoWriMo, because it left me enough of the good stuff to play with after the end of November.

With two thirds of the first draft already done, I can now afford to relax a bit, go back and fix things and make some changes where they are needed. I can research at my leisure and take my time with the climax and finale.

I’ll keep you informed about my progress as time goes on, so watch this space…