Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Writing the First Novel

My first novel started out as a screen play. I had an idea for an episode of a television show, and wrote it in proper script form, trying to time it so the commercial breaks fell at the usual times. I was very proud of that script, and even had a connection to get it to the desk of the executive producer -- but the show was cancelled before he read it. I was absolutely crushed. But after a few weeks I decided perhaps it would work as a short story. I changed the characters so they no longer resembled the television show characters, but when I started to write it, it just kept getting longer and longer. Finally I realized that what I had here was a novel.

The plot was fairly complicated, and much depended on events crossing at exactly the right time. Plus, for some reason, I had to keep track of days of the week, so that there were only seven in each, and that Monday followed Sunday just like in real life. I finally went out and bought a pack of three by five cards and put a brief synopsis of a scene from the book on each card, then laid them out on the carpet. I shifted events around until they all matched up while still making sense, then labeled each scene with the day of the week. It was real work, and took days to do, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Plus, when I went back to writing the novel, events fell into their proper places. That was a huge, satisfying pleasure. I still keep a stack of three-by-five cards on my desk, use them for everything from reminder notes of plot points to grocery lists.

I still sometimes find I need to print out large segments of the story. I don’t know why, but it looks different printed on a sheet of paper than it does on the computer screen. And typos are easier to spot for some reason. Back before laptops, I would print out the whole thing as I wrote it, and put it in a loose-leaf binder so I could carry it to work and do some editing on the bus or over my lunch break. Then I’d make the changes on the computer version, print out the edited pages and replace the old pages in the binder. Somewhere I found a heavy blue plastic binder that has a clear-plastic holder on the spine that holds a title and a pair of handles on the other end so I could carry it like a briefcase, and that fold down out of sight when not needed. It still holds the manuscript of a novel I never finished.

I learned how to write novels by writing, re-writing, and re-re-writing that first novel manuscript. I also learned that, without intervention, I would continue re-writing forever. My husband, an excellent editor of my work, would call a halt. “I declare this story finished,” he would say on finding I wanted to take “just one more pass” through a short story. Nowadays, with book deadlines, I no longer have the luxury of taking all the time I want on a manuscript.

I have found that my stories usually -- not always, but usually -- start with the murder. Often it’s the method that will trigger an plot, but sometimes it’s the victim. I’ll read about an unusual way of dying, or think up a person who has done something really wicked, or cruel, or who is himself or herself wicked, greedy, or cruel. Sometimes it’s the culprit who is wicked and/or greedy, though in that case, I generally need another wicked or greedy person to be another suspect. I love inventing characters, and I love it when they seem to take on a life of their own.

With the Betsy Devonshire mysteries, I also need to research different aspects of the needle crafts. With my current novel, I’m finding I have to re-visit Hardanger. Uff da!


Linda O. Johnston said...

I'm a notecard addict, too, Monica. I use them for all kinds of notes, especially those my subconscious dictates to me at night in the bathtub. I'm also a fan of printouts for catching issues and typos. One big difference in your writing from mine: my husband reads almost nothing I write!

Betty Hechtman said...

I use index cards when I writing a synopsis. It feels easier to see the progression of the story.

I also like using a hardcopy to read when I'm going to rewrite. The shortcoming of reading on the screen, which is also a shortcoming of ereading devices is that you can't feel where you are in the book.

Camille Minichino said...

I admit to many many printouts as I'm working on a manuscript. It looks different—and, it's safe from hard drive crashes!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I had a friend back in St. Louis who always said, "Uff da!" That salutation brought back memories.

This is very useful, Monica. I like index cards, too. And you are right that a print out exposes typos.

Just like you, I keep re-writing and re-writing. Tweek, tweek, tweek.

Monica Ferris said...

Wow, Betty, what a perceptive observation, that with e-books or a computer screen, you can't tell where you are in a book.

Ellen said...

Much depends on what you use for an e-book. I do my reading on a Pocket PC, and just as you have on regular PCs, there's this progress bar on the right of the screen.

Betty Hechtman said...

There are page numbers on my computer screen and a progress bar on my kindle, so technically I can see where I am, but I can't feel where I am in the same way I do with a hard copy or paper book.

I read recently that people read slower on e readers.

Betty Hechtman said...

There are page numbers on my computer screen and a progress bar on my kindle, so technically I can see where I am, but I can't feel where I am in the same way I do with a hard copy or paper book.

I read recently that people read slower on e readers.