My first novel, SUFFER THE CHILDREN, began life as a short story called “Kiddiwinks”. It was one of the first stories I put to the newly-formed T Party, in 1994, and from there I decided to turn it into a novel.
The novel took ten years to write, and the main reason was there was a huge chunk of time in that decade – years at a time, in fact - when I wasn’t doing any work on it. I didn’t do any planning. I took the short story, thought about how I was going to expand it, decided who my characters were, and started writing. Then every once in a while I would get ‘stuck’. So I would leave it until I was inspired to carry on. Sometimes this would take two or three years.
Then eventually I got to the ‘just finish the damn book’ stage. I forced myself to sit down and write an outline of the plot – I knew how it was going to end, I just had to get it clear in my head how I was going to get there. So I decided I had to plan. After I’d finished the outline, I did a chapter-by-chapter summary. The chapters I had already written were easy enough – I could just summarise what had happened in each. And when I got to the chapters I hadn’t written yet, I looked at my outline, and worked out what had to happen in each chapter for me to get to the end. Using this method I was able to get to the end of the chapter-by-chapter summary, and then using this as a template, I was able to write to the end of the novel.
And I have used this method ever since. First, I do a plot outline – sometimes summarising the whole novel, but more often than not summarising first the main plot, and then each sub-plot separately. Using this outline as a guide, I plan what has to happen in each chapter, to move the main plot and all the sub-plots forward. Then, when I write each chapter, I refer back to my summary. Knowing what has to happen in each chapter makes it easier for me to start writing it.
The chapter-by-chapter summary isn’t set in stone. Sometimes as I go along, I find that the events that are supposed to happen in Chapter 10, say, are more complex than I anticipated, and therefore will also extend into Chapter 11. So if this happens I just amend the chapter plan. I might also find as I write that something quite unanticipated has to happen betweens Chapters 15 and 16 – so I just add the extra chapter to my plan.
Explaining all this in this way makes it sound like a rather complex process. But it means that my method of writing each novel with each chapter of each draft being a separate document on the PC makes more sense. It seems most writers I know work from a complete document. I only combine all the chapters into a full document when the manuscript is fully finished and is at submitting stage.
This method has helped me immensely, though. Although SUFFER THE CHILDREN took me 10 years to write, when I started on the next book after that (which, as it turned out, was my crime novel DEATH SCENE), I started with the summary and chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and I completed it in two years.
Hence, this is today’s lesson. Plan first. It saves much heartbreak later.