Lessons in Novel Writing: Sat Nav or breadcrumbs?

When I was at school, pretty much my favourite thing was creative writing. Back then I wrote dark stories with plenty of ghosts, fairies, wicked stepmothers, vampires, monsters and ordinary kids like me being caught up in fantastical situations. Only my protagonist’s use of a magic amulet/sword/potion (supplied by a mysterious stranger, of course) or their own untapped abilities would win the day.

Many of those stories finished along the lines of

And they were never heard of again…

My endings have (hopefully) improved, but otherwise I pretty much write about the same things. Love a ghost story, would write vampires but they’re a bit ‘done’ and though I might not employ magic potions, I still recognise that my heroes and heroines – even if they aren’t a magical Chosen One – should find qualities within themselves to achieve their goals.

One major thing that has changed is my ability to plan.

When I wrote those childhood stories, and even when I began writing novels, my enthusiasm for an idea would have me rushing to my exercise book/keyboard, hammering out scenes in the order they appeared in my head, plucking characters from the air, smushing the whole thing together like play dough, hoping it would stick together.

That worked when I was a kid. Or at least I was happy enough with the results. As an adult? Not so much.

With my first book (my first three in fact, all unpublished) I returned to the same, tried and tested method of sitting in front of a screen and emptying my brains. The result had some pleasing moments… and flat, aimless characters, meandering plots and an end product as loose as Nana’s knitting.

Then I began to write for a women’s magazine and funnily enough, the editors required rather more than

Well, there’s this girl and I’m thinking maybe she falls in love and does some other stuff – probably to do with horses or goats – then she argues with the guy cos he does something stupid, but then he kisses her…

No. Editors want the first part of a proposed serial, they want character bios. Most of all, they want a synopsis.

Now, if you’re like me, just the mention of the S word will have you scuttling into the corner with a blanket over your head.

But once I’d dragged my inner writer kicking and weeping to the task, I actually found something interesting. A synopsis makes me focus on the shape of the story, its highs, its lows, the start, the resolution. It helps me know whether the idea is going to hang together and whether I can tell the story I want in the required word count.

It’s a cliche, but a synopsis is like having a Sat Nav in your car. You might take a different turning here and there, but if you have one – a good one – it makes it a heck of a lot harder to get lost.

So on my current journey through the realms of Novel (fifth go and yes, still unpublished), I’m taking a Sat Nav with me and not just relying on a trail of breadcrumbs to get me home.

How about you? Do you plan before you write or just go boldly where your creativity takes you?

25 thoughts on “Lessons in Novel Writing: Sat Nav or breadcrumbs?

  1. I’ve never used the term Sat Nav before but it’s brilliant: I’m Team Sat Nav all the way! As you say, just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I totally stick to every aspect of it, or refuse to change it along the way. But it certainly helps me from wandering into the woods of “where the heck am I now, and how the heck do I get back out?”

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    1. I’ve really come to value plot more as times gone in. There may be some authors who can write a whole book with just a nugget of an idea, but there can’t be many who do it efficiently. As you say, a mix of plot and free writing is the perfect mix.

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      1. Agreed. I think most people hear “plot” and think only about the action/what happens elements, but I also find it works better to think through the character arc ahead of time. Otherwise I can get to the end of a story where Stuff Happens and then wonder, yeah, but so what? How did the character learn or grow from that? What really changed for them? (Certainly I *read* too many stories where I have that feeling at the end; I’d like to avoid writing them!)

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      2. I’m just trying to think more about everything before I begin writing now. Characters, research, plot, endings – all considered more than I used to think of them. I’ve written too many stories where I’ve written 80,000 words and realised the whole is a bit of a mess

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  2. I’m chuckling at the S-word. I will admit for years I went in for knitted stories. I’d cast on, and see where it took me. Yet, somewhere, usually quite early, I’d realise I needed to know where this was going. I’d make notes. But I wouldn’t do an all-out plan. And then came the ending, and that was my weakness. I never knew how to finish a story. Because I hadn’t yet got my head around those magical structures called Plot Arc, and Character Arc.
    I still cast on with no idea where I’m going. But after a few rows, I take a step back… and that’s when I plot.

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    1. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of an idea when it comes to you. Hard not to plunge in. But I’ve learnt that if an idea is good enough to maintain your enthusiasm through research and plotting – even if it’s only rough plotting – then it’ll hold your interest through writing too. Novels are marathons as you know so well yourself. You need to prep before you start or you’ll never finish

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      1. Tis true, tis true. Though I will say The Spinner’s Game began life a an idea I knitted for a couple or three chapters, and only then went back and worked out the plot. In the beginning, there was a village of matriarchial horticulturalists one side of a lake, and a patriarchal tribe of hunter-gatherers on the other. And one of the hunters stole one of the women… oh how far it has come since then!

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      2. Quite a change since then, as you say. Funny how stories develop starting as one thing, morphing into something completely different. I’m having the same at the moment – started with an old story from years ago about an innocent girl executed for a murder, then years later a teenager wants to prove her innocent. Not the dead girl is a ghost haunting an old house, the boy is a medium being manipulated by his mother. There’s an elderly photographer who’s also linked to the house. Everyone has a secret and they’re all intertwined. Couldn’t be more different an idea from the original. Not sure if it’s better, but it’s different

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      3. Well, it’s interesting. I was given a ghost story for Christmas, a novel written by a very successful crime novelist. A writer who’s sold 12 million books apparently. And this book is … Bad. Just bad. My writing, yours, Lauren’s, Jane Dougherty’s – lots of bloggers I know – we can write so much better than this guy. He had no pace, no tension, confused and cluttered sentences, dreadful dialogue, more product placement than a James bond film. Just awful. Which is at once heartening and dispiriting. Because this man makes a terrific living out of the garbage he writes and we can’t find publishers. Makes me want to write my book even more though 😀

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      4. I shall not ask you to name and shame, but I have encountered woefully bad editing and I wonder who got paid for the job?
        I’ve also noticed, from established writers, what can only be evidence of a typist typing the *writer’s* diction… or using a voice-translation app. Cos, these spellings are so not right, and the wrong word is used etc.

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  3. This is why I hand out with all of you writers. I absorb, I learn, I consider if I should ever decide to go down that road, I’ll at least have an inkling of what is involved…

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    1. I didn’t have a clue when I started and I still now take a step back, read some guidance, take a little course or two. There’s more to it than most of us think when we start out. Are you tempted to try a novel, then Dale?

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      1. Nothing wrong with increasing one’s knowledge. Oh, I don’t think I have that type of imagination. The most I would attempt (if I ever finish) is a book of stories of Mick, mostly for my boys and family…

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  4. I tend to just have an opening scene, sometimes a vague idea of a story and let the characters make it up as they go along. It’s the difference between making the characters perform to produce the story I want to tell, and jotting down a story as the characters unfold it. I find it very hard to ‘make’ characters do anything. When the story pauses, I ask myself what so-and-so would do next. Often I’m as surprised as a reader would be with the things they come out with.

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    1. You definitely have to get to know the characters, it’s true. I find now that I start with a setting, vague idea of where I want to go, then develop characters, then look at plot. As you say, plot comes from characters or at least they run alongside each other

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  5. I’m impressed that you’ve gotten magazines to publish your work! as for my fiction writing, I started as a journalist, which may be why I find that I can’t go anywhere without a map in hand. it’s ok to deviate from but I must have my map… I believe that novelists who crank out lots of books (am jealous of them lol) do some sort of mapping even if they deny it — formula, tho when it shows it’s as hideous as dirty underwear… am currently enjoying “Guide to Fiction Writing’” by Phyllia A. Whitney, an oldie but have only just discovered & it resonates for me

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