Start with a plot.
Plotting a novel is the easy part. The fun part. Plot ideas are a dime a dozen; if not for the unpleasantness of having to fill hundreds of pages with actual writing, anybody could be an author.
No wonder authors are so often approached by well-meaning folks who want to partner with them, offering to supply the book’s all-important plot if the author will do the writing—with profits to be evenly split, of course. The implication being that such a swap favors the author, who can now dispense with the most crucial part of the job and just do what he or she does best: typing.
This is why most movies and TV shows are so terrible, because Hollywood is full of overpaid hotshots who think they are geniuses because they get big bucks for a 10-second pitch: Titanic meets Twilight—bang! Just hire some hack to write it, cast a couple of attractive stars as the leads, and you’re home free. Pennies from heaven!
I’m not bitter at all.
A plot by itself is nothing. It’s a synopsis, a rough sketch, nothing more. If all you have is a plot, you have bones with no meat on them. In other words, you have garbage.
That’s the real job of being a writer: figuring out all the little details that flesh out the plot, flavoring the tale with interesting characters and complex tensions—making it personal. Otherwise, why should anyone give a damn?
The difficulty of this is that there is no easy way to do it. In writing my own novels, I usually start by sketching out the plot, then come up with a chapter outline in which I work out the actions and motivations of my characters. I take a lot of notes as new things occur to me, constantly revising the outline.
This process is reassuringly technical and methodical, making it seem that writing the actual book will be easy—just a matter of following the diagram and filling in the blanks.
No. It turns out that plotting a novel is sort of like building those ACME products in the Roadrunner cartoons—it looks good on paper, but the reality is like running headfirst into a stone wall. It’s work—every word, every sentence, every page has to matter, has to flow, has to surprise and delight the reader, and all your careful notes and diagrams are utterly worthless for the major part of the task at hand, which is to WRITE WITH FEELING.
And for this, sorry to say, there is no convenient shortcut. You can’t just paint a tunnel on the wall; you gotta dig. Dig deep.
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