An Indie Author’s Approach to the Novel Writing Process
Shortly after I started writing my first novel, I watched the BBC’s Nick Higham interview a well-known author on one of its News channel’s regular ‘Meet the Author’ slots. I remember feeling excited, because this particular author was about as big as they got: rich, famous, decades of international bestsellers already under his belt – several of which had been made into great movies … but, more importantly, because he wrote the type of books I love to read (and write): thrillers. So, I sat on the edge of my seat, hanging on his every word – eager to find out what made such a successful author tick, what drove him, what compelled him to write; hoping for a glimpse of the passion he poured into his art; hoping to be inspired … only, instead, to be shocked and deeply saddened by what he had to say: he did it for the money. Worse still, he gave the distinct impression that he didn’t even enjoy doing it – at least not any more. And I think I understand why: before penning a single word of his next bestseller, he spent months meticulously researching its every topic, fleshing out every character, mapping out every twist and turn of its plot – all in minute detail – and then, he spent day after day after day simply regurgitating his story, from start to finish, until he had the entire thing down on paper. Now where’s the fun in that?
The authoring process, for me, is a much less structured, and infinitely more enjoyable, experience. When I started ‘planning’ my first novel, ORIGINS, all I had to work with was a basic premise, and the bare bones of a plot: a rough outline for the book’s opening chapter, a vague idea for a bleak, apocalyptic ending – and a couple more for some of the bits in-between.
My initial plot development involved what I can best describe as a couple of weeks of daydreaming: allowing my mind to wander aimlessly through countless settings and scenarios, until eventually stumbling upon the ones that would launch my story along the right path – befriending a handful of lost souls I met along the way and roping them into becoming its main characters.
With my book’s opening scenes freshly fabricated in my mind, it was time to smooth and polish them with a little research. The settings for those scenes were places very familiar to me, places I visited often, places I loved (well, they do say, ‘write what you know’). So they demanded hardly any research at all. The topics covered in them, however, were an entirely different matter. I have a scientific background: I used to be a Research Chemist. Two of my book’s main characters, Mark and Kate, were, at this stage, also scientists (again, no coincidence), but occupied disciplines about which I knew very little: genetics and astrophysics. Tackling genetics first, I spent well over a month giving myself a good grounding in the subject, by studying a popular genetics text I picked up from a local bookstore. Basic genetics mastered, I then threw myself into astrophysics – and soon realised that the groundbreaking discovery, in the field of deep space telemetry, that I was about to credit Kate with, was completely unfeasible. So she quickly changed career paths – and became the Estate Manager of Elvaston Castle (a local stately home) instead. Initial research done; it was time to start writing …
My material for the opening scenes – supplemented by a little on-the-fly research, and the enlistment of a few minor characters – happily saw me through the first seven or eight chapters. After that, I eagerly watched the rest of my story slowly unfold through the eyes of its main characters – thinking and planning just far enough ahead so as not to write myself (or them) into a corner. And, once again, the ‘thinking and planning’ mostly involved lots of daydreaming – and, on more than one occasion, some actual dreaming. Whenever I found myself stuck for ideas, I drove out to Bradgate Park (my favourite quiet, local beauty spot – which, of course, also features in my book) for a bit of fresh air and exercise to clear my mind. And after an hour or so walking the park’s steep, rugged paths, the new ideas I sought invariably came to me.
As I was drawn deeper and deeper into my story, and became increasingly attached to the characters living it, I found myself faced with a huge dilemma: the bleak, apocalyptic ending I had planned for all of them – how could I, in all good conscience, put them through that? The simple answer was: I couldn’t. So I changed it. One of the great things about not pre-plotting a story in its entirety, is that – just as in real life – its future remains unwritten … and can therefore, quite easily, be re-written.
With a new ending now fixed firmly in my sights, the rest of the story pretty much wrote itself. However, before penning its final few chapters, I broke with protocol and took some time out to plan them ‘properly’. I concede: there can be a time and a place for meticulous plot development – and, for me, this was it. The closing scenes of my book were rather complex: comprising a number of time-specific events and action sequences, and bringing together multiple storylines – and I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave any loose ends untied. As throughout the rest of my story though, its characters’ reactions to those events remained fluid and unfixed.
My approach to writing may seem a little unorthodox to some, and would, no doubt, appear crude and amateurish to the bestselling author whose interview I watched so intently, a few years ago, as I embarked upon my own literary journey. But it works for me – and for one very important reason: not knowing the outcome of a story, to me, keeps that story alive … it grips me and holds my interest in it – as if I’m actually participating in it, rather than just writing it. Writing should excite and enthral the writer as well as the reader. On the day writing becomes a chore for me – just another way of making money – I will quit doing it … I sincerely hope that day never comes.
The above article was originally published as a guest post on Neil Newton’s excellent blog. Neil is the author of One Time on Earth – the story of a young man’s obsession with the first moon landing. Click here to visit Neil’s blog.