How do you craft a novel from a blank page?


I am now well into the writing of my 3rd novel, ‘Chinese Whispers’. It got me thinking about the question of how different authors tackle the process of turning the germ of an idea into a full length novel.

I once saw an interview with E.L.James, author of the phenomenally successful ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. In the interview, she says that the way she writes is to just sit down and let the words flow, without any real idea of where the story is going. Now I don’t doubt that after the first draft was completed she will have done a lot of refining and rewriting – every author ends up having to do this – but I find it fascinating that she was able to just sit down and write, apparently without any sort of plan or outline to work to.

By way of contrast, I also remember seeing an interview with John Grisham, author of numerous best-selling corporate and legal thrillers. I recall him saying that he won’t start to write the first page of a new book until he knows what the last page will be.

For me, the process goes something like this:

First comes the idea: the rough concept on which the book will be based. Next I write down an outline framework: a bullet point list of the main plot elements which I can arrange into the chronological order which will work well and make sense. Then I turn this into a more specific plan: a list of all the chapters which will appear in the book, each with a brief summary – perhaps one or two sentences – of what will appear in that chapter. Only when I have done all this do I sit down to write Chapter One. So I guess I’m much closer to the John Grisham approach than the E.L. James approach.

Interestingly, I don’t feel the need to do so much up-front preparation on the characters. I’ll have a mental image of each character but I’m happy to let them develop and change as the book progresses. In fact I find that they sort of take on a life of their own, informing me of how to portray them.

Now if much of the above sounds like a very rigid, structured approach, I have to say that in practice I tend not to stick rigidly to the pre-prepared plan once I really get into the book. I often find that the book flows better if I change the order of the chapters of make the chapter and scene breaks in different places, or add/remove/modify certain plot elements. However, I couldn’t contemplate actually starting to write the book without that plan to hang on to.

When the first draft of the book is complete, I will go back over it from the beginning, refining the language and adding more descriptive content to certain scenes. During my initial writing of the first draft, I have a tendency to gallop through and get the main plot elements down, often omitting some of the descriptive content which helps to set up the scene for the reader. I may end up going through many iterations of this refining process. The problem is knowing when to stop!

Finally, when the book is ‘finished’, I always seek an independent assessment of it before actually releasing it for publication. I find it invaluable to have a fresh set of experienced eyes look over the manuscript. I use literary consultants, Daniel Goldsmith Associates. It can be quite painful to have someone point out all the areas requiring improvement, but I have to admit that both of my previous books, ‘Buyout’ and ‘Payback’, were much improved after I took on board inputs from Lorena Goldsmith and Katie Green and reworked the manuscripts accordingly.

Everything I have described above is concerned with the development of the actual story. I haven’t even touched on the work required to make sure the language is grammatically correct and that all the little punctuation errors have been weeded out (I wrote about some of these things in a previous post). There is a lot to do before one can be satisfied that the book is ready for typesetting and publication.

I am currently about one third of the way through the first draft of my third book, ‘Chinese Whispers’, and already I have deviated significantly from my writing plan, but I still need that plan to hang on to as the book progresses! I’ll post again at various points though the development of the manuscript and let you know if and how the process has differed from that involved in my previous books.

Are there any other authors out there who care to share their own experiences of this mysterious process of crafting a novel?