Work-in-Progress: The Novel That Insisted

I’m finally writing the science-fiction novel that’s been bugging me for a year and a half. It just wouldn’t leave me alone. So finally, I said, “Fine, come over here. Let’s do this.”

I always enjoy writing, but one element that has particularly drawn me in this time has been the characters themselves. They are constantly doing and saying things that engage me. Every day, I can’t wait to dive back in and explore how these characters are going to confront the next scene.

There’s more comedy here than I’ve seen in my adult fiction before. Perhaps, this is a by-product of the children’s literature I’ve been writing. But I know it’s a good thing. I’ve been looking for ways to get more humor into my work, and now, it’s just emerging naturally.

Obviously, it will be a long while before I can share any of this story with the larger world, publishing being what it is. But I can’t wait. At the very least, I need to get this in front of beta readers soon in the coming months.


Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare


As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

Layers of Transformation and Depth – Repeat – Repeat – Repeat

I’ve wrapped up the first draft of book one (about 130 pages), and I’ve got this nagging feeling that there will be no end to revisions. I’m moving on now to book two, but I know, in the back of my mind, that I need to return to this first book with:

  • more details in various places (specifically, technology and the speech style of certain characters)
  • setting up certain scenes in more dynamic, engaging ways
  • opportunities for tension-tightening in certain areas

It sounds simple, but I keep finding more revisions to add to the list. Not to mention, I’ve already been through a few rounds.

This reinforces my belief, of course, that most great art is brought about through the use of layers. When I refer to layers in fiction, I mean to say this going over the text repeatedly to add and transform, and essentially to add depth. There is a direct comparison, I believe with painting.

That Poor Guy

So, as I’m writing the second chapter, I come to a section where the heroes are surprised by a deadly force, and I realize that I need one of the heroes to die here. But I’m in a bind because I realize that I need all of those characters later. What to do?

And then it occurs to me in the most obvious fashion: Red shirt. I’m looking forward to going back through the first chapter and adding this new character…so I can kill him in the following chapter. Muahahaha.

Painful Exposition?

It seems to me that when expositing in science-fiction the risk of being obtrusive is nearly unavoidable. Likely, you’re dealing with concepts that are completely new, so exposition is required. Here are some of the strategies:

1) Find a character who, for whatever reason, doesn’t understand the way his or her world works. Perhaps, they’re a child, or they’ve been living in a cave, or they’re from another time. And then have that character ask dumb questions. You can even get some character conflict mileage out of this dynamic.

2) Each time you introduce a new concept, just launch into description — potentially the most obtrusive of the techniques.

3) Exposit through action. Show how things work as part of the action that advances the story. Just make sure not to invent sub-plots for this obvious purpose.

4) If the thing to be exposited is complicated, it would make sense to have one character teaching another how to interact with it.

5) Don’t exposit. Leave some mystery. This technique can be used along with number 3 well.

What other methods can you offer?

Crafting the Beginning

I am now caught in the infinite loop of the first chapter. I have this habit of browsing books by reading their first line, because I place so much importance on how a story opens. After having taken my first stab at the first chapter, I am, as is to be expected, disgusted with it. Expositionally, it does everything I need it to. Characters are being established. Plots and sub-plots are being set up. A world is unfolding. And yet, having read it out loud once, I find it flat. Suspense is lacking. And although, I realize that suspense is coming in the next chapter, I don’t think it’s soon enough. So I’m setting about revising. As of now, I’ve invented a new character to provide a foil (for both the main character and for the world), and I’m altering the professions of the protagonist and his friend. I’m also considering putting the main character in jeopardy somehow. Needs more thought. There’s more to be done, but I’m feeling better about it.  Until, I’ve written it, and then, of course, I’m sure I’ll need to scrap it again.

Wherefore Author Go Thou?

I have the plot, almost intricately so. I have the 15+ characters. I find myself looking for the why. Why am I writing this? Why would someone care? And perhaps, how will this be different than what’s gone before? And finally, are any of these questions I should be bothering with?

My instinct is to answer the last of those questions in the affirmative. Not that you can’t write a valid work without worrying about those questions. But I’m not sure I, personally, am the kind of person to do that.

I feel really positive about what I have so far, but I feel I need to throw a monumental monkey wrench in there, and my conscious mind still has no idea what that is. “What if the villain is really the hero?” “What if the main character turns out be an artificial intelligence, and we learn this near the end of the story?” That sort of thing.

When I first started wondering about these questions, I took a look at the protagonist. But he revealed nothing. I know who he is, and he seems to have depth. But he doesn’t seem to demand any more story.

Back to staring out the window.

Words are messy, but they’re the only ones we’ve got.