Recently a friend wrote to me with this question: I want to write a novel, but where do I begin? Do I start with an outline? With a character list? Or do I just plunge in and start writing?
That’s a great question, and one that I struggled with for years.
The answer has to do with a scene from The Wizard of Oz…
Remember? Dorothy is on her way to Oz when she comes to a fork in the road. The scarecrow tells her that either route will work. Or in this case, any of the three routes would work.
Here’s what I do–and have done for twenty-plus novels:
- Start with the first three chapters, drafting a narrative. I get these down fast on my computer. This allows me to nail down the voice and get an idea of who the main character is. I learn as I write, so as I’m writing I get to know my characters. This also helps me figure out how strong the urge to write this particular story is.
- Stop and switch to writing by hand. I work up a list of characters and generally take notes about ideas. I like to do this by hand because it un-links the process started at the computer. That’s important. Sometimes you want to continue at the computer, but other times, if you don’t un-link, you can’t get clarity. TIP: At the top of the list of character names, I put an alphabet. As I name characters, I mark off the first letters of their names on the alphabet. Otherwise I’d duplicate first letters in names, and that’s annoying to readers.
- Go back to the computer and add to my first three chapters, because now I’m feeling more sure of what I’m writing. (Again, if the urge to write fails, that means this might not be the right time for that particular book. Or I might just need more chocolate. Or a deadline.)
- Move to Scrivener or to index cards. As fast as possible, I put down all the scenes I can imagine/think of. When I’m done, I arrange these in order. I look for holes. I fill in the holes. These become my outline.
- Print out my outline.
- Keep writing and adding to the chapters, using the outline as a reference.
PS Any questions? Let me know…