Life Cycle of a Novel

Some writers work from an outline, others just wing it. They start at page one and write one scene after another, with only a vague idea of where they’re headed. I know a guy who’s been working on his medieval war novel for nearly ten years, an endless campaign of bloody battles and skirmishes that reads like a bad role-playing game. Last I heard he was nearing 1200 pages, with no end in sight.

I’m of the former category. I need an outline to follow, just like I need maps or painstaking instructions to find my way around town or on the internet. I plan out my novels as diligently as I do my road trips. Writing a novel without an outline is as unlikely for me as leaving the house for a long drive with an out-of-date map in another language.

A novel is a giant project and I want to be sure the story is viable before I commit to it. I like to know my ending before I start at page one so I know where I’m going while I work out the details of each scene.

3x5 PlottingMost of my novels follow a predictable life cycle: a seed of an idea leads to scribbles in a notebook that will grow and morph into a vague, messy outline with some character bios and trial scene bits. I may need to do some research at this point – how long does it take for a skeleton to decay if it’s been left in a cabin in the woods? At some point I decide I’m ready for a chapter-by-chapter outline. 

This is where my storyboard comes in handy, a grid of 3X5 cards taped to the wall. Each card has a few lines about a scene or chapter and corresponds to a word doc on my computer. The cards are easy to move around and offer an omniscient view of the entire story. There are currently 26 cards on the wall; the last project had 48. The block of cards is surrounded by maps, sketches of room layouts, lists and photos and bios, and a rainbow of sticky notes laying out overlapping timelines. This controlled chaos takes up most of one living room wall. 

Without it I would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of details to keep track of when writing a novel. But my coping strategies have paid off: I’ve finished four novels and I have outlines or partial first drafts for several more. Each novel has its own marked folder in a cabinet where I keep all relevant research materials and notes, as well as each story’s scene cards, maps, bios, and all the other assorted building blocks I need to craft my tale. 

When I’m confident that I’ve got most of the loose ends tied up in an outline, I’ll write a first draft and leave it to simmer on my hard drive for several months – if not years. 

This is when the entire story board comes down and gets put away, while another goes up. I’m currently cycling through four large projects, with each one spending several months at a time on the wall between hibernation periods. It’s always exciting to pull a project out of the box and get re-acquainted while I set it up on the wall, though sometimes I dread discovering what might have changed since the last time I worked on it. 

Most novels follow the outline I set out for them. The characters behave according to their bios, and the stories come to a satisfying conclusion. 

Other stories are not as compliant. Characters change their minds and motives while I’m not looking. They plot to take over the plot and allegiances shift unexpectedly. This can twist dynamics, collapse a plot or ruin the entire story arc, reminding me that while it’s nice to plan ahead, you never know what interesting turns the most carefully planned trip may take along the way.

As much as I need to have control over my story, an outline shouldn’t be set in stone. No matter how clear the story is in my mind, I’ve learned to expect that it may strike out in another direction and I might not be able to stop it. 

“You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.” 
– Truman Capote
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