The Anatomy of a Novel

How do you set about writing a novel?  How do you begin?  How do you plot it?  Is it all planned in advance, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?  I get asked these questions a lot.  I suppose all writers do.  And I suppose the answers we give will be completely different for every one of us, because writing – and all creative pursuits – is very much an individual process between the creator and his / her creation.  But here, for the record, is how I do it, now that I’ve the experience of a fair few novels under my belt.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll recount the stages in writing my current work in progress, a sex comedy / erotic novel titled ‘Vicars and Tarts’, a sequel to my earlier ‘Water Into Whine’.

The thing that comes first is the germ of an idea for the novel.  ‘Water Into Whine’ was never intended to have a sequel, but the characters were so good and it was obvious that they’d meet again.  When I started thinking about where they would be and what they would be doing a year later, the scenario suggested itself to me.  So the new novel is set on a Scottish island, where James Redders, the randy vicar from ‘Water Into Whine’, has set up his new ministry under a new name.  The Grace family from the first novel come to visit James and his wife on their island home, but find that he is experiencing difficulties thanks to three separate groups:  a hardline, puritanical group of churchgoers who object to James’ unconventional and liberal ministry; a pagan priestess whose charisma and orgiastic parties are keeping the younger islanders away from James’ church; and the local laird and landowner, who fancies himself a Satanist and thus despises James, meaning his tenants daren’t attend the services.  This gives me a great setting and an interesting scenario with three separate factions to deal with.  It provides a lot of scope for a sex comedy as the Graces try to help out their friend by tricking and seducing his opponents until he gets his way and fills the pews before the bishop visits to inspect how he’s getting on.

Now that I have the basics for a story idea, I start to really fill up my notebook with descriptions of the appearance and personalities of all the main characters and places.  I need to be truly able to see everything and everyone clearly in my mind’s eye before I start writing about them in the actual story.  I need to know how they talk and behave, their speech patterns, virtues and vices and how they’ll respond to everything that happens as the story unfolds.

Once I have these things clear in my mind and noted down, I look at the storyline and identify its main beats, ideally breaking it down into four quarters as I trace its developments.  The first quarter introduces the situation, characters and location; the second quarter steps up the interference from the antagonists; in the third quarter, our heroes go all out to struggle against the odds; this comes to a head in the final quarter, where things are resolved satisfactorily.  (I’m trying to be a little vague here and not actually give away ‘spoilers’.)

I then split the quarters down and allocate three chapters to each quarter.  I write two or three sentences (no more, as things can still be fairly fluid at this stage) describing what needs to happen in each chapter.  Since this is an erotic novel, I try to follow the same routine as its predecessor, ‘Water Into Whine’, by including the opportunity for at least one major sex scene in each chapter, with each chapter’s kinkiness ideally a touch more outrageous than the one before it.

I now have brief outlines for twelve chapters.  Now I have to decide the length of the book.  I want ‘Vicars and Tarts’ to be the same length as ‘Water Into Whine’, which was 60,000 words, just short of 200 pages in print.  With twelve chapters, that means I know from the outset that I have 5,000 words to describe the events of each chapter.  This helps a great deal in ensuring that the book is evenly paced and proceeds at a good rate, without any parts being too rushed or too dragged out.  It sometimes becomes necessary to slightly adjust the chapter contents and order as I write to make this work properly, but the framework I have laid down at this early stage makes it easy to make such adjustments and keep the book as a whole in proper balance.

The next step is optional.  Some people just number chapters (the majority of writers just number chapters, in fact), whilst some give them titles.  I like to give mine titles which are evocative and often incorporate plays on words, puns, distortions of popular sayings or movie titles, and other fun things.  In ‘Water Into Whine’, I included several chapters referencing the word ‘grace’, as this was the surname of the main family of characters.  I have continued this game with a couple of the chapter headings in ‘Vicars and Tarts’ for continuity reasons, plus adding a couple of references to Bishop Fort’s name.  Labelling the chapters again helps to give me a strong feel for the structure and pacing of the story.  The chapter titles for ‘Vicars and Tarts’ are as follows when I first note them down:

  1.  Vicars and Tartan
  2. Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
  3. The Wee Tea Isnae Free
  4. Queen of All She Depraves
  5. “He’s Not the Antichrist, He’s a Very Naughty Boy”
  6. Fortified Whine
  7. Who Flagellates the Flagellants?
  8. Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead
  9. Grace and Favour
  10. The Worm That Turned
  11. Holding the Fort
  12. Amazing Grace

Naturally, some of these may change slightly (or completely) if something better suggests itself to me.  Also, the order may change.  At the time of writing this blog, I am writing chapter eight, and I have swapped the order of chapters 7 and 8, because it occurred to me that the sequence of events in the story would flow much, much better if I did so.

I like to be able to feel the ‘atmosphere’ of each book when I write it, and this includes attributing a symbolic colour to the book.  For ‘Water Into Whine’ this colour was a rich burgundy, which featured on the book cover and was mentioned several times during the narrative (several locations, such as the Hassalls’ manor, had burgundy decor).  For ‘Vicars and Tarts’, set on an island in August, I wanted a warm, sunset orange as the colour theme.

Speaking of colours leads to covers.  Learning the lesson of ‘Damsels and the Dark Arts’, my last novel, I ordered a cover for ‘Vicars and Tarts’ early.  A writer friend, Colin Griffiths, pointed me to a talented cover designer on Fiverr named Decovski, who prepared a selection of several potential covers for me to choose from.  I eventually selected the one illustrated below, because:  (1) it has the orange colour scheme; (2) it displays a wine glass and Bible, as also shown on the cover of ‘Water Into Whine’, providing continuity; (3) it is a very modern and striking cover and will stand out really well as a thumbnail on the Kindle store.

'Vicars and Tarts' cover by Decovski

‘Vicars and Tarts’ cover by Decovski

All of this sounds like a lot of preparation, but it generally only takes two or three days of thinking and note taking.  Then I’m ready to start writing, but the novel already has a solid structure in place, I just have to add the meat to the bones.  I’m able to concentrate on telling my story in the most evocative way, without having to stop and wonder what happens next.

I write 500 words in each writing session of approximately twenty – thirty minutes (rounded up to the nearest paragraph ending), and I write at least one session per day (if a workday), or three or four sessions on my days off.  So in total it will take me about six weeks to finish writing ‘Vicars and Tarts’.  Thereafter comes editing, of course, which is a whole different ball game.

There may still be surprises, of course.  Although I know what situations are going to arise, I haven’t planned out exactly how the characters are going to react.  The reason I bring them to full life in my imagination before I start writing is so that I can enjoy seeing what they do and say as the story unfolds.  Once you’ve established a solid character, you can leave it up to them.  This can often introduce surprising twists and turns in the narrative that you didn’t anticipate.  But unless your characters and situation were a complete mismatch in the first place, they’ll still get you to where you’re going, but in a far more genuine and colourful way than if you tried to force things.

So that’s how I do it.  Others definitely differ and there’s no right or wrong way.  There’s just what works for you.


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