Writing your first book? Where do you start? Ask someone who knows ....
During lockdown I asked that question. I wanted to know how to write a novel. The person I asked was Raoul Morris and I asked him if I could share this with you. Raoul’s text is below and at the end of the article I have recapped his top tips which I use as a checklist.
Writing you first book: A Pathway
First, let me tell you where I’m from. I have been writing for the last thirty years, first co-writing as a screenwriter, then writing alone. I have written original screenplays, adapted from novels and stage plays and developed from four lines on a sheet of paper. Written my own stories and commissions, with Hollywood producers and European art house producers working as a writer and script doctor. I have also written short stories, stage plays and novels. Some of them produced, some not, some published some not.
I have learned that story is at the very heart of the human condition. It is how we learn and how we remember. Through it we laugh and cry, celebrate and fall in love. The following is supposed to show you a way through the ups and downs of a piece of work longer than a short story. The scheme is not original. There are books and books some two and a half thousand years old talking about this and there are more and more being produced yearly.
There are lots of ways to start writing. Some have an idea and begin writing discovering the story as they write just as do the characters who people the narrative. Others write to a fixed ending starting from a particular inciting incident and allow the fates to pull them through the journey. Some like to plot every main chapter point by point before they begin to ‘write’.
I fall somewhere in the middle of all of these. I don’t plot maniacally, but I do like to know where I am and have some sense of the turns and waystations along the path. This allows me to write relatively quickly, (about 2000 words a day, though not Michael Crichton’s alleged 10,000 words!), but it still leaves a lot to be discovered. Some of the most important events and characters in my stories, just dropped onto the page. So how do I go about it?
First I decide the most important turns in the story, usually about 3-7 of them. At very least, the event that sparks the change in the world of my central character, that then pushes her through the door and the fateful moment at the end where she must choose.
The story never stars at the beginning. You’ll spend about 10% of your work, (none of these percentages are exact but readers become antsy or bored if you stray much beyond them), describing the world and that likeable/relatable character where and in whose company, we are to commit a chunk of our time. But then, at about the 10% point comes a point when we can see that something is up. After this moment the person, or group, you’re following spend some time kicking it around, ignoring it, prodding it, even running away from it, depending on the story you’re telling.
Eventually though, there comes a point where it has to be faced. This usually happens at about the 22-25% point, it sometimes happens earlier, (as early as 18%) or later (as late as 30%) but for these exceptions there are good reasons within the story and they have consequences. This event is a one-way door, once passed there is no way back to that earlier life for good or ill. The protagonist must move forward until the issue is resolved. This resolution is the end of the story.
In the next part, about 25-30% of your work, your character will spend her time NOT taking control of the situation, being kicked around. Drama has been described as taking a likeable/relatable character and “throwing rocks at them”. Most of the rocks will be thrown in this section, (they won’t stop). The protagonist won’t make much of an effort to throw them back.
Now, somewhere between 53% and 60 % of the story the main character turns to fight. She will try to take control of the situation with, depending on the kind of thing this is, varying levels of success. This central moment usually contains a hint, (at least) of death. Anything from actual death to a glimpse of a dead pot plant or flowers. Little things like this are signals to the reader that things are serious and are surprisingly powerful.
The struggle over the next 25-30% will lead to the zenith of nadir of your character’s journey, at this point in order to resolve the conflict they will have to face THE thing that is about to destroy them or their world. This can be the ultimate temptation, (they succumb or don’t), the ultimate monster, their ultimate fear. The end of this leaves them at the pinnacle of their success or in ashes on the floor and the next 10% of your story is where they come good or realise where they have been wrong all along. The story is resolved at this point. Many stories end very shortly thereafter. Some go on to show the established “new normal” where we can see the lessons of the narrative being applied often with a little humor. Sometimes this is the point when that initial spark, (at 10%) is resolved in some way.
The path seems straightforward enough, but for the writer these points in the writing are also moments of real peril. Many novels or screenplays are started, many abandoned. The first point is that 10% point when people realise they are not sure what exactly the want the thing to be “about”. Few stop at the 20-25% point as this has a bit of a rush to it, you can now really start the story.
The next 25-30% are often difficult, getting them wrong leads to many stories being “paused”, “just taking a break” at the 60% mark. Because the problem isn’t the next part of the story but rather the part they’ve just finished many never see what is wrong. Often they are looking at finishing the narrative in the next 2% and are looking for a way to fill out this next part whereas what they must do is go back and change the section from 25-55% of the story.
Once a story has reached 70% of the telling rarely is it abandoned, good or terrible it is getting finished. Sometimes in fact the narrative races to a conclusion and unbalances the book. This section is possibly the most difficult to pace well.
There are those who will say that all of this leads to a cut and paste, identikit novel or screenplay and, if followed thoughtlessly it can make for predictable stories. But the quality of the writing is down to you, what I am showing you is not a map, but a torch. The order and manner of these blocks can be thrown around and chopped up as well as being well and less well told, but I hope it will allow you to see where you are and where you might go within your narrative.
1. Choose the main events in the story, 3 to 5 pivotal scenes/actions/events
2. Chunk the story into lumps so that you know where you are in the structure.
3. The world and who is in it. First 10% to show the main character & world.
4. Something is up! By 10% the ‘inciting incident’ has to happen.
5. The one way door. By 25% the main character has to face the ‘something’.
6. Throwing rocks. From 25% - 55% the main character will NOT take control.
7. Turn and fight. Somewhere 55-60% the main character WILL take control.
8. The struggle to the ultimate. At about 85-90% it is the big moment.
9. Resolution. The last 10% wraps up the story.
To understand what these really mean read what Raoul said….