The following article is an excerpt from my booklet how I go about Writing a Genre Novel the full version of which is available for free on my website.
I would like to start by putting the excerpt into context by giving a summary of the overview of my approach. I think of genre writing as having four components: concepts (theme, idea, plot, story etc), process (six stages: discovery, planning and research, organising, revision, editing & polishing), language (grammar, prose-writing, figures of speech) and story-telling (the 6 elements of fiction, use of details, characters & symbolism). In addition I have a short “Random Thoughts” category for ideas that don’t easily fit into the four components just mentioned.
This excerpt is about the research & planning stage. This is where I start assembling the material from my “first draft” or “discovery stage” all of the material of which is collected in a lever arch file into a cohesive whole as I type it into my word processor. Although research and planning are two very different functions they actually go well together. As the detailed planning develops so the research may tell me that a particular sequence couldn’t have happened the way that is preferable from a planning perspective eg, a pregnancy lasts nine months but something was supposed to happen to the female character within a period of three months which precludes the pregnancy or the perfect planning timeline might put the story into a winter scenario when summer is called for in the plot.
EVERYTHING must be researched and I mean everything, eg, if you mention jacket buttons then you need to know whether women’s jackets fasten differently to men’s jackets, because it could mean the character has a different arm free in order to do something, which could lead to deciding whether the character is left-handed or right-handed, which means that the writer has to know how right-handed people do things differently to how left-handed people do things, which means that some actions may be easier for the particular character or more difficult or even impossible etc etc. You can see that there are endless ramifications flowing out of a simple research item like jacket buttons.
Everything really does mean everything, eg, that word you used, do you know exactly what it means? Could you possibly be wrong? Can you give us the dictionary definition? Tell you what – check it, just in case. Check every word, twice! Bear in mind my last book was 140,000 words (344 pages) and you can see research takes me a while. Check everything – twice! Research everything – twice!
This is also why I don’t use writing software. I need to get my head around the whole story myself. Computers can’t help you. Writing software won’t tell you that a particular action by a character is in fact not in character as it was set up 200 pages earlier. That only comes from having the whole thing in your head so that you can mentally check everything that is said and done and everything that happens against everything else that is said and done and everything that happens right throughout the story from first page to last.
And, oh yes! Don’t rely on spellcheck. That won’t tell you that your typo put in “moth” instead of “month”. Spellcheck will tell you both are correct, but we know better, only one can be correct in any given situation. You must check every word yourself. Again and again.
Planning for me starts with setting out a detailed plot (I define that as the protagonist’s physical journey) and story (I define that as the protagonist’s emotional journey). I set up the plot and the story within the appropriate timeline and everything must make sense. As Tom Clancy said: the difference between fiction and reality is that its fiction that has to make sense. Strangely enough if it makes sense it seems more real to the reader – go figure! (I don’t write or read fantasy where, presumably, anything goes and plot problems can be resolved through magical powers etc).
My genre is the standard thriller. Not one in a series with the same character appearing in all book-length episodes of the series. I write standalone thrillers, which also happens to be my preferred reading as well. In this regard think John Grisham and Ken Follett.
Character details are also finalised during the planning stage. Where were they born? How did they grow up? Where did they go to school? What were their parents like? Any siblings? How would they behave in various situations? etc etc. Endless detail, much more than I will every use in the book I am writing.
I hope this gives some insight as to how one writer goes about his business. A free copy of the complete booklet on the subject of how I go about writing a genre novel can be found at my WEBSITE and just click on the “For Writers” tab.