M.L. Davis has a great post on learning to write short stories from the perspective of someone more used to novels.
This post is about the other side of that. I’m more familiar with writing short stories (even like this tiny boye), and had to learn a few things before I managed my first novel.
Giving Characters Space
The main thing was finding the right approach to planning for me.
The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.
Novels are big. Readers will be hanging out with the characters for a much longer time, and plots become more multilayered and sprawling.
Different approaches to planning work for different people. You need to find your own balance, giving yourself enough structure to keep things on track while also giving the characters space to develop and use their own initiative.
Ultimately, the plot is what the characters do. When you’re working with words by the tens of thousands, and with many more plot points than in a short story, it will become more glaringly cruddy if the characters are shallow puppets with the plot imposed on them. And more gripping if characters take control for themselves.
Life Doesn’t Have Chapters
This is another shift in mindset that helped me. In early novel attempts, my chapters were too strictly episodic. One plot sequence happened, then jolt into this one, jolt to the next, and so on, each a bit too compartmentalized. They didn’t connect smoothly.
Chapters and scenes are very important for the writer and readers. A satisfying story will have its rises and falls, building tension and resolutions, driving action and reflection in well-paced balance. After a battle scene it may be good to have a steadier chapter with more reflection, dealing with the aftermath. So, as writers, we start on a new chapter with that in the back of our minds.
As far as the characters are concerned, their life is a continuous stream. Not a set of episodes. They, the ones doing the plot, continue acting in line with their motives just as before. Unless this is metafiction, none of them see Chapter 14 flash in the sky when the other side surrenders. They only know the battle is won, they’re knackered, and people are dead and injured – and act accordingly.
As Coffee Stars Books said:
I like to start with worldbuilding before character and plot because I think it influences both of those things a lot. I tend to find that my plot is very character driven, and in turn my characters are formed from their own experiences and upbringing and the world around them.
Particularly for something like fantasy, you need to know more about the setting, culture, and magic and technology. If you add magic to a world, that should have logical impacts throughout society, down to shaping the lives of your characters. Writing a novel gives you a chance to get into much more detail with all these things than a shorter form allows. It’ll be fun!
Of course, excess exposition will be one thing to edit out later on – it’s okay to know more than you include.
One Step at a Time
A novel is a lot of words. A number like ‘90,000’ can be disconcerting. Set a non-scary target – mine was 500 words – and try to do that every day. If you can write 500 words, you can keep on doing that until it all adds up.
Some days will be easy, in which case it’s fine to keep going past the target. Others will be hard, in which case embrace the trash – bad writing is what editing’s for.
If a whole section is a struggle, keep at it. Forget about phrasing everything nicely, and be open to the characters veering off your plan. At some point you will know what’s going on again, and any tricky editing that needs doing is future-you’s problem.
Whenever you finish a day’s write, a chapter, a section, you’re achieving something. The end goal is the sum of all those steps along the way, so take heart in your progress.