Remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe jogs?
That’s how I used to write novels—disorganized, flailing, a little fear and a lotta hope. This has worked for me so far, I guess, but then I got tapped to teach an “After the Idea: How to Write a Novel” class for MWA-U, the Mystery Writers of America’s new writer’s education series. I couldn’t spend an hour telling people how to reinforce the seat of their pants, so I had to hunker down and develop a legitimate method.
And I did.
And it works. It works so well, that I finally understood why I couldn’t get past page 60 of the four mainstream lit novels sitting on my laptop, and I saw how I could give my mysteries the extra layer of of character complexity I’ve always felt they’ve lacked. Check out this graphic representation of my method, which I call the Pyramid on Point method, because it reminds me of a square on its side:
Here’s how it works. First, you write a one-sentence summary of your novel idea. This will come in handy when you’re marketing your manuscript or later, talking about it at conferences, but for now, the purpose is to coalesce your idea. Here’s the one-sentence summary for the November novel I’ll begin writing this winter: “A newly-minted Minnesota PI investigates a suspicious hunting accident, uncovering a brutal small-town secret.” Notice that specifics aren’t important—names, places. You’re just taking an aerial photo.
Next, expand that summary into a paragraph. This should take about an hour. Include the status quo state at the beginning of the novel, what obstacles the protagonist encounters, and how the novel ends. After you’ve got that summary, invite your characters. Get a notebook or open a document on your computer and create a page for every character who’ll appear in the book. Flesh out the basics, like age and appearance, but more importantly, spell out their goals and motivations, the conflicts they encounter and how they’ll grow from them, and their general storyline in this novel. The detail you add here is what will separate your novel from the pack by making it a character-driven story. Don’t be afraid to rewrite your one-sentence or one-paragraph summaries if your characters call on you to do so.
The next step is my favorite: physically sketch your setting(s). If your novel takes place mostly in a single town, draw a street and business layout. If it also spends a lot of time in a specific house or office, draw the floor plan. Also, keep on the lookout for photos online or in magazines that strike a chord with you. Print or cut them out and glue them into a notebook (where you may already have your character bible). When you get writer’s block later, looking at and writing about these photos will push you over the hump. Just don’t spend too much time at this step or you’ll go from writer to scrapbooker.
Next, expand each sentence on your one-paragraph summary to a full page. Include lots of sensory detail, especially smell, touch, and sound. These make your writing cinematic. After this, roughly outline your plot. I don’t believe in detailed outlines, which take the surprise and so the fun out of writing. Simply create a post-it note for each character conflict you’ve come up with (you’ll find these in step 3), with the character name at the top of each post-it, and rearrange these so they happen in a logical order. These conflicts are the nails on which you string your story.
Finally, write the dang novel. This is the thrilling part. You’ve done the difficult work of creating the structure, and it’s time to sit back and take dictation from the Muses. When you get stuck, recharge with your pyramid. Voila! I hope this method brings joy, structure, and depth to your writing like it did to mine. And please, add to my stone soup. What writing tips/method have worked well for you?
p.s. If you’re describing this method to your friends, don’t take the natural step of making an upside-down pyramid shape with your hands. I did this (frequently, and at waist level) during my presentation, and it turns out it means something entirely different in sign language, and it ain’t “pie.”