Thursday, February 2, 2012

A novel timeline

By Gayle Carline

When I tell some people I'm an author, their first response is, "You know, I'm going to write a book someday, when I've got the time."

Others actually think it's amazing that I told a story in so very many words and got it published.

So for those of you who are going to write a book someday when you have the time, and for the rest of you who wonder how we do it, here is the history of a novel:

The Idea. It strikes like lightning and it is brilliant. BRILL-ee-YANT. What if a man/woman/person is found behind/on top of/underneath a piano/antique store/museum display, having been killed with a baseball bat/cannon ball/pickle fork? But there's a twist - a twist only YOU can write.

The First Fifty Pages: You realize there is a degree of difficulty in your idea. The person you want to be the murderer is refusing to be portrayed as a prim, yet cold-hearted librarian. You know that you need to set up X here so that Y can happen in the last act, but nothing is cooperating and your plot is already trying to de-rail itself. Order must be restored for you to continue, so you stop writing long enough to research where exactly a pickle fork would have to be inserted to kill someone. You spend a few hours on Facebook and call it "re-grouping."

The Slide from the First Third to the Mid-Point: Order has not been restored, but you have accepted the new plot offered by your characters. (Secretly you plan to kill them all off and start with new characters on the next book.) Now the problem is, you're bored. Every sentence you type sounds like, "Blah blah blah, blahdy blah blah." Ennui makes you want to chuck the whole thing and start over, but giving up sounds cowardly. Your choice is to slog through the blah, in hopes of redemption during editing, or hit one of your characters with a heavy object. Hint: there is no wrong answer here.

The Mid-Point to the Second Third: The mid-section spike in action and revelations has you invigorated. You have a clear idea of where this story is going, but you need to be careful to lay out the clues in the right order. You begin to make lists of who has to find/say what. These lists begin to invade your other lists. (You DO make lists, right?) Suddenly you're in the grocery store trying to find a dry cleaning slip from 1994 in the bread aisle. It's not there.

The Last Third: This is the home stretch, and by that I mean it stretches infinitely. The action is there, the reveal is there, you've got all the characters in the room, and - the damn book won't end. You spend three weeks writing "the last 20,000 words" because it seems you're always about 20,000 words from finishing. Just keep writing.

The Wall: Suddenly you hit it - The End. All that's left is a little post-coital wrap-up. Do you end it upbeat and perky, with everyone standing around the water cooler, laughing? Do you give it a noir, downer, "forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown" ending? Again, no wrong answer here, unless your last line is, "Tomorrow is another day."

Et, voila! You are finished. Except for the months you'll spend editing, the months you'll spend waiting for an editor to edit, writing a great query letter that sells the concept, weeping for joy when you sell it for a big advance, weeping with sadness when you realize you hate the cover art and the title they gave it. After that comes promotions and marketing, and pretending you're still in love with your book, even though you're distracted by a new Idea (a brilliant one).

And that's all there is to it. Easy, right?


  1. The only thing you left out is the whiplash writers get from going back and forth between "I love this story" and "This is such crap."

    Thanks for a fun post.

  2. Yeah, LJ, I did leave that part out. I didn't want to discourange anyone.

  3. Great post, Gayle. You hit the nail on the head. It sure ain't easy. In the 1980s I edited and published a crime fiction review magazine. I was a member of the UK Crime Writers Association, through which I got to know, and occasionally work with, many well-known authors. If I could have harnessed their collective angst about the writing process, their agents, publishers and jacket designers the world's energy problem would have been solved.

  4. An entertaining read, Gayle! (Not so much if you're living it, though, right?)


  5. This post would be much funnier if I wasn't writing the last couple of scenes for my shitty first draft. Well, SUPPOSED to be writing the last couple of scenes for my shitty first draft.

    Which I'm hoping to tell you tomorrow is a fait accompli.

  6. Fun post Gayle! Great read.

    Some days I wish Facebook had limited business hours so I could work the rest of the time. It is so easy to go and "re-group".

  7. Having just finished my last novel and back to stage one on the next, this sounds uncomfortably familiar, except I think I have a bunch of sub-categories branching off from what you have here, then more sub-sub categories. In short, I'm all over the place most of the time. How I find my way out, I can't explain. But I always do.


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