Edith Wharton described writing a novel thus: "The beginning—a ride through spring woods. The middle—the Gobi desert. The end—a night with a lover."
Right on, Edith. I've been on the desert a while on this one. I'm writing it without an outline. My advice is that if you're writing a novel, use an outline.
I used to myself, when I was younger and smarter. When I first started writing novels, I was doing legal thrillers. I wrote fifteen of them, all published under the name of Robert K. Tanenbaum (A long story. Those interested can check out http://www.sanfranmag.com/story/case-missing-ghost) and the thing about legal thrillers is that you sort of have the basic story delivered to you, or at least the bare bones of it. There's a crime, and a bad guy, and the intrepid lawyer or DA makes sure that the bad guy goes to jail. The reality, of course, is that "legal thriller" is an oxymoron. The actual course of processing a criminal from arrest to verdict is typically long and extremely tedious; thrills are few. To make a novel out of such material the writers has therefore to create a real plot. The plot is what makes the story matter. The plot of Crime and Punishment , for example, is not the story of some dumb kid who committed murder and robbery and got caught, but the development of Raskolnikov's character, and how he evolves from frantic nihilism to awareness, remorse and redemption.
The way to make a dull legal story interesting is by adding moral complexity. The guy the cops caught didn't do it, and the hero has to figure this out. The hero has a boss who's corrupt, and the hero has to foil his wicked schemes. The hero has rivals who want to do him in. The hero is tempted to fudge in order to get a conviction—will he succumb? On occasion I threw in some preposterous violence--criminal elements try to get rid of the hero, and so on, or focused on cop stuff, guns and explosions. I watch TV too; such nonsense is expected in popular genres, like a glass of water in a restaurant.
I also introduced a major subplot—the hero's wife works as a private investigator, and the hero has to deal with her quasi-legal schemes—and built that part into a long-running domestic comedy, the various discontents of marriage, the couple have kids, the kids get into trouble, and so on. This is rarely done in crime genre, because the tradition is to have the hero a lone wolf, or she-wolf, so there can be romantic liaisons, always a cheap way to generate thrills.
In any case, the plots I used were complex, and after I had the central criminal justice story laid out, I spent a lot of time thinking through how the various plots and subplots were going to unroll and what was going to happen to the half dozen major characters and the fifteen or twenty minor characters as the novel progressed. I wrote out a five-page single spaced synopsis based on this thinking, and after that I did a chapter by chapter outline, describing what was going to happen in every scene. The good thing about this technique is that if you want something to happen in chapter 14 that needs to be set up in chapters 4 and 8, then you're sure that all the threads are in place. It's remarkably the case, however, that if you create living characters they will "want" to do something other than what you've planned out for them, so, within limits, you have to make your plotting somewhat flexible, and here you often get the liveliest and most thrilling events. If the author didn't know what was going to happen, odds on the reader won't either.
I retained this method of close plotting and outlining for the first four books I wrote under my own name. As a result, they got printed with only light editing. The structure and flow of the published book were exactly as in the first draft. This had also been the case with the legal thrillers, so I happily assumed that I would always breeze through the editing process. On the next book, however, (Forgery of Venus) I didn't do that. I just wrote a scene that was based on something that actually happened to me in my youth, and then another scene and another. The result was a disaster that took six months to repair. I'd actually written two separate novels that didn't mesh together and were each weak and incomplete. And then I did exactly the same thing on The Good Son.
I'd really like to know what's going on. I'd like to know why I changed a process that produced perfectly acceptable novels and started to use one that required heavy editing and lots more work. If I figure it out I'll let you know, probably after the night with a lover part.
Next: ideas in novels