Tweet chat 5th March 2021 Starting to write a new novel

Participants: Anita Belli, Kathleen Marple Kalb, Gerald Hornsby, Matia Johnson, Sandy Stuckless, Mordecai Martin, Bradley Galimore, Rik Lonsdale, Crispina Kemp, Mark Binmore, Deborah Klée


I am Anita. I am currently writing my 6th novel. I write across genres; historical and contemporary romance.

My name’s Gerald. I have just today sent my latest off to my Beta reader. I’ve picked up the notes from my next novel, and I’m about to embark.

I’m Maria based in NW England. In Jan I started what I hope will be the 4th novel in my #histfic series. I’m also starting to think about #CampNaNoWriMo, thinking of rewriting an older project but still toying with a new idea I have too.

I’m Sandy and I haven’t started one in a while, but I already have so many on the go that I need to finish them first. Currently, I’m polishing one for submission, doing a major revision on a second, and have about 4 in various states of quality waiting in the wings to be picked up. 

Deborah: I think that it is a good approach to have novels at different stages of development to work on. It gives them time to breathe

I’m Kathleen Marple Kalb. I write historical and contemporary mysteries. I’m (sort of) between projects at the moment, so I’m noodling about the next thing.

I’m Mordecai, and I have these beginnings sitting around my file drive, and every now and then I take them out, I tinker with them, get overwhelmed and then put them back.

Rik and I’m over halfway through the first rewrite of a novel

Where do you get your ideas and how do you decide if an idea has legs?

Gerald: From everywhere, really. The news. Local newspapers are good for human interest stories which can be developed. Films and books that don’t go in the direction I think they could. People I meet and see.

Kathleen: I agree with Gerald, ideas can come from anywhere. Most of the time I just sit down and start writing to see if it feels right for me and if it’s something I want to do.

Maria: This is my process for new ideas too 

Gerald: Yay! Even if something doesn’t work now, it can be put away for the future. I keep thinking back to previous part-projects. I have one I want to write, but there isn’t *enough* there yet. And I’ve found a cover, too! 

Kathleen: I usually get the first and last scenes, and then work toward the middle. If I don’t like hanging out with the characters, or don’t feel comfortable with the story, I usually know in a day or two. For me, it’s worth it because I learn something I may use later.

Deborah: How far would you go with just writing in that way? It seems brave but very creative.

Kathleen: I usually get the first and last scenes, and then work toward the middle. If I don’t like hanging out with the characters, or don’t feel comfortable with the story, I usually know in a day or two. For me, it’s worth it because I learn something I may use later.

Anita: or if it buries its head in the sand? My ideas are nearly always octopuses (octopi?) and have far too many legs. The process I go through is to hone an idea down to its core thread and tell that story.

Deborah: With lots of legs I guess you might have a series!

Maria: This usually happens with me during the plotting process, I get a feel for whether the story idea will work. I guess this is where writing a series can make it easier as a lot of the foundation is already laid in terms of worldbuilding and creating characters etc.

Kathleen: Yes! I write series mysteries, and much of the fun is taking my existing characters and doing new things with them.

Maria: agreed! I’m loving your MC Ella so much by the way! Her wit is just brilliant. She had a particular line about Americans not being able to threat with polite phrases like the British can – one of my favourite paragraphs!

Anita: I am currently writing the second of what I hope will be a series but finding it much harder than I thought I would. My main character is in place, but I want to take her to the next level and make this story unique.

Maria: Yes, the balance of making the sequels different from earlier novels is tough. Also, the balance of being accessible to new readers but also not having to recap/give context every few sentences. Also my character list is getting so huge now that I’m on the 4th

Deborah: I only work up the ideas that refuse to go away. I live with them for months or years before they start to fully form

Sandy: A lot of my ideas come from images I encounter, whether on TV or online. Others come from a phrase or word I hear. If it nags me enough that I want to brainstorm or freewrite it a little, it has legs. Sometimes, I’ll combine it with something I’ve already started.

Deborah: I am a great one for combining different ideas that might at first seem to have nothing to link them. It helps inspire an original story

Mordecai: In general or for novels? In general, there’s a million places to find ideas. A central image that needs explaining, a relationship that needs exploring. For the 2 novels I’m starting, they started as short story ideas that couldn’t be contained.

Gerald: In general, or for novels? In general, there’s a million places to find ideas. A central image that needs explaining, a relationship that needs exploring. For the 2 novels I’m starting, they started as short story ideas that couldn’t be contained.

Sandy: One of my ideas came from two words I heard on TV one night. ‘Quake Hunters’ and it spawned a whole idea about dimension-hopping warriors trying to save the universe. Sometimes, it doesn’t take more than a word or two to turn a spark into an inferno.

Deborah: One of my ideas came from two words I heard on TV one night. ‘Quake Hunters’ and it spawned a whole idea about dimension-hopping warriors trying to save the universe. Sometimes, it doesn’t take more than a word or two to turn a spark into an inferno.

Sandy: Quite possibly. The other thing I find too is that sometimes I’ll see the same things multiple times and get nothing from it, then out of nowhere, it’ll trigger something. I think timing plays a huge part in idea generation.

Deborah: I agree. Sometimes you just have to be patient and allow it to develop in your head even if you can’t see it happening.

Bradley: I look for synchronicity in my daily life. If the random things I experience have something in common other than just being things I experience, then I research further. Kind of like when two friends recommend the same song on the same day. I should consider why.

What comes first, setting, character, premise, era? What are the initial steps that you take to work an idea up into something that you can start to plan?

Mordecai: Setting came first this time, but I’m open to other approaches. Normally, in my work, I need voice to come first, or else I don’t know what words to write

Sandy: I almost always have the premise/scenario first. One of my novel ideas came from the saying ‘There’s an app for that’. A cellphone app for downloading magic spells. No character, no setting, no conflict. Just the idea that I wanted a cellphone app that peforms magic.

Anita: Usually character and setting; they go together in my head. Era is dependent on the story and for the historical, this comes first. I wrote about Arts Forgery in WW11 and then about the Spanish Civil war so the settings and era were the drivers.

Kathleen: It’s always character first for me. Who is the MC and where does she come from? Who are her friends and family, and what’s interesting about them?

Sandy: My initial steps usually involve asking a lot of questions: ‘What happens if…’ ‘Why does this…’ ‘Who does this affect?’ ‘What do they have to gain from it?’ Those sorts of things.

Anita: To work it up into an idea, I need a story and character is always my driver of story

Gerald: Good question! My era is always present day / near future, in a recognisable real world. Most of my long fiction is based on seaside towns. I think character and premise are closely linked, in my stories. Premise comes slightly earlier, then I work up my characters.

Deborah: The setting is always important to me as so far it has inspired the story. The novel I am excited to write and haven’t started was inspired by one image which doesn’t come until the end of the book.

Bradley: For each project it’s different. For each chapter it’s different. However, one of three things come first, a color, a name or a number. I then combine that with all the things that are synchronized to that period of my life to understand the story being told.

Maria: For my historical fiction series it’s the character. I’ve had my MC Daniel in my head since I was 7. Started scribbling bits about him as a teenager when I realised the story had never left me. Now I’ve shifted with my 4th to tell the story of another MC, Imogen.

Deborah: The era must have been equally important for that series?

Maria: Yes the era is very important, but that came 2nd. First was the character of Daniel and basic plot, then it was about working out which era of history fit him the best. Ended up going with post Roman Celtic/early medieval period. Then for my fantasy novel it was a bit different. Had the premise first of a girl called Lottie who has a locket that transports her to another world, then the story/plot etc flowed out from that.

How and when do you do your research? Tell us about the research you did before starting your current WIP.

Sandy: Research for me is like taxes. I always wait until the last possible minute to do it. I tend to do a lot of exploratory writing early on. I usually don’t know what I need to research until after I’ve written a bit and have seen where I need the story to go. 

Anita: For the current WIP: my research is from my own life. I was The Mother of The Bride a couple of years ago and I am writing a RomCom about that. Spanish Civil War and WW11 Arts Forger are a very different process which is why I haven’t got round to sequels yet!

Deborah: Did you take notes of just mentally absorb when you experienced being mother of the bride?

Anita: I absorbed mentally, physically, emotionally; it was in my head day and night. I read Wedding Babylon at my daughter’s suggestion; nothing could ever be as bad as that! Great fun though and I learned a lot about the wedding industry, which has very little to do with ‘love’ in my humble opinion.

Mordecia: Research is the stage that makes me realize I have something more than a short story here, it’s where I get intimidated and slow down.

KathleenI’ve always been fascinated by the Victorian Era, so I already knew a lot of the background…but I spend a lot of time nailing down details. Even little things can pull a reader out of the period, so everything really does matter.

Mordecai: So far, just a big google doc with drafts, links to research, excerpts . . . it’s basically a mess. I want to start taking courses on how to structure and plan a novel.

Sandy: Can I suggest a couple of websites for you to check out: (Fiction University) Both have A TON of info on novel structuring and planning.

Deborah: @AuthorGerald has written a user-friendly guide explaining the different approaches which is really helpful Story Design

Sandy: Two words: ‘Story Bible’ Everything from character notes, setting details, plot points, worldbuilding, magic system, etc. goes in there.

Deborah: How do you record your story bible? On your PC – spreadsheet, a notebook?

Sandy: It’s usually a separate Word file that I keep in the novel folder. I also like to keep a hard copy that I can quickly flip through if I need to look something up. 

Bradley: #LENNY S2 required a lot of consideration about alternate realities and consideration about variations in linguistics. Those variations create opposite perspectives. I used that information through writing it.

Kathleen: A lot of my research is online. But I also rely on my local library…and walking the NYC neighborhood where the series is set, which gives me that ground-level sense of place.

How do you record your story bible? On your PC – spreadsheet, a notebook?

Rik: Whiteboard, post-its, notebook(dedicated to the novel) Scrivener

Maria: A lot of my plotting/research goes into my trusty notebook. I also have a number of websites and historical blogs that I keep track of as they are really helpful. I have Word docs for plotting/research too for my novels so I record websites and research notes here too.

Deborah: Do you start a fresh notebook for each new novel?

Anita: I do now because I could never find notes if they were mixed in with everything else, and there is no shortage of notebooks in my life!

Maria: I am just starting to have this happen One notebook for stuff at a time is still kinda working but thinking when it’s time for a new notebook I might go more organized. Maybe even some kind of bullet journal or binder or something. Ther

Anita: This is a really tricky Q and I always plan to do it better. Word docs are the main tool I use, all in a folder. And a notebook. Each project gets its own, very special notebook! I do a spreadsheet for the timeline. That’s about it. I LOVE a role of paper! Great for working out ideas.

Rik: I’ve found timelines can be a problem, but ironed in in the rewrite.

Bradley: In all honesty, All in my head. I have a shorthand cognitive process I’ve created that allows me to use a small piece of information to follow my train of thought through larger amounts of information. 

Gerald: I have a process. Apart from the first thought processes, and printouts which are disposable, everything is in files in a folder on my laptop. Each novel has its own folder, for notes, drafts, planning, mss, cover designs, and even marketing texts and adverts

Kathleen: I keep notes and websites in my computer files, and when I buy books for research, I have those too.

How much do you plan before starting to write Chapter One?

Sandy: Very, very little. And there’s no guarantee I’m starting with chapter one. Like I said earlier, I tend to freewrite at the start of an idea to get a feel for it and where it wants to go. Oftentimes, that’s right in the middle of a major conflict I want to feature. 

Kathleen: In this one area, I am a total pantser. When I have a new idea, I sit down and start writing it. Once I know it’s something I want to pursue, I can do all of the other work. But I have to know if I like the characters and story first.

Maria: Oh wow! That’s amazing. How do you work out being a pantser when you write but also needing to plan your research of the era etc?

Kathleen: The research comes very soon after, but if I can’t feel the characters in that first scene, there’s no point in going forward.

Maria: Similar to me actually! It’s about character and story, then the historical period that fit my MC best. Difference is as a plotter I’ve done a lot of the research before I write, but the character is in my head first

Deborah: Do you go back to those abandoned ideas at another time Kathleen?

Kathleen: Sometimes. I had an MC in entirely the wrong story who became the center of a contemporary project that really worked. That was kind of cool, because I liked her a lot, but the story around her was a mess

Deborah: I write a synopsis and 10 key scenes but that comes after I have worked up my idea and before I start to write.

Rik: I bet you have to rewrite the synopsis afterwards

Deborah: Sometimes. In fact, yes. I admit I do!

Anita: I now plan. I didn’t used to. I did far more work than I needed to and rewrote many times. Loads of good scenes were cut. Now, I plan. But then I change the plan as I write in response to the writing. But the basics are in place

Rik: I think there is always room for some change, as long as the structure stays intact.

Deborah: I have an outline of the story which I stick to but I find the magic happens as I write and brings an idea to life.

Sandy: I’m a little different in that my outlines are usually just ‘roadmaps’ that allow for detours and new destinations. It’s a living document that changes constantly as I write and figure more things out

Deborah: I always allow for detours. It makes the process more exciting and the ideas that come when you are writing are often better than the ones you started with.

Rik: I know what you mean but don’t necessarily agree. For me the detours are more about discovering the character’s nuances and exhibiting them, rather than a change to the story line.

Maria: A lot. I’m a plotter, so I’ve got a fairly full outline before and several early scenes jotted in my notebook before I open a new document in Word. I’m flexible to new ideas as well. Most times I realise I could have plotted more when I get stuck in the murky middle

Gerald: Sometimes very little. As I said, I like to feel my way in. Often, I will have a striking image for the opening scene. But after than, everything gets planned in detail before I write any more words into the manuscript.

Deborah: If I planned every chapter and went into the detail that some writing experts suggest I would lose interest in the story by the time I came to write it. I don’t mind reworking a story after a structural edit.

Anita: this is a risk, @DeborahKlee. Working out how much planning to do for your own way of writing is the answer. It will be different for everyone and I try to avoid too much re-writing of the story in the structural edit. That’s where I risk losing interest!

Gerald: I find the processes of writing and planning both creative, but in different ways. In planning, I create the story. The arcs, the plot points. In writing, I create the manuscript which tells that story. A different type of creativity, but no less enjoyable.

Rik: But which is hardest to do?

Gerald: EDITING! Seriously, I love the story creation phase. I love the manuscript creation phase, but I find it harder work. I have a love/hate relationship with editing. Mostly hate.

Maria: Totally agree and this is an awesome way of putting it!

Rik: Editing is like taking your finest, OOO sandpaper over the already planed and smooth timber. Utterly unseen by the average reader and glaringly obvious to ‘industry’ professionals, particularly in its absence.

Kathleen: I actually really love working with a good editor who “gets” me. The process isn’t easy, but I love making the work better.

Gerald: TBH, I do too. I like finding the little bits of clumsy writing and clunky action. And I love it when my Beta finds something which allows me to improve it and fix things. But I do find editing the most difficult part, and the least creative. Hey ho!

What is the next novel you plan to write? How do you feel when starting a new project?

Sandy: The next two up on the docket are my King Arthur piece and a Fountain of Youth piece that need some serious editing. 

Sandy: I don’t think I’ll be starting anything new for quite a while. Like I said earlier, I have so many other projects that need attention. I’ll probably pick up one of those. Also have a couple novellas that I need to finish off

Anita: I have a choice: continue serial (Ruby Sixpence) write a standalone romcom or another historical. Each one would complete a trilogy. Feeling excited!

Gerald: The next novel is the third in my “Jerry Sanders Investigations” series. I’m excited to begin planning properly. I have my A3 sheet, and a 3,000 word 3-4 act breakdown. Next stage is Save The Cat!

Maria: I recently started the 4th in my series and it’s been great starting the plotting and research process again. This month I’ll be prepping to rewrite a project I wrote last year – changing quite a lot of the plot etc so looking forward to planning that for Camp nano.

Rik: Depends. If this current one looks okay, there’s the potential of a sequel. If not I have an ouline plot for a Mystery.

Deborah: My next novel has been taking shape in my head for a couple of years. I have a notebook and research links. I am excited but have such great expectations on how good this story could be I want to do it justice

Mark: There’s still magic about sitting at a desk, a computer, blank screen and finding that sort of euphoria and excitement of starting something new. And at the end, there’s more magic to realising there’s nothing more you can add to something, it’s finished, done. Fullstop

Bradley: I’ll only write another novel if another novel feels I’m supposed to write it. I’m in the writing phase of #LENNY Season 3 and it feels amazing. The work and approach is fresh even for me/my style. 

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