Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 2: Finding Your Red, Yellow, And Blue


Goal setting

  1. Write a working synopsis.
  2. Create character thumbnails.
  3. Explore setting.

Breaking it down

What’s your Gatsby moment?

On the weekend, I watched Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby again. After watching it, I decided I had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel from start to finish in one setting. What struck me was that there are only a dozen or so key scenes in the book. From the awkward dinner in East Egg and the first fabulous party at Gatsby’s place, right through to the rainy cemetery scene in the last few pages, the author doesn’t create a single extraneous scene.

Yes, it’s a short novel, but it’s an unassailably complete novel, with complex characters and a deceptively simple plot. Now I don’t know if Fitzgerald worked from a synopsis or if the story sprung fully formed from his genius, but it proves that a strong plot, however simple, is
the spine of a novel. It took a lot of the fear out of plotting for me. (Of course, I understand I’ll never write a book as perfect as The Great Gatsby — but this year is all about letting go of perfection, isn’t it?)

In the past, I’ve made two mistakes when it comes to writing a synopsis. The first is to write the synopsis after the novel was complete and finding, with crushing humiliation, every gaping plot hole. And the second was writing the synopsis first. Writing it so rigidly and so
perfectly up front, that there was absolutely no room for plot or characters to breathe. This time round, I’ve decided to create a working synopsis. Not a pointillist portrait but a rudimentary pencil sketch. This synopsis, I should point out, is not the same as the synopsis you’ll write for an editor when you’re ready to submit your novel — it’s for your eyes only.

What do you want to tell yourself about your story? Take a deep breath. Write it down.

When I wrote my working synopsis, at white-hot speed, I was surprised at how much I got down. I already knew the inciting moment from Week 1 — and I went with my gut about what could happen after that. Yes, the middle is still a bit vague and messy, but at least the story is no longer nebulous. It has momentum. The best part is that I have some great options for how the story could end.  What does your synopsis look like?

Who’s your boy on the beach?

I’ve mentioned the mistakes I made when it comes to writing a synopsis. Another mistake I’ve made is around developing characters. Often I’d spend days — or weeks! — developing detailed character portraits only to find they don’t serve the plot.There’s a lot of debate around what comes first: plot or characters? There’s an argument that you can’t always separate the two and, to a degree, this is true.

Before you start fleshing out characters, it’s important to keep in mind that they have to play a part in the story and this is their primary function. At this early stage of the process, you really just need thumbnail descriptions for a handful of characters.I just concentrated on the main cast of characters — and these characters were suggested to me by the synopsis. In a rudimentary way, I’m just using them to drive the story forward as much as possible.  What I’ve done is create a paragraph or two on five characters — just jotting down whatever comes to mind about them. Yes, there are a few gaps in the characterisation but that’s fine too; a lot will change before I start writing in earnest.

Another favourite book I’m re-reading this week is The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. She got the idea for her famous anti-hero, Tom Ripley, while watching a lonely young man walking on a beach in Italy.The antagonist in my story came to me in a similar vague and insidious way.

A few months back, I was at a party and I noticed a young man with grey eyes, wearing a soft leather jacket, hanging back from the rest of the group. He didn’t say much and seemed isolated from the crowd. It was his mystery — real or imagined — that intrigued me. He’d been lurking in the corners of my imagination and, as soon as I started working on this book, he seemed the perfect choice of character to upset my main characters’ lives.  Who sparked the idea for a main character in your book?

Where will it all happen?

If plot and setting are the two fundamentals to your novel, then setting is definitely a third. Think of these three elements — plot, character, setting — as the primary colours on your palette. They’re all you really need to ‘paint’ your novel.

This week we need to think a little bit about setting. I know my novel will take place in Cape Town. It’s one of my favourite places to visit and, because I know the city reasonably well, it was easy to imagine it in my mind. I just jotted down some ideas for locations I could use in the
story and, again, the synopsis suggested them. No story happens in a vacuum.

Where would my characters live? Work? Play? What you could do, if you wanted, is collect pictures from magazines or start a new board on Pinterest. You could also think back on familiar places or interesting cities you’ve visited if you’re struggling to find an ideal setting. How important do you think setting is in a novel?

Timelock — 3-4 hours

This week, I spent the following time on the novel, but you can adjust depending on the type of novel you’re writing or its length:
  • Two hours for the synopsis
  • One hour for the character thumbnails
  • 30 minutes – one hour for setting

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Re-read a favourite novel and try to break down the plot into key scenes only.
  2. Use placeholder names for your characters if you haven’t decided on a name or simply identify them by their function — so maybe Scary Mother-in-Law, Gorgeous Businessman, and so on.
  3. For characters, focus on basic physical descriptions, a few lines on their occupation and background, and what drives them.
  4. A good idea is to ask: What secrets is this character keeping?
  5. Make a list of the places your character would hang out if he or she had a day off.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘You are much more likely to depict a character who is a recognisable human being, with his own individuality, if you have a living model. The imagination can create nothing out of the void.’  ~Somerset Maugham.

Look out for the third instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year next week.

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 1: Start Strong, Start Simple
  2. 3 Incredibly Powerful Ways Myths Inform Storytelling
  3. What Are The 4 Rs Of Speech Writing?

This article has 3 comments

  1. Anthony Ehlers

    Good luck with Week 2. Are we having fun yet?

  2. Matt

    Oh, The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of melodramatic American classic. It is a totality of stylistic devices. Personally, when I need a splash of inspiration, I like to read literary theory. Needless to say about main elements of drama written by Aristotle and Gerard Genette’s semiotic theory. Honestly, my heart belongs to complicated characters. When a plot unravels, thickens, quickens my heart starts to beat faster. But what have I noticed: unintentionally I started to imitate other authors. Too much reading – therein lies a problem (sounds ironic, doesn’t it?). Nothing would tempt me to copy the style of others authors, because I have an utopian dream to write a masterpiece. I like the quote: ‘’Imitation is the kiss of death’’. What do you think of it? Returning to the question about writing a novel in a year, I guess it is possible as we have a lot of incredible web trends for writers. To my mind, it is necessary to check your works with plagiarism checker, especially, if you are afraid of self-plagiarism or similarity. As early as my years in college, I have chosen Unplag https://unplag.com/ for scanning essays and articles. Also, to avoid stylistic howlers editing tools like Hemingway http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ are preferable to use. Do you have you own ultimate list of tools?

  3. Anthony Ehlers

    Thanks, Matt. I also like to brush up on literary theory or essays on the classics. Shakespeare is my favourite. I hear what you saying about being influenced stylistically by what you’re reading. We must always guard against that, I guess. I don’t have any web checkers, but it sounds like a good idea.

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