Writing a Novel: a drama told in three acts, with a prologue and epilogue

Prologue:
Eureka moment, inspiration strikes. A new idea! Great excitement. Connections made in head, some scribbling in notebook. Floaty yet intense feeling, like being in love. Can’t think of anything else. Tingles up spine, gooseflesh, daydreams as the idea grows from little spark to fast-burning fire. Weird looks from people as novelist goes about muttering, laughing to herself on occasion.

Act 1, scene 1:
The big day has come. Screen opens on new document. Excited writing of title of book. Hey, it looks serious now, gone from bright idea to reality being born on the page, with its own name and all! Take a deep breath. Insert page break. Write ‘Chapter one.’ So much fizzing inside, it’s going to be easy. Write first line. Look at it. No. It’s no good. Delete. Write first line. Look at it. No. It’s no good. Delete. Write first line again. Aagh. No good. Delete. Try again. Panic. It can’t be done! Then remember old trick from childhood–pretend you’re Sheherazade and your life depends on telling a story straight off, without even thinking. Anything will do. And oddly, there it is, the first line, born with a rush and a yell, and from there on, the first chapter catches fire.

Act One, Scene 2:
First few chapters down. All flowing well. Characters doing what they’re meant to.  Novelist feeling on top of the world. This one’s so easy!

Lulled into a sense of false security..

Act 1 Scene 3:
About to reach the middle. Everything still going well, but is there a slight slow-down? Are the characters showing the first signs of rebellion, the prose beginning to lose its puff? Ignore all that. That happened last time. But nah, no way, it won’t happen this time. This one’s different.

Act 2 Scene I:
Disaster! You’ve hit a big patch of story swamp and there’s no way around it, you have to go through it to get to those smiling downs on the other side where everything will work. You grit your teeth and set of across the story-swamp. And then–fog rolls in, the plot vanishes from sight, characters scatter in all directions..and you’re stuck in the middle of the swamp and can’t go forwards or backwards. What to do?

Act 2 scene 2 :
Stuck in the mud and fog of the middle. Use any distraction to get mind off it. Hello Facebook. Twitter. Pointless surfing of any link that comes to hand, think of bidding on some useless thing on Ebay, watch endless You Tube clips. Get sick of the computer with its mocking opened screen and cursor flashing at an unfinished sentence like some will o the wisp in the swamp. Ring someone. Cook something. Even think in despair of cleaning the house. (Only think of it mind you.)

Act 2 Scene 3:
Imagination’s seven-league boots still heavy with middle-mud but now can suddenly see the way through. Happened without being aware of it, connections made sparked off by a random remark, a stray thought, a wisp of dream. At some deep level the brain had been working on it and that whole stuck-in-the-mud thing was a necessary part of taking stock and letting things run their natural course. Words flowing more freely now again, mud’s drying up, falling away, and as you leave the swamp and strike out into the rolling hills beyond, you’re energised again by the thought you actually do know your way through this country.

Act 3 scene 1 :
Heading into the lovely fertile country of the last part of the book. Everything seems to be falling into place. Getting even more exciting. The swamp is a distant memory. Swamp? What swamp?

Act 3 scene 2:
Having the best fun ever. Subplots to the left of me, sub-plots to the right, but no confusion, all the strands plaiting neatly into the glittering weave of the plot, the characters seem to be enjoying themselves every bit as much as their creator!

Act 3 scene 3:
The home stretch. Feels like mastering a fast four-in-hand, everything galloping satisfyingly to a close, all the elements working together, the finish post coming into view–and you’ve done it! You’ve done it!

Epilogue:
Manuscript’s been emailed off to editor, who loves it. Champagne all round. I’m filled with a spine-tingling euphoria that makes me forget all the panic in the badlands of the middle. There’s the editing to go of course but that’s a whole other story. Right now, the play’s over, to thunderous applause.

But hey—guess what–I just got this brilliant idea..

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    Sophie, thanks for an interesting breakdown of what goes on in a writer’s head during the construction of the first draft. You nailed it. The rough patch for writers usually occurs around the end of Act One or the beginning of Act Two. As a pantser I work with a minimal outline. I get hung up when I cannot figure out a way to get from one major plot point to another. When I hit my stride, however, I find the story almost writes itself and that is a beautiful feeling. Thanks, Sophie, for a terrific post.

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  2. L.M. Sherwin says

    Hah, this looks familiar! What a delightful rendition of what most writers go through with each story they birth. I was especially struck by the “swampy middle”. I tend to get stuck in that mire quite a lot, actually. Still, things tend to turn into rainbows and sunshine by the finale.

    Happy writing, everyone.

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  3. says

    I. Love. This. Post. So. Much!

    and this line I read three times just because I liked it a lot: “the first line, born with a rush and a yell, and from there on, the first chapter catches fire”

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  4. says

    It’s nice to hear the panic in someone else’s head for once! The first book I wrote was 70% swamp…I’m hoping my second attempt will be more tropical island (will settle for Boston in February..)

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  5. says

    What a nice Epilogue. So short. So smooth. No waiting. No angry calls to an agent, “It’s been two months and I haven’t heard back from my editor!”

    No feeling you’ve sent your manuscript into a void? No fuming, feeling misunderstood, wondering how one’s supposed to allocate one’s time in this stupid industry, doesn’t anyone understand?

    No twelve page long revision letter? No desperate twelve hour days trying to do revisions in the impossibly short time available? And, are you kidding, the art department needs a synopsis for the artist?

    No sinking feeling that all this would be easier if you had left more time for a few extra drafts?

    No panic when, a week before revisions are due back, you take a Donald Maass workshop that you paid for months ago and discover that there are twenty-three major improvements you could make–but it’s due in a week!

    No desperation for the acceptance advance? No dismay over the initial cover rough? No cover copy written by an assistant who obviously hasn’t read the novel?

    No copy-edited manuscript or page proofs arrriving on the day you’re getting on a plane for a week in Cancun? No wondering if you should pay for online marketing? No suicidal thoughts when you hear that your critique partner just got a film deal?

    Wow, why doesn’t everyone write novels?

    The beautiful part of it is your last line. After all that…bing. Another great story idea hits. And here we go again. God bless novelists. You folks are heroes. Thanks for slogging through the swamp, Sophie, and reminding us that the journey is worth it in the end.

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    • Mary Incontro says

      See, I get all that Donald Maass-generated angst. Why can’t I be more like Sophie?

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  6. says

    Ah, Sophie, what a delightful piece. Love your writing. And you’ve captured so much of the feeling. I think your recognition of the stuck-in-the-muddle phase and its eventual outcome–meaning coming out of it–are a good reminder that we need to trust our inner instincts at times. Thanks.

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  7. says

    I love this post, Sophie. It shows the importance of retaining one’s sense of humor (and perspective) while running barefoot through clover or slogging through the swamp.

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  8. says

    I loved the post, Sophie. I think you nailed it, too. Then I read Donald’s reality sandwich of a comment about the epilogue. I’ve never been through that phase, so I paid heed. But even his take had an uplifting ending. For me this gig has been a wild ride so far. Thanks to both author and commenters for a gimpse at the ride ahead.

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  9. says

    This makes it sound so easy! My own process is a lot more like “delete, re-write, delete, re-write, delete, rewrite….” Forever! I guess that’s why I’ve only written one book. :-)

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  10. says

    I’m in the story swamp and it is woe! It’s a bit daunting to realize that there’s a whole lot of muck to trudge through before the going gets smoother, but encouraging to know that it does, at some point, actually get smoother again.

    Thanks for this.

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  11. franb says

    Your timing could not have been better. I am stuck in the muck of my first novel as we speak and your post was a distraction! I am feeling so disheartened by this stage, as if I’ve lost all sense of why I started my story in the first place. I’m still stuck but it’s nice to know it’s part of a writer’s process. Thank you!

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  12. says

    I really liked the first and third acts. The second act was touchy but full of conflict and evoked some nasty emotions in me. I can’t help but notice you left it open for a sequel? Sequels are tough.

    Fun post!

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  13. says

    Now I get why the 3-act format is so popular. My process features a 4th act in which after Act 2 I revisit Act 1 and re-experience all those doubts. Not much fun in life and would suck in fiction. Got to try to learn how to skip it! This was a fun read. Thanks for sharing!

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  14. Sophie Masson says

    thanks everyone! glad it struck a chord with you all. And yes, I think I need to do a sequel: What Happens After! Next month, maybe..But this was just up to the moment you write the last word of the ms. After that, it’s a whole other story, and a total rollercoaster ride too as Donald so vividly describes!

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  15. says

    “At some deep level the brain had been working on it and that whole stuck-in-the-mud thing was a necessary part of taking stock and letting things run their natural course.”

    Yes. That.

    Love this post – so many smiles – and love Donald Maass’s comment too. Don’t know if we’re heroes or mental cases. ;P

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  16. says

    This speaks loudly to me – I am stuck in the swamp at the moment – yet hope springs eternal, so I must slog it out! Thanks for a great post!!

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  17. Allison says

    Wow, Sophie + Donald = enlightened awesomeness
    . . . brain’s too fried to even form complete sentences!

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  18. Nina says

    This is so great! Laughed out loud many times. I think I’m just reaching the edge of the swamp now – dammit! Will not be sucked into its evil mud-like clutches!

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  19. says

    Sophie, Ha! You captured the wild exhilaration for sure! My favorite line is just post-swamp: “all strands plaiting neatly into the glittering weave of the plot.” What is it that they say? Order out of chaos? Fun post, Merci!

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  20. says

    As someone writing my first novel, this was spot on, especially the parts about 1) the euphoria at the beginning feels like being in love and 2) feeling as though cleaning the house is a better alternative than facing the novel’s challenges (though not quite acting on that feeling). Wonderfully written. Thank you! I’ve shared it with my circles.

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