Writing The First Draft Of A Novel Using Questions And Modelling

Those of you doing NaNoWriMo will be (hopefully) wrapping up your word count soon.

Joanna Penn at Royal College

Researching at the Hunterian Museum, London

Whether you have made the 50,000 or not, it doesn’t matter, as long as there has been some focused writing this month! And, there’s still time.

For anybody else wanting to write fiction, this might help you with the dreaded first draft (which for me, is definitely the hardest part).

Trying something new …

I have made life difficult for myself, because I decided as my NaNo project to write a story that has been on my mind for a while, or at least some of the settings, characters and themes have.

But I only had one day, Oct 31st to do some rough plotting and to be honest, I didn’t get too far. I had an opening scene and that was about it. No character sketches, no plot layout. [Note: This is NOT the best way to do NaNoWriMo!]

I also decided to write a crime novel with thriller elements, rather than a straight thriller, so it’s a new genre with new rules. (Whatever you think about rules, readers in a genre expect certain things and we have to deliver on that promise).

What’s the difference between thrillers and crime, I hear you ask!

The main difference for me is that in thrillers you know who the bad guy is and the good guys have to stop him/her destroying the world in a race against time, or something along those lines. But basically, you know who the antagonist is and you write scenes with them in and even from their POV throughout the book. Lots of mini-crimes go on during the book but the big explosive threat is what must be stopped.

In a crime novel, you open with the body and then you have to work out who the killer is, so the crime has been committed and it’s a hunt for the killer. The skill is to keep the audience from guessing ‘whodunit’, but not to make it so obscure you annoy them at the end. So they are quite different, although the genres are put together on Amazon as a macro-category.

crime sceneI’m trying to blend the two with the classic crime structure but I also want a bigger thriller plot behind it, and definitely thriller pacing. I also need to keep the promise to my reader with my brand “Ancient mystery, modern thrill” and include detailed history and setting which my readers enjoy.

So on about Day 5 of NaNoWriMo I wrote this to guide me …

Draft back blurb

When the body of a young heiress is found dissected at the Hunterian Museum within the Royal College of Surgeons, London, Detective Inspector Jamie Brooke is in a race against time to find the killer. An ancient ivory figurine found inside the body is the only lead and she enlists Blake Daniel, a reluctant clairvoyant, to help her discover the meaning behind the figurine and the message it holds.

As Jamie and Blake delve into an increasingly macabre world of body snatching, dissection and the genetic engineering of monsters, they must fight to keep their sanity, and their lives.

What are the questions this raises in your mind?

From the back blurb, a whole load of questions are raised, and since I hadn’t written much of the book at the time of writing, answering the questions is a good place to start.

  • Who is the victim and what is she an heiress to?
  • What is the significance of the Hunterian museum?
  • What is the ancient figurine? What is the meaning behind it and how is it linked to the killer?
  • Who is the killer?
  • Why did they do it and what does the killer want?
  • Why is this a race against time?
  • Who is Jamie Brooke?
  • Who is Blake Daniel?
  • Why is he a ‘reluctant’ clairvoyant?
  • Who are the other characters in the book? What are their motives for murder?
  • What are the stakes of the book?
  • What are the themes of the book?

From those questions, a whole lot more emerge and you can start writing the answers in scenes. For example, in deciding on the other characters/suspects, I can then write scenes with the Detective interviewing them and as I free-write on those, more questions will come to light.

This great episode on plotting from the SelfPublishingPodcast guys also talks about the questions you can use as the basis to plotting.

So this is something you can try if you’re struggling with your NaNo book.

Deconstructing and modeling

I find the above is enough to get to about 20,000 words (if you’re mostly a pantser at least), but especially with a new genre, you need to work out how the plot is supposed to work. I love intricate and clever plotting, so this is important to me. Those of you who prefer character driven plots might not be so interested in this!

When I learned to write a thriller, I deconstructed bestselling books, working out the structure by which they worked in terms of scene length, pacing, setting, character development POV etc.

castle and bonesI read a lot of modern crime, but to go back to basics I started re-reading some Agatha Christie novels, but quickly realized that although the books are great, today’s audiences expect fast moving crime, like the TV shows.

So I watched a couple of episodes of popular crime shows Castle and Bones, both open with a body, then spend the episode trying to solve the crime. I particularly like Castle as it is less police procedural and forensics based. Invariably, you can’t guess the murderer until near the end, regardless of whether you know the ‘formula’ because they drip feed the clues. Both shows have a male and female relationship at the center as primary characters.

Deconstructing those shows was brilliant, as I learned how each clue set up a different suspect and then new information led onto someone else. Once I knew how it worked, it was much easier to do with my own book.

At that point, I was able to really plot out the novel and get the hang of how the scenes should be structured, and whose POV I should use. These tips enabled me to at least get a good chunk of the novel sorted in my head, and a lot of it onto the page.

What other recommendations do you have in terms of techniques for writing the first draft?

Please do leave a comment below (and tell me how your NaNo project is going as well.)

Image: Crime scene from BigStockPhoto.com

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. says

    I love Castle and Bones, specifically for the mix of humour that counterpoints the serious crimes they are trying to solve.

    Currently, my strategy is to create as much of what I know of the scenes and lay them out. I’m pretty bare bones about it (no pun intended). I just use a statement of what I’m going for, 1 for each scene – “So and So head home, discovering symbol on item”. But in the preamble to NaNo and the 3DNC I spend time getting to know the characters. Who are they? What do they want?

    So I guess my strategy is part outline and part muse. And the reason I outline is the same reason I meticulously plan trips – when something happens that changes everything around, I have a clear idea of what to let go of and what to keep.

    • says

      Thanks Heather, I am definitely focusing on plotting more and doing character sketches etc BEFORE I write next year, but still allow room to “make stuff up” as I go along.
      I think it’s great to learn from popular TV shows, as they hold an audience’s attention and twist & turn, they have a formula but they are creative within that.

  2. says

    Hi Joanna, that’s really useful. I’m writing a kind of crime thriller as well for NaNoWriMo. Well I’m 2,000 to go and just 4 scenes until the end of the draft, but this will be useful when rewriting. This a kind of experiment for me as well, as I have never written in this genre (normally I write sci-fi thrillers!), but I admit it’s not a classical crime thriller, because the reader knows who the killer is, but doesn’t know their actual identity, while the detective knows the identity of that person, but doesn’t know this is the killer. Confused, uh? 😀 I was a bit confused at the beginning as well in separating what the reader knows from what the main character knows, but I think this is what is supposed to make the story more interesting.
    Anyway, I know there is a lot of rewriting to do, but this was my first NaNo, so it’s already great to get to the end in time 😉
    Thanks for this precious article!

    • says

      It’s great to experiment with what we’re not comfortable with sometimes! That’s another reason I’m writing something new as well. Your book sounds similar to the style of Lisa Gardner, who I highly recommend. She manages to combine thriller & crime really well, with a lot of twists.
      Happy rewriting!

  3. says

    Deconstruction is a tool I heard Bernard Cornwell say he used when he started out writing historical fiction.
    We would literally pull apart paperbacks of Hornblower books and work out how the plot went together, what was “under the hood”.

    Interesting idea.

    • says

      Fantastic! I certainly think it is effective for understanding genre conventions and “what works”. I’m also reading Tim Ferriss Four Hour Chef right now, which includes a section on meta-learning and he also talks about breaking things down into understandable chunks.

  4. says

    Hey Joanna

    There’s a couple of ideas/observations here.

    1. The traditional books – e.g. the Agatha Christie analysis – is interesting. Whilst you may get some genre conventions from those books…the pacing is all off for modern audiences. My eldest did a school project on Arthur Conan Doyle and as part of that we read some of A STUDY IN SCARLET. And I had to explain to him why it was so…slow. Different books for different times.

    2. Deconstructing TV Shows. The level of writing in the best TV shows is extraordinary….and not only do you get the genre conventions presented for you, but you get them presented in a modern setting and with a pacing that more suits the modern way of life. There are lots of lessons fiction writers can take from script writers and TV writers. Another show I’d suggest where genre conventions are updated – and the writing is really good – is Elementary which is just finishing its first season run here on our side of the Pond. (This is an updating of Sherlock Holmes – set in contemporary New York, and Watson is a woman. And brilliantly played by Lucy Liu.)

    3. I’d go further with the deconstruction. I’d try and get hold of the scripts too and read the scripts. A series I’m looking at and deconstructing some stuff from is FIREFLY – and there is a brilliant book available that has all of the scripts, notes from the producer and creator (the very great Joss Whedon), loads of stills and more. There’s lessons on world building, character development, pacing, audience expectations, and more. That book – which cost £20 – is like a masterclass. Worth thousands.

    I could go on…but need to take the kids to school! Good post….keep writing!

  5. says

    I’m writing a crime at the moment after tussling with the clues problem for a while. You must insert clues so you are being fair to the reader but at the same time you don’t want to broadcast the killer so a fool could work it out before your brilliant detective does. So I have come up with a solution for me.

    I will write the book with few clues, so even I don’t know how my brilliant detective solves it. Then I will write the exposition and from that (hopefully :)) I will know how my detective solved the crime and I can go back and insert the clues. (Yes I am completely mad but at least I’m happy).

    To hide clues I will use the following techniques.

    Have a clue almost casually observed then have something major happen instantly like an explosion, shot or whatever to distract the reader from the clue.

    Have a load of clues suggesting other suspects to hide the real clues.

    Have a clue but use a deviant way of writing it e.g. if a clue is the age of the suspect don’t state the age, have a reference to the suspect being at say, primary school during the Cuban Missile crisis (again don’t state which year it was, let the reader find that out for themselves) and practicing hiding under desks to protect against nuclear explosions or have the suspect remember the day sweet rationing ended etc. you get the idea.

    Finally, make the reader infer the clue from another fact e.g. if a suspect was in the military one could infer they know something about guns, or if a suspect is a washing machine maintenance engineer one could infer they could wire a bath tap to electrocute someone. Only reveal the inference when your brilliant detective reveals the killer “it must be the man in the wheelchair who climbed up the drainpipe otherwise why would he have bought himself a new pair of training shoes… you are only limited by your imagination.

    Good luck everybody

  6. says

    Apologies, I forgot to mention the best crime and general novel writing book I have read; Write Away by Elizabeth George. Brilliant guide. She wrote Inspector Lynley so she isn’t one of these people telling us how to write who hasn’t actually done it for themselves. Easy to read with examples and full of useful help.

  7. says

    I had a great laugh seeing your choice of benchmarks! Those are the ones I picked up last spring – Agatha and Castle specifically. I’ve also looked at Hammet and Chandler since (for characterization). I got my wife hooked on the weekly Castle shows too.

    I have learned you can plot too much. I had a reviewer point out what they thought were open ends that I buried in the first book of my paranormal trilogy like ‘why so much detail about the (nano particle) car paint?’. Well, that’s because those are clues and elements carrying over into book two (where more worms get de-canned of course) and the rest get resolved by the end of book three (the car paint company uses nano tubes for a vampire biological warfare delivery system). Next time around I’ll soften those foreshadows and not use so many plot ties I guess. [btw, if you’re interested, the first book of this series is on free kindle download in three hours: Dec 1st-3rd, there are also IT features].


  8. says

    Thanks for yet another extremely helpful post Jo :)
    I love both series, but Castle is my favorite. One day I’ll have that bullet-proof vest with “WRITER” stamped on it. I will.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *