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Publetariat Dispatch: Writing The First Draft Of A Novel Using Questions And Modelling

Publetariat: For People Who Publish!
In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author and publishing consultant Joanna Penn shares tips for getting a first draft out.

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.

I 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?


Image: Crime scene from

This is a reprint from Joanna Penn‘s The Creative Penn.


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