How Charles Dickens Did It

I realize that Dickens is not our mentor of the month, but I came across something very interesting in Edwin Drood, his last and unfinished novel. Namely: the notes on the book he didn’t finish.

In the back of the Penguin version of the book it gives his final notes–the next few chapters. I’m not going to go into mad amounts of detail because this is a blog and not a dissertation but: what I found interesting is that he had the next step very clear in his mind. Chapter by chapter he described what was supposed to happen in those chapters. The first three or four chapter notes following where Drood leaves off are very detailed. After those it obviously gets pretty fuzzy for him because there’s only a sentence, maybe even a fragment, of what should happen around that point in the novel.

Why did I find that interesting? Because I don’t ‘outline’ but I do something verrrrry similar to what Dickens did. Last night I wrote out the sections that I needed to complete Part 1 of the La Llorona novel I’m working on. I have some vague concept of the pieces that come after that because I know what needs to happen by the time I get to the end (because I know the end of my story…and according to a letter that Dickens wrote, documented by a contemporary biographer, apparently he knew whodunit at the end of Drood–the ‘twist’, now old-hat, being that the criminal was writing the whole thing from jail).

The notes show that, even though Dickens didn’t have a computer, or even a typewriter, stories are developed as differently for every writer then as it is now. I know people who outline, who fly by the seat of their pants, who write a section and then skip to another section and paste it all together at the end.

For me, writing a scene/chapter list as I go gives some control, but I can still blow it off or adjust it because it’s just as in flux as the novel itself. I’m creating both at the same time. Helps me know where I’ve been and where I’m going. Helps me decide what’s important or if two scenes that cover similar ground are too close together.

What do you do? What’s your process? Is your process the same process for everything or have you mixed it up a bit?

Llorona Writing Thoughts

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. My process – I tend not to write things out ahead of time, i.e. outlines, etc. For some reason, if I write before I write, I lose urgency and become less motivated to actually write the story.How clear things are varies for me from story to story, but generally I have a pretty good idea in my mind of the major things that need to happen. Right now, the end of the Cass book is very clear in my mind, but the bits in between are fuzzier. I’ve got a couple of points to hit between now and then, but mostly I’ll be navigating as I go.

  2. Mine changes a bit from project to project. Mainly I start out with a rough outline. Usually I right it out then set it aside and just write. If I run into a snag, I’ll go back and look at what I outlined, see if it still makes sense with where I’m heading in the actual writing. Sometimes the outline is adjusted (usually) and sometimes I realize I’ve written myself in a corner and need to back up a little and use the outline more. For me, the character descriptions are more important to get right before I start writing. Again, they may change, but I really need to have a handle on <>who<> I’m writing about more than <>what<>.

  3. I don’t do any outlining or anything. If I’m really stuck, I write a backstory for a character, plus I take lots of notes on background research. But I do no planning on the plot, only in my head. I don’t think I’d want to write if I was absolutely made to outline. Too much like school. Funny but I don’t feel like that research. If you outline, though, more power to you. I’m just not equal to it.

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