I compare building a novel to how I imagine making a movie, or creating a painting would be. Now there are different types of paintings, just as there are different kinds of movies. Would you compare A Clockwork Orange with The Godfather? Yet both have quality and both have a unique place in our history.
Of course the most important part of a novel is a good story—an interesting tale, well told. This is essential, but at the same time it may not be enough. There are good stories that are poorly told, or told without any depth whatsoever. I look at the plot as the line drawing, before a painting is done—it basically describes the “what” of the story, but lacks color, texture, and character. In the same way, a film may be described in storyboard format.
I write in layers, much as many painters paint in layers and some film makers paint a cinema in layers. By this I mean that I try to capture the plot first—more so than just an outline. My plotting phase is mostly in my head, although I’ll break a story down into chapters, so I know which parts of the story are told when. When I write my first draft, I tell the whole story, although I may not flesh out every character in detail. I DO make sure that at least a few chapters contain much more depth about the main character —something to let me capture the tone of what I’l paint in more detail overall. These samples of near-final product help keep me on track.
Once I’ve created the draft, I’ll go back and begin to add layers to the story——the color and textures of the places, the people, the story. Normally I’ll have thought about the backstory quite a lot. I want the world being created to be consistent and to feel real, even if there are many speculative elements to it. People aren’t bland 2-dimensional constructs. They have frailties, likes and dislikes, and even affectations that betray their feelings. All of these need to be added and “feathered” into place. The same applies to the world, and to the story, just as a film gains depth from its soundtrack—and from the actors (after all a film is a collaborative creation). It may require from 10 to 100 passes over the story-painting-movoe before I feel it’s ready for the editor. I rate the “doneness” of a novel by its maturity from level 0 (a rough draft) to 5 (ready to publish), although this is not a measure of the number of times I’ll wind up reading it. I read “The Boy Who Ran” 200 times, sometimes changing just a few words.
Lastly, I should say that, while writing a story I “see” the story happening in front of my eyes, just as if I’m watching a movie.