So you want to write a novel? I’ve been asked how several times in recent weeks, often from people who haven’t written more than a report since school. I’d written fiction but only stared defeated at the idea of writing a novel until 2012. Here’s some thoughts.
Write to see if you can do it, and like doing it.
The curse of writing advice is how dogmatic and simplistic some of it is. Read around, and be cautious of This Is The Only Way.
Start writing. Write a dialogue between two people you know. Try short stories. Write description. Look at what things you write work and what don’t. Compare them to good authors you know well. Lots of authors keep a journal. Get a routine, whether every day, whenever you have a free hour, all Saturday. Don’t worry on day one what this writing is ‘for’.
Novels, short stories, plays, film scripts are different art-forms. They have some similarities and some differences. Writing twenty 5000 word short stories is not inherently ‘easier’ than writing one 100,000 word book. Writing well for children is no ‘easier’ than writing for adults. Write to find out what is the form for your story.
Read a lot. Read the sort of thing you like, the sort of thing you want to write, sometimes other things people praise which are not your thing, and non-fiction too. Occasionally you find a good writer who doesn’t read lots. But very rarely.
Some people try fan-fiction, which is taking a story you like and setting stories in that world. It is said to be a good exercise. Maybe try it but two firm DON’Ts. Don’t sell fanfic, and don’t submit it to agents (because copyright: most likely you do not have the right to use the characters). Use it for practice.
A NOVEL? Not surprisingly, if you want to write a novel, it’s a big job and takes a lot of time. I worked on Our Child of the Stars on and off for five years.
GENRE. Genre is a loose description, a set of promises to the reader. It helps people to market the book and to shelve it in the bookstore properly, so it has the best chance to reach its audience. Genre has conventions, and it is important to understand what they are now. For example, if you read a lot of science fiction published fifty years ago, the field has moved on. If you haven’t read Young Adult novels, you’re unlikely to write a good one.
The industry is very wary of cross-genre books because they can alienate both audiences and satisfy neither. But the conventions have plenty of stretch in them.
IDEAS. A good book is not ‘an idea’. ‘An idea’ can be a starting place, but for example, ‘orphan goes to wizard school’ is the idea for both A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter – radically different books in character, world, story-line, philosophy, writing style and ending.
PLOT. Plot is the events you arrange in order to tell your story well. Lots of other story happens, you just don’t have to write it.
Even good ideas or worlds or research are most entertaining when used as a background to people. Interesting people that we care about, part of their world, driven by things they want, and who face obstacles and the limits of their abilities.
Hamlet is four hours long, yet it asks a few snappy questions. Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne. Will Hamlet do the right thing, and what is the cost? Hamlet would be a totally different play if Hamlet was a different person.
Writing gurus can be enormously dogmatic about how to structure a plot; also a Hollywood blockbuster, a literary novel and an art house film have different needs. But they are right that usually plot is about choices made by characters, a series of events following logically one from the other. They need to provoke emotional responses. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end – a setup, the struggles to resolve the issues, the climax. (That was the original writing guru, Aristotle by the way. He liked admirable people being brought down by their flaws. You don’t have to write that.)
Writing advice. Good advice explains the arguments. For example, ‘all adverbs are bad’ is terrible advice. ‘Adverbs are often a sign of weak or lazy writing, often they can and should be replaced with better dialogue, or stronger verbs in action. Just sometimes they are an option worth considering.’ is better advice.
Yes, there are books on writing, and some of them are useful. I recommend a few below. Some courses are useful and some writing groups. There is absolutely no way around writing, a lot; receiving criticism, some of which you won’t like; and rewriting. Turning your critical skills on other peoples’ work is also valuable. There are services which you can pay to evaluate your work. (This is a service I am developing.)
No, your first draft is not as good as you can get it. Sorry. Yes, some feedback you get is wrong. Sorry.
PLAN OR NOT? Do you plan every stage of your book before you start writing (a plotter) or do you just start with a situation and free-write (a pantser as in writes by the seat of your pants). Many people shift between the two. For example, I start with strong ideas about the characters, setting, themes, their dilemmas, and where they might end up. I develop the characters and theme as I write, then do some hard re-plotting in the first redraft. A hard-line plotter probably ends up deviating from their plan. I like the discipline created by a firm narrative question (will Hamlet do the right thing?)
Don’t try writing a novel for the hope of fame and fortune. The statistics are blunt, whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. Do it to see if you enjoy it. Do it to see if you can.
On Writing, Stephen King
How to become a writer, Dorothea Brande (very old, very interesting)
How not to write a novel, Howard Mittlemark, Sandra Newman
Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction: Juliet Mushens. She is a well known agent. Ignore the title, 85% of this book applies to any novel and it explains modern publishing well too.