Why is it so hard to write a novel? The internet is full of advice for writers and it reminds me of the famous story about Levi Strauss, the man who chose to sell supplies to miners during the California Gold Rush rather than go digging himself. He made more money that way. This is not intended to be a How To article. It's just me telling you of my experiences. You might find it helpful.
It seems that most people who set out to write a novel give up. I know that I have a computer full of promising starts. I also know that I have finished a few. Is there a secret to writing a novel? I don't mean writing a great novel – that's a different question entirely. No, just the basic task of writing the whole thing without throwing in the towel before it's done.
Let's set the scene by asking what a novel is – within the parameters of this article at least. A novel is a fictional story, containing fictional characters, that spans about 90,000 words. It has a beginning, middle, and end. The end makes sense of all that came before. That's the object we are trying to create, and that's the object which, if experience and what I have read are true, causes most people to give up before the reaching the end.
Hands up who thinks the main problem is the word count? It is a lot and one does have a life to lead.
Amusingly, I've written this article five times now, and by attempt number five I've realised that word count per se isn't the problem. I have written 20,000 words in four days trying to piece together this little puzzle. Surely then I could bash out a novel in a month? Well no. This article was never meant to be more than 5,000 words. All I've done over the past few days is rehash the same topic over and over again.
Perhaps we now have the first clue. It is not the number of words per se, but the fact that all of those words have to tell one single story. We all love stories. We tell them, we ask others to tell us theirs. Usually, however, these stories can be told over a coffee or a beer or when getting kids to sleep. Butwe have no practice with stories that require 400 pages to write down. Anyone who starts to write a first novel is faced with the horrible fact that they have never before done such a thing. Never told a story that long. Ever.
We think that writing a novel is like running a marathon. It isn't. It's not stamina and patience and work ethic that gets in the way. The story has to be big enough to fill four hundred pages. That's the real stumbling block.
And yet, perversely, a really good story can be summed up in a sentence. Jaws is the story of a shark that terrifies a small beach community. Alien is, according to one of the most famous screenplay pitches in Hollywood, “Jaws in space.” Silence of the Lambs is about a rookie FBI agent who catches a serial killer. Pride and Prejudice is the tale of an underdog girl who wins the unwinnable man.
I assume that you had one sentence (even if you didn't formulate it) when you sat down to write the novel you abandoned. You may have started writing that great idea and ground to a halt after a chapter or two.
Surely after the initial idea, the rest can't be all padding? Nobody would read a two-page story hidden in 400 pages of filler? Well yes, actually. And no.
Time to examine that little oddity.
When you return from a two-week holiday, you can sum it up in a sentence or two. The pyramids were breath-taking, but it was hot and noisy and I didn't like the food. Each day was not filler. Each day was a legitimate part of the whole. You had a fourteen-day experience, summed up in a few succinct phrases.
I believe, and it's certainly been my experience of completing a novel or two, that the final What's the book about? wasn't completely clear at the outset. It came out of the finished book and only later gives the appearance of what was intended.
I don't know what Peter Benchley had in mind when he sat down to write Jaws, but let's look at the story: A new chief of police arrives in a small coastal town. It's a much smaller, safer environment than the one he came from. Almost a holiday, in fact.
A very large shark comes to the shallow waters off the town and attacks a bather. It's huge and dangerous and murderous and menacing and scary as hell. Super shark.
The town survives on tourism, so even one nibbled swimmer is a PR disaster.
The new chief of police wants to protect the bathers and keep them out of the water. The town elders say he can't do that. The town will die if visitors feel the waters are unsafe.
The police chief has a huge dilemma. To risk a false scare and kill the town, or risk people being eaten? He thought he'd put all his problems behind him by moving to this idyllic little job.
He chooses to fight the shark.
So Jaws is a book about a man-eating shark. Or is it? “I have a great idea for a book! It's about a man-eating shark and one man's attempt to kill it.”
Chapter 1. Lots and lots of blood and teeth and panic.
Chapter 2. Um...more panic? Bigger teeth?
Chapter 3. I'd better kill it, I suppose...
Chapter 4. Hooray!
Or did the author say: I have an idea for a book. A man runs away from his problems to somewhere simple and carefree. But he is faced with a horror even in this sanctuary. He can't run away for ever. At some point, we all have to face the monster and kill it. What could that monster be? Anything, of course. Let's make it a shark...
Was his great novel idea to write about the scariest shark of all time? Or did he plan to write about finally having to face your problems, no matter what form they take?
Or did the shlocky shark idea, through having to make it 400 pages, reveal a deeper story, a more relatable story, one with greater depth? An accident of having to expand on a tale of scary teeth?
I'm wondering if we don't finish writing a novel because we have got it all backwards and therefore make the problem almost impossible.
We only ever see finished novels! We can see very clearly what the author intended and so successfully achieved, but who knows what they started out with. Fooled by the clarity of a finished book we try to emulate them. After a chapter or two our great idea has run its course. Ideas, notions, overall concepts are by nature, short.
Perhaps in reality, what an author does is write about something but slowly discovers that he's writing about something else entirely and by the time it's finished (many drafts, many revisions later) it gives the appearance of having been intentional. I'm getting closer to my answer, I think. We authors who have tried and failed have it backwards...
It is much easier to write 400 pages and then see what it's about, than to decide what it's about and then write 400 pages. How do you write a novel if the final story didn't emerge until you finished it? You can't go to the keyboard with no idea at all. You have to have a great idea to whip up the enthusiasm to start. I had an idea for The Midlife of Dudley Chalk. I had an idea for The Wonderful World of Linus Bailey. Of course you have an idea.
The Midlife of Dudley Chalk was my second attempt at NaNowrimo (nanowrimo.org), a wonderful, global, mad-cap endeavour to write a 50,000 word story in the 30 days of November. I launched into it on November 1st with the intention of writing a story examining the notion of reality. “What does 'real' really mean?”
I could see how it would start and off I went!
Oh dear me it was bad. Horribly bad. That's okay of course. A first draft is supposed to be pretty bad. Nobody will ever see it because it's a first draft. NaNoWriMo is all about ignoring your internal editor, not stopping, just ploughing on through to the magic 50,000 words in 30 days. Your internal editor kills you, stone dead.
Of the internal editor, Anne Lamott says, “You have to give yourself permission to write badly.”
But this was also bad in the bad kind of way. It was boring me to death, I couldn't remember the names of my characters, I didn't like them and I didn't care about them. I couldn't stop because I would fail NaNoWriMo. There is never enough time to stop and start again. They say just keep writing as if that was your story in the first place. Fix it next month.
The solution was changing the story and characters into something I got really excited about. I threw out the idea I had and went for something I would enjoy. There is no crime in enjoying it! It has to be fun and let's face it, the lofty notion of “What is reality,” is pretty turgid.
I sailed though November completely in love with the characters and the tasks I had set for them. I wrote 60,000 words and I got my coveted NaNoWriMo badge, but didn't stop writing until the end of December. The first draft was 130,000 words. In two months! I loved every moment of writing it and was sad when I got to the end. It took three more months to get it into shape.
And guess what. The final summing up? The take-away feeling? The one sentence description? What does 'real' really mean. Yep.
By accident, I had written what I set out to write. Not deliberately, overtly, consciously. It just came out that way.
Then later edits gave me even more insight into what I had written. I was once asked by a foreigner, "What is the difference between being in love, and loving someone?" I thought it was a question about the English language and stumbled my way through a clumsy explanation. When I was finished she said, "No. When you are in love with someone you don't see any faults. When you love someone, you see the faults but choose to accept them."
I was blown away by such a simple and concise explanation, and on editing the Midlife of Dudley Chalk, it had that explanation running all the way through it. Never mentioned, but it's there. It made me happy to see it. What is real? What is the difference between love and in love? How do we navigate a relationship that starts as romance and becomes real-life bill-paying? Like Peter Benchley's shark, there is a lot going on under the surface of my book, and I could never have hoped to plan it that way. It is a detective story, as Jaws is a shark story.
We should, therefore, not stick slavishly to the idea we had when starting out. The characters know more about what's going on than you do. It sounds strange, but it is a real phenomenon. They will do things that you don't want them to do. They will pick up a phone and call someone and say something that you never intended them to say and will probably make your life as a writer very difficult. But let them. They know what they are doing. Seriously.
Unless, of course, you are writing a fully plotted-out bank heist, spy novel, or other form of exciting daring do. Have you ever noticed that a fast-paced, all-action, car boat helicopter adrenalin-fuelled save the world with only three minutes to do it, CIA anthrax-enveloped roller coaster of a ride novel has characters who just do what the author tells them? Their characters are stripped thin because otherwise they will wander off into the bushes to smoke. They will revolt like children finally finding their voice.
Fully plotted novels adhering to a formula or a strict script cannot allow the characters to be real people. They would never get to the ticking bomb in time.
So we are getting a bit closer to “How to write a novel.” It isn't the word count that's the tricky bit, it's the fact that we have no experience telling stories that require that many words. We have it backwards. We think that the novels we read have a simple clear idea which was somehow magically told over 400 pages. But that could be a mirage. It could be that the unseen first draft was 400 pages about something, then the simple clear idea bubbled out of it with angels singing and a surprise for the author.
We could write out the plot in full and not give the characters enough life to mess with it. That would work too.
Those two approaches – strict plotting and happy accident -- would result in very different books, of course.
The tightly plotted novels of Frederick Forsyth or Robert Ludlum do seem to have characters whose job is no more than to look the part and do the deed. They have some depth of course, but just enough for us to know which role they are playing. Good guy. Bad guy. The initial good idea was no doubt written down, a plot and timeline meticulously constructed, and nobody, least of all the characters, were going to mess with it.
With a fully written plot you shouldn't get stuck after chapter two, providing everyone behaves themselves. I am sure that when Frederick Forsyth sat down to write The Cobra, a story about a ruthless retired ex-CIA operative given a Presidential decree and unlimited funds to destroy the cocaine trade, Mister Forsyth did not sit at the computer intending to write a nice story about a big fluffy cat, then having got half way through said...wait, actually, this is really about smashing the global cocaine trade...Hmmmmm.
Nope. He nailed it all down first and I don't even know what the ruthless retired ex-CIA protagonist looks like. Oldish, I imagine.
But what if you did want to write a story about a big fluffy cat and that's all you had? You wanted to write about the cat because you could see it, hear it, smell it, but have no idea what it's going to do? Could you write 400 pages and keep a reader's interest?
No...Unless you love this cat so much that you want to spend all day every day with it. Watch it do fat fluffy cat things and revel in it. Write them down with unconfined joy.
The first person who has to love it is you, or you won't reach the end.
The second person who has to love it is some special person in your life. Your audience. The ONE for whom the book is intended. I always write for one person, and only for one person. I want them to like it, and I want to enjoy creating something that they will like. Nobody else. Nobody.
Presumably this cat is going to do something, even if you don't know what it is yet. So you describe it, you put it somewhere, you give it an owner and a house to live in and things to do when (if it's lucky) it goes outside.
It's going to meet other cats. Or dogs. Or something at least. What are they, and how does the cat react to them?
After 400 pages you've written a story about love, loss, the struggle to survive and pick yourself up again. Hope, friendship, escape, rescue. You end up writing a book about your life and the lives of millions of other people who recognise the pain and the symptoms of loss, and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Readers clearly see your intention to write about the nature of loss, and would-be writers try to do the same, wondering how you constructed such a compelling drama. You thought you were going to write about a big fluffy cat.
Closer and closer.... So you can plot it all out and not wander off course by giving your characters too much free will. Job done. Or you can write something you love, sweet or demonic. The big fluffy cat. Love it so much that you want to type for months and reach 400 pages. Then stand back and say wow, I never knew I would write a tender, intelligent and helpful novel about surviving the loss of a loved-one.
That's how to write a novel. Make the characters so thin they can't screw it all up after two chapters, or write characters so wonderful they will tell you where they want to go without you having to plot it yourself.
If you've reached the end of the first draft, then you've done the hard part. It is not a novel yet. It's just a big pile of words. If you plotted it all out beforehand and your characters behaved themselves, then now would be the time to look at them to see if they are drawn too thinly or even have so much character that nobody would believe they would do the things you told them to do.
If the novel emerged as a wonderful surprise to you, then go back to the beginning and give that ultimate What it's actually about some more clarity. People will think you were always going to write a book about that, otherwise they will be confused. Don't be too dogmatic though. The big fluffy cat is a wonderful creation and only later did you discover it was a vehicle for something else. Don't dump the cat! Just make the entire book seem like the cat was a literary conceit from day 1.
That's what second and third drafts are for. Tidying, fixing, fooling the public into thinking you sat down to write a life-affirming adult novel and not a story about Tiddles who eats too much. Then, of course, all the first-time novelists will sit at their computers trying to write a very clever adult novel about love and loss and recovery using a pet as the central character, and realise they get stuck after two chapters because they tacked the problem backwards. How did that author do it, they will wonder. How do you write a novel?
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