Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How To Write a Novel - Part 1

How do you write a novel? That's easy--put a bunch of words onto paper.

Okay, not so easy. Those words all have to offer a coherent and interesting story, be arranged in grammatically correct ways and be spelled properly. But that's not going to happen until the words are on paper (or, more likely, a computer screen), and that's really the first hurdle. Since I've got immersed in this writing stuff, I've talked to a lot of writers, a few of whom are superstars and some of whom are quite successful, but most of whom are like me--struggling and starting out. Except, let me correct that--they're like me, struggling and starting out, but unlike me, they haven't actually, well, written a novel. Lots of them are working on novels, and some of those will actually produce one. Most, however, simply WANT to write a novel, or are planning on it, meaning to do it, intending to do it...they've written a synopsis or an outline, they've done plotting, they've drafted up characters...heck, they can tell you their protagonist has blue eyes, grew up in a three bedroom bungalow and prefers chicken soup over cream of tomato. What they can't do, though, is let you read about these characters in their unfolding plot, because they haven't actually started writing an novel, or they have, but it's not finished--and probably never will be. Harsh? Maybe. Sadly, though, it's likely also to be true. The number of people who want or intend or plan to write a novel is probably almost equal to the number of people who read novels. The worst part of that is that there's also probably some very talented writers and some excellent stories that are never going to come before us to read. So, to go back where we started--how do you write a novel? That's easy--put a bunch of words onto paper.

So I've written a novel and that makes me special, right? Well, to a point, yeah; I guess I'm one of very few people in the world that's actually assembled 60000+ words into something resembling a coherent story. However, (warning...shameless plug ahead) "Out of Time", my debut novel coming from Five Rivers Publishing in November of this year, isn't actually my first novel. It's my fourth. Of the previous three, one is a serious contender for publication and is out being shopped around to agents and publishers now, while the other two are never going to see the light of day. Why? Well, because they're basically crap. They are both enthusiastic, but otherwise pretty dreadful piles of words that represent early efforts of mine to write long fiction when I really didn't know what I was doing. One of them isn't finished, and probably never will be (putting me firmly in that "coulda-shoulda-woulda" category of writers I mentioned above, at least when it comes to this particular work). That said, I don't regret the effort I put into either of them, because they were valuable learning experiences and, more importantly, valuable exercises in discipline. They taught me to apply the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and write, putting a total of about 180,000 words onto virtual paper. Along the way, they also taught me a lot about how to (and how NOT to) do characterization and plotting, how to break a story apart into component scenes, then reassemble those scenes back into something that flows from the beginning, through the middle and to the end, and generally how to engage in the craft of writing. These particular works--let's call them novels 1 and 2--didn't end up being something I'd like to try getting published, but they were still worth the effort that went into them. And, sure, there may be elements of them that I can scavenge down the road. So, with this in mind, let's revise that opening statement a bit:

How do you write a novel? That's easy--put a bunch of words onto paper, so they form a complete story.

One last thing, though. You can write all the novels you want according to the above, but if they're not stuff other people want to read, then you're not going to find anyone who wants to publish them (or, if you self-publish them--an ever-more popular choice in this era of digital distribution via the Internet--you're not going to find many, or maybe even any, readers for them). Now, if you aren't really interested in getting published, or you're writing just for your friends or yourself, this isn't necessarily a problem. Writing for yourself, your family and your friends is great--nothing wrong with it at all! But if you're looking to get published/widely read, then you need to write something that's going to appeal to potential readers. That doesn't mean a Harry Potter/Hunger Games/Twilight degree of appeal (though that would be nice), but there has to be enough appeal to get your stuff in front of a decent number of eyes. What a "decent number" is, exactly, is going to vary with the particular publisher, genre, etc. but we're probably, as a rough guide, looking for numbers in the thousands. If you don't think you're writing to that large an audience, then you're probably back to writing stuff for yourself, family and friends, maybe your local writing group, maybe a small local or regional audience or a community, virtual or otherwise, that shares a particular interest (and again, there's nothing wrong with that). Even having said that, though, what you ultimately have to do is "burn through" the many, many things demanding peoples' attention, so whether trying for a best-seller or just shooting for a small target audience, your novel needs to be compelling enough to grab and hold your readers' attention. So, one more revision:

How do you write a novel? That's easy--put a bunch of words onto paper, so they form a complete story that other people will want to invest their time and energy in reading.

Simple, huh? 

Next up, the first draft, and how that went for "Out of Time".

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