Sunday, July 28, 2013

How to Write a Novel without reading a 'How To' book

So, you've decided to write a novel.

Good for you.

It's a big project to take a bite from, and to be successful, you need to finish the meal and wipe the gravy from the plate with a napkin.In other words, don't be the yutz who starts then never gets back to it.

I hope this miniaturized gleaning provides some assistance. If not, well, you can always complete an MFA program in Fiction.

Before jumping in with fork and knife, I would like to start with a some advice. You have heard this before, along with a thousand other nibblets that somewhat float about your head and come to the surface when someone new says it in a different light. It doesn't matter, as it bears repeating.

Before you begin, you must make a blood pact with yourself to write the novel. You must sit in that chair everyday, in seclusion, with the internet disabled. You must have an iron butt. You must write every day, and it must be productive writing toward your ultimate goal. You must know why you are writing a novel. Copping out with, 'I just want to be famous,' or, 'I want that hefty $5.74 royalty check every other week,' are not adequate declarations of writing purpose. Appropriate reasons might be, but are not limited to, having a need to share you unique perspective on simian romance in northern Japan, scaring the living bejeebus out of your readers with tales of knife sharpening and saturated fats, or the ever popular, disappointing your parents. Whatever the case, you must clearly understand and be able to verbalize your purpose.

And one last thing I'd like to throw in - for the love of all that's good between the Earth's core and the depths of space, you must be comfortable with your creativity.

That being said, let's cut into this over-sized slab of brisket.

#1 - Tool of the Trade
Just like a Boy Scout, you can't write if you are not prepared, so - if you don't have a notebook/journal already dedicated to your project, go down to your local mom and pop stationary store and buy the most expensive one you can find. I'm not kidding. The one I'm currently working in is bound with re-purposed, antique corinthian leather. The reason is simple: writers are cheap bastards, and tend not lose something that costs more than a bottle of top-shelf Glenfiddich. A journal should be a companion, present with every step you take, ready to receive your hastily scribbled notes. Whether it be on the nightstand during your no-tell motel tryst, in your pack while selecting corn at the local farmer's market, or on the bathroom sill while doing your business, it must be your within reach at all times. How well do you trust your memory to retain the flash of inspiration that concisely bridges your character's fetish for silver-backed gorilla hair and their intellectual reverence for Monet's water lilies? Write down everything with as much detail as possible so you don't forget. Inscribe paragraphs you aren't ready to deal with yet. Doodle your characters' faces. Visualize sub-plots and time lines. Map out the journey as if you were Amerigo Vespucci.

#2 - A structural formula, if you will
By this time, you should be aware of the elements to be incorporated into your novel. Central characters, locations, motivations, supporting characters, etc. These derive from your own creativity and there's no magic wand in the world that can make anyone but yourself come up with these elements. And don't be stymied if these change throughout the project- it is more important that they exist to send you off on your journey.

Take your notebook in hand and dedicate two overlapping pages to a time line- simply draw a line in the middle of the pages from the far left to the far right. On the right, jot down the word, Beginning. Mark similar words in between- conflict introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Leave plenty of space between, because you will add the details of what they are as you go along, and trust me, there will be plenty. This is your organizational master.

The beginning: Start writing here. The early chapters are forever forged to serve this purpose. Here you will introduce your establishing details: Genre, tone, characters, motivations, and desires. A character who has no desire is a flat piece of gristle stuck between your reader's teeth, so make sure characters have some. No desires, no beginning. Make sure these wants are purposeful in order to assist the progression of your story's development. If your plot line runs along the idea of searching for grandpa's hidden BBQ recipe, who cares that your character wants to win a tennis trophy. Who the hell said anything about tennis. It's a silly sport, anyway, with awkward fashion trends and a confusing point structure. Instead, your characters should want to devour short ribs every chance they get. Memphis style, Louisiana, English, even Chinese. Bucket loads of them. Entire cows. A character wanting something they don't yet have adds tension. And yes, that is important.

The body: Here, the sole purpose is to expand the plot line, to introduce and overcome obstacles. Character development forms freely within these pages, between chapter two and wherever it takes you, and each detail must be critical and sensible to the storyline.  Rising action and climax occur organically within these walls. Thoughtful exposition is critical here - if you write something to progress your novel, make sure it is done to supplement the story, not simply eat up space. This is what the body is for. For example: Your protagonist is watching the sun set midway through the story's progression. He has not yet found that buried glass jar with grandpa's recipe, and hasn't eaten a thing in a very long time. His observations will reflect his motivations and desires to this point without hitting the reader over the head with a 2x4, ala, "Man, I really want to find that recipe and cook up a batch of short ribs."

Instead, the protagonist will paint a picture with his musings of how pretty the sunset appears, with reds and oranges and hues of baby blue spinning out of control across the horizon. He is going to note the last time he saw such a sight was with grandpa as they both kicked back on the porch over a smoker and some Pabst Blue Ribbon. The clouds will wisp like a pile of moist, smoldering mesquite chips. The tendrils of the sun will spark like hot ash through the bottom- you get the idea. When these images evolve, remember to resolve them. The plot is your basic outline, it is what happens - purpose to find the recipe, journey to find the recipe, struggle to gain recipe, gaining the recipe. Exposition along these points, married with the symbols, will not only parallel the plot and the memory and motivations of the protagonist, but will add depth of character. This is how you incorporates the why, and therefore, build the story. Grandpa symbolizes attachment to the past, reverence for tradition, a yearning for respect. Food symbolizes soulful nourishment, though in Freudian terms, it might suggest Oedipal impulses. Always be on the look out for ways to move your plot along through story showing. Rinse and repeat until you reach your conclusion.


The conclusion: Held within this fragile sweet-potato pie of a dessert lies the prize for you reader. It begins with the climax, where the tension is resolved. Your character has located the recipe, and beaten the evil pit boss who kept it hidden. Your falling action begins, where motivations are satisfied, and changes of perception are clarified. The story resolves with a fulfillment of true meaning, or lessons learned along the way. Your protagonist either recognizes the changes overtly, or unknowingly demonstrates personal growth through their actions. Plot devices are sewn up neatly. Sub-plots are concluded logically. Characters who should be dead are killed off satisfactorily. You type, THE END.

#3- The real work begins
So you have 450 pages of a story, that if read through, makes sense. To you. And maybe to the dog if you brought them along for the meal.

The problem with us writers, well, one more problem, is that we have an ability to mentally fill in the gaps of our stories while we read them, as if under hypnosis, or in the grips of a food coma. The longer we sit on them, the more ingrained the errors seem to be. For example, the writer might see the sentence on the page as reading, "Carl drove the polished stake through Big Boss Henry's heart, watching as the splinters broke against the sternum and BBQ sauce spilled to the floor."

In reality, the sentence looks like this. "Carl, drove the polish steak through Big boss Henrys heart, watched splinters break into the Sterno and bbq source spilt to the floor."

Overkill, I must admit, but my point is clear. Every written work needs to be edited. And not just for grammar. We are critiquing the sauce at this point. You want to bring in a trusted reader or two who will read for content as well as grammatical nuances. Their goal is to enjoy the story, but also to let you know that there exist unresolved plot lines, failed descriptions, misplaced metaphors, and guns that never went off. Anton Chekhov once said, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." If your readers are worth their salt, they will let let you know if the gun didn't go off.

Read through your manuscript several times, and take notes. Ask yourself questions, jot down significant symbols, and look for patterns. Hopefully, you will clearly see them surfacing through out your manuscript. This thread will assist your reader in knowing what the hell is going on, and why. Clarity is your goal, not obtuse literati mumbo-jumbo writers' tricks. Review your notes and utilize your findings. Strengthen your character descriptions based on what you have written later on in the project. Clarify your symbolism. Look for foreshadowing. Do you have any? If not, get some. Blindsiding a reader with a revelation based on brand new information is an evil, evil, evil practice used by too many hack writers.

Remove or correct unsightly blemishes such as dead-end imagery and red herrings. Nothing aggravates a reader more than a sub-plot without resolution. Did your supporting character ever get a chance to nosh with the waiter at the restaurant from chapter 5? She wanted to, so you damn well better give her some satisfaction.


Read your novel out loud. Slowly, and with inflection. Record yourself doing a few passages and listen to them critically. When reading, a voice runs through your head, so it makes sense to let it come out when editing a project. If the voice in your head doesn't jibe with the voice that is coming out of your mouth, fix it. Pay attention to sentence structure. If you are writing an action scene, use mostly short, punctuated sentences. If your exposition takes place in my lecture hall, make the sentences long and overly-complicated.

When the whole thing makes sense and you have incorporated your editing notes through the beginning, the body, and the conclusion, you might just be ready to say you wrote a novel.Go treat yourself to some good BBQ.

*This blog post is by no means an adequate representation of the multitudinous skills required to write a quality piece of novel-length fiction. These skills price out at around $20,000 and come with a piece of paper that says Graduate. It is, however, a fairly solid representation of the basic steps to create a novel. Therefore, I shall endeavor at some time in the future to delve more deeply into the topics listed above, and to introduce further minutia toward the goal of instruction.