ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): N for the Novelty of Novel-Writing

Posted by on Sep 29, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

1512393_10203595797606184_1524154961613272689_nSo you’ve finally admitted you’re a writer—huzzah! And now you’re ready to sit down and write the novel that’s been percolating in your head the last few weeks/months/years/. Don’t listen to the naysayers who say you should write short stories before writing a novel. One of my writer friends likes to compare writing a novel to being in a committed relationship. As long as you’re ready to be there for your characters through good times and bad, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write what you want.

So here are a few things to keep in mind.

Outline. You should definitely outline so you know where your story is going. Unless outlining makes you feel as if you’ve been transported back to 8th grade English class and
you suddenly feel as creative as a pile of cement. Outlines are great—if that’s how your mind works. As someone who doesn’t outline, I’m always envious of people who have impressive charts or spreadsheets for their novels. And yet I find that when I attempt to corral my left brain too much, I lose creative focus and am suddenly unwilling to let my characters venture down a new path. (Wait, that unexpected pregnancy wasn’t in the outline! Better not include it.) The thing is, my characters really like to venture down new paths and take me by surprise. In other words, do what feels right for you. Give outlining a try. But if it doesn’t work, that’s okay too.

Know your characters. Like, really, really know your characters. You should know your characters about as well as you know your family and friends because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Pretend your main character is someone you just fell in love with and there is nothing about that person that doesn’t fascinate you. In this way, you’ll end up knowing clothes, hobbies, favorite foods, allergies, enemies, beloved books, etc. In other words, you will figure out what makes this character tick, what makes him unique, what ultimately will make you want to spend loads and loads of time with him. Is all this character information going to end up in your novel? Probably not. In fact, it shouldn’t. But the better you know your characters, the easier it will be to move them around in your story, to have them act and react in ways that are believable. You are going to be thinking of these characters for months, possibly years. The better you know them, the easier it will be for your readers to know them too.

Read, read, and then read some more. Don’t stop reading while you write your novel for fear that another writer will unduly influence your style. It’s okay to be influenced. After I read Renata Adler, I find myself writing sentences with lots of commas. Raymond Carver inspires me to write short sentences. My characters have deeper emotional responses after I read Alice Munro. All writers are influenced by other writers. How to incorporate setting into a story without boring your reader, how to write scintillating and believable dialogue, how to transition from one scene to the next—you will learn how to do these things by (a) reading authors who do this well and (b) attempting this yourself. If you aren’t reading what you want to write, you’re making your job harder than it needs to be.

Revise. You are not going to write a draft in a year, spend half a day revising it, and then send it out into the world and land an agent. (And if you did, you would probably look back on the finished product and think, “What the hell was I thinking?!?” and “Oh god now I have to write under a pen name because I don’t want to be associated with that novel.”) Writing those magical words The End is an incredible feeling. It’s like birthing a baby after a thirty-six hour delivery. You did it! The hardest part is over! Except, for that small part of, you know, raising the baby. And that’s where revision comes into play. After “finishing” your manuscript, let it cool for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, long enough that you have some semblance of emotional distance, and then go back and reread it. If you can bear it, try reading your novel aloud. By reading aloud, you will catch word repetition, awkward-sounding sentences, and unnecessary dialogue. After you read your work aloud or revise it as best you can on your own, it’s time to have someone else read it. Who you choose is up to you, but it should be someone who is familiar with the kind of story you’re writing. If you wrote a light-hearted romance novel, you probably shouldn’t ask your friend who only reads heady nonfiction to critique it for you. And remember that whomever you choose—friend, spouse, writing teacher—he or she is critiquing the work, not criticizing you. Receiving feedback can be very hard for a beginning writer. To be honest, it can be hard for a seasoned writer to hear what’s not working in a story. To return to the baby analogy, when you let someone read a rough draft (because that’s what your novel is, even after you revise it on your own, it’s still a rough draft) you are showing them your baby. And you want them to say, “This is the most amazingly beautiful, the smartest, the best baby I’ve ever seen! I’ve seen lots of babies in my time, but yours is PERFECT!” Instead what we often hear is, “Oh wow. You had a, um, (nervous cough) what is that exactly, a baby?” A good trusted reader can help you turn a screaming, colicky baby into a Gerber baby that everyone wants to coo over. The only way to get a novel from rough draft to polished manuscript is to listen to the good and the bad reviews, which means an early reader is probably going to tell you something you don’t want to hear. Hearing that you need to lose that annoying supporting character, or that there are too many scenes with people sitting around coffee shops saying witty things but essentially talking about nothing, or that the real story starts on page thirty-one—these are not easy fixes. Unfortunately, these are the things you need to hear. (You also need to hear good things from an early reader. If someone is only critiquing and not also pointing out what you’re doing well, then you should find someone else.) Bottom line, it’s better to hear critiques of your novel from a trusted reader than to have your manuscript rejected time and again by agents who probably aren’t going to take the time to tell you why it wasn’t for them.

And finally, remember this quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Kelly Morris holds an MFA from Spalding University, and her work has appeared in various literary journals. She is a co-founder and regular contributor to the writing blog Literary Labors. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.  ABC’s of Writing

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