Sunday, August 27, 2006

How to Write a Novel

I came across this rather terrific list of guidelines for how to write a novel. It includes such great pieces of advice as:

  • Alcohol is a writer's best friend. It provides inspiration and confidence, it allows your fingers to fly fluidly across the keyboard; it cheers you up when you're down. It worked for Edgar Allen Poe, it worked for Stephen King and I just bet it will work for you.

  • Indeed, distraction is what life is all about. If you use a computer for writing your book then make sure you've got a good internet connection, and stay permanently connected. The internet is an invaluable research tool and every time you surf you will find hours of non-stop inspiration.

  • No one likes it when bad things happen. Only write about the happy stuff.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"But this is how it *really* happened..."

I believe it was in Stephen Koch's Modern Library Writer's Workshop
that I was first exposed to the notion that nobody, not even the writer, can know a story before it has been told. This is one of those pieces of advice that, while I always thought was interesting, is also something that I never fully appreciated until I saw firsthand how true it really is.

When I was writing the first draft of my novel, I knew pretty much how the story was going to go: I knew the beginning and the setup, I knew the key plot points, and I knew how it was going to end. Over the course of several months, as I went about actually writing it, the spaces in between started to fill themselves in, as of course they are supposed to. Even so, when I was about halfway through the draft itself, there was one moment where I was sitting in an airport, scribbling away halfheartedly with my pencil, when I was suddenly struck with some kind of epiphany, where I just kind of saw how the rest of what I needed to write fit together. It's not that I didn't know (at least roughly) what was going to happen; rather, I just now better understood why my brain had put it all there in the first place.

This is not to say, however, that because I had this magical thought that I suddenly had the perfect course for the rest of my book. I did manage to complete the draft in a frenzy of excitement (which was a wonderful experience, I must say), and when the draft itself was 'done,' I had told my story.

So, yes, now I had told my story; having told my story, I now knew what the story was.

It is from this point that I began my new journey: finding a way to tell that story better. The basic idea is the same, of course, and the plot itself isn't going to change in any drastic sense from what I've already created, but in the telling are the details, and the details are what make the story interesting. I know the story, now, and so now I'm equipped to tell it in a way that is more enjoyable, in a way that makes it a more entertaining read, because I know where it needs to go and (I think) I have a fun way of getting there.

I count myself lucky in that I had an attentive 'test audience' for that first draft. They were helpful enough to validate my idea (by letting me know that I had a story worth telling), and they had their own suggestions which I, in turn, have been working with, seeing what I've already written and then deciding, on my own, how to best tell the story I've already told, again--as if 'for real' this time. It's a very hands-on transformative process.

You can almost draw parallels to telling anecdotes. We all have stories that we tell people, time and again, at parties or gatherings or when you first start getting to know someone--stories about things we've experienced, that we know, and that we want to convey to others. But I'm also sure that all of us, in the course of telling and retelling these anecdotes, quickly refine them in the way that we tell them, and probably have set ways that we phrase certain points of those stories to get across what we think is the best effect in the telling.

That's a lot like what redrafting my novel is like, I think. The only difference is that it's fiction from the beginning, so I can change the 'facts' themselves without cheating. It's still the same basic prinicple, though, of retooling the telling of a story that I (now, at last) already know, just spicing up the right points and leaving out the duller bits so that the audience gets the most out of what I want to tell them.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Back in June, I finished the first draft of a novel. I sort of underplay this accomplishment, even to myself, though in the back of my mind I realize that it is is an accomplishment, since it's the first time I've ever done that.

I'm not sure if you could technically call it a manuscript, since it was never put into official manuscript form, but rather, just done up as a print-friendly PDF for my editor-reader-writer friends to peek at. I call it a manuscript, though, since that's a term that people understand, and it also sounds better than just saying, "I wrote a novel," when, as of this moment, I don't actually have an actual novel of which to speak (I am, of course, working on that, but everything in its due time).

After taking a couple of months away from said first draft (along with getting some very good feedback from a small but dedicated group of readers), I have begun, as of last week, to rework things into a second draft. The prospect is brutally daunting, and altogether very different from retooling and smoothing out revisions for a short story. I'm in good spirits about it, so far, but that doesn't exactly keep it from remaning the daunting task that I know it is (I'm tentatively giving myself until the end of September to complete this new draft, which seems like a reasonable goal, given a steady work pace).

There's a well-known bit of writers' advice about needing to "murder your darlings" (which comes from a saying that's been attributed to just about every writer known for his witicisms, but which seems to really be something said by Arthur Quiller-Couch). For those of you who might not know what this means, this is a bit of 'tough love' advice for a writer, urging him or her to suck it up and deal with the fact that, when redrafting a work like a novel, there are going to be things that they'll want, in their heart, to keep, but which, in the end, need to be taken out. That was always something that was lurking in the back of my mind, and as I look at this draft I already have, I can see how very, very true it is.

I have entire character arcs, actually, that I have lined up on the chopping block, ready to tear their spines out wholesale. What had once been important plot points in my mind as I initially developed the narrative are now, in retrospect, a tad bit unnecessary, and shall be either eliminated or transformed as necessary. On the whole, I'm only about four chapters in on a rough pass, but already, I can see where things are going to end up looking a lot more streamlined and a lot more coherent (and I haven't even begun the major work, yet).

So, daunting, yes, but still something to look forward to, overall, because I know I'll end up with something better for all the work.

Then we'll see about charging all my friends to read it.

A Simple Introduction

I should probably start with some sort of introductory post.

I'm a writer. I think I've always been a writer, really, which is something I'm willing to bet a lot of writers will say they have in common. It's only been over the last six or seven years, though, that I really started taking myself seriously, and even within that time, it's probably been only three years since my serious side has taken itself seriously.

Back in 2000 or so, I made a failed attempt at writing a novel. I kind of liked the idea, though, so I tried retooling the same premise and then tried writing again. Once more, it failed (with less progress made than my first attempt). A third attempt yielded still less. I was discouraged.

In my frustration at my inability to complete any of these novel drafts, I decided instead to try my hand at short stories, just so I could experience the satisfaction of saying that I'd finished something. In the back of my mind, I think I'd always thought of short stories as a "lesser" form of storytelling, and so I never gave them much credence. So, for a while, my idea was to spend time "dabbling" with short stories until I shook the whatever-it-was in my brain loose so that I could go back to writing "real" fiction.

Well, it didn't take very long for me to realize how wrong I was about the validity of short stories. Maybe it's just because I hadn't read very many; maybe it's because I just fell into the assumption that bigger was better. Whatever the case, I eventually got over that misguided notion, and once I got an appreciation for what a short story could be, my ability to write them probably went up accordingly. And so, from then on, for the next many years, I continued to write such stories, enjoying it quite a bit.

I think I first heard about NaNoWriMo in 2003. It struck me as something I should probably do, just so I could say that I did it, and to say that I put a bunch of words down on paper. Well, November came and went that year and I didn't do anything. The same happened in 2004 and in 2005. I guess I just wasn't motivated to write a big huge piece just for the novelty (no pun intended) of having written it--again, the ironic twist of actually enjoying and appreciating my own short stories came back at me.

When I did finally get the idea for a novel that I wanted to write (in a novel-writing sense, not in a '50,000 random words that happened to be written in November' sense), I was struck with the new notion that I didn't actually know how to write a novel. This would explain, in retrospect, why I was never able to get it right the first time, but even before attempting again after having hit my writing groove, I knew instinctively that the process of writing a novel wasn't the same as writing a short story and just making it longer. I don't know if I can explain it to someone who's never written much, but it is both a very different mindset and a very different constructive process that goes into it.

So, I've come a long way, I've learned a lot, and I know I've still got a long ways to go. I've heard people say that you can't really be a writer until you're thirty; if that's the case, I still have three years to go, and I'd be very impatient for all of them. Still, I do recognize that a lot of what I do is far from polished, and I hope that in those next three years I make a lot of progress.

Hopefully, this here blog will help me chronicle some of that, and hopefully, the things I say will be of some interest to the folks out there in the outside world.