Tuesday, July 08, 2008

How to Write a Novel in 12 Simple Steps

Writing a novel is a mechanical process that anyone can do. There are books--hundreds and hundreds of books--out there which tell you how to do it. Some of them even tell you how to write a best-selling novel in a month. What could be simpler? Er, what's that? They all say different things? But one of them must have the dope, right? If only we could identify which one, we'd be made...

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will be well aware that, sadly, there is no One Best Way to write a novel. We all work in different ways: some of us are fast, some are slow; some redraft extensively, some (not many...) get it right first time; some of us plan in meticulous detail before starting, some fly--or crash--by the seat of their pants. Anybody who has given the methods of successful writers even the most cursory examination will have realised that everyone has to find their own method.

David Isaak and Alis Hawkins both have interesting posts on their blogs today touching on "writers' rules". David emphatically is not a rules man (although he gives a grudging acquiesence to "never start a sentence with a comma"). He convincingly rubbishes the rule of forcing "tension" on every page (although the dictum he quotes from Raymond Obstfeld of having "a gem on every page" makes sense if you can do it...). Alis talks about the received wisdom of writing the first draft in one go, and then fixing problems in rewrite. That approach, which I've also been adopting for The Last Free City, isn't working for her, and in truth it's not really working for me either. Alis' point is that if you're ploughing on with a character who doesn't "work", you're not telling a story with flaws that can be fixed later; rather, with every passing word you're moving further from the story you want to tell. That has some resonance for me (and my solution is to go back to the beginning and retrofit what's gone before in the light of how my thinking's developed since).

So what? I've tried a method which isn't working, so it's time to try something else. But there's another insight I can draw from this. As David, Alis, and all rational people have long realised, there's no One Best Way, no 28-day programme to write a bestseller. But could there perhaps be One Best Way for each author, a method that works unfailingly for David Isaak or Alis Hawkins? It's a belief I'd had without ever seriously challenging it. Some stories come more easily than others, but surely I apply a consistent approach to each? Well, it seems I don't. Some techniques work for me better than others (I'll never be a story-boarder), but I've come to realise that I reinvent my method each time I sit down to write a story. The techniques which carried me relatively easily through The Dog of the North are not working anything like as effectively this time. The Last Free City needs to be expanded and partly rewritten from the start before I go any further with the rest of the story. That's not because I've forgotten how to write fiction: it's the demands of the particular story I'm writing, at the particular time I'm writing it.

The only surprise to me is that this discovery is a surprise. My first self-published novel, The Zael Inheritance, was a very different writing experience to its successor Dragonchaser. But when you've got to the end of the process, and have a novel that you regard as finished (whatever finished means), what you notice is the similarity, not the difference: I wrote a first draft, I polished it, I polished it some more. The mind airbrushes out the fact that in one first draft the protagonist lacked credible motivation, in another the plot did not hold together.

The moral of all this? Well, don't expect a novelist to tell you in unambiguous language what something means--that's why we write novels. But if I can draw any articulatable conclusion, it's this: a novel is a complex, multi-faceted undertaking that works in ways that cannot all be held in the conscious mind simultaneously. No two novels are alike: to write more than one successfully requires a flexibility of approach--so don't resist the flexibility, embrace it.

, Oh yeah--and never start a sentence with a comma...

4 comments:

Alis said...

Maybe the difficulties you and I are both having are inevitable in writers who don't plan in too much detail. I know some writers write detailed character sketches of their characters before they start their books so that they know exactly who they are and don't need to fiddle. But, for me, that isn't a method for finding out who somebody is, it's just making somebody up. I know that I'm really making people up too but I prefer to find them as I go along through what they suddenly do (ie what my subconscious suddenly makes them do) and say. And, inevitably, they end up somewhat different than I first pictured them and so there's rewriting. This, obviously, recasts having to rewrite as an immensely positive thing rather than a 'nah, nah, you got it wrong first time' thing. Which I think I can live with!

Tim Stretton said...

If I could crack "character sketches" I'd use them every time. But a character sketch is static and self-contained; and what gives a novel impetus is the interaction between characters. So even if it were possible or desirable to list all their attributes, it still wouldn't tell you what you can only find out by writing: what the dynamics between the characters are.

I tried to capture this using a matrix but that didn't work because I didn't know the characters well enough; and now that I know them better, the matrix is redundant.

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

David Isaak said...

We're all in the same boat here, I suspect. I tried the character sketches approach when I started writing. I think it's a great idea, probably the perfect way of working. If you can do it.

I don't know if I can write a character until I start putting them down on the page. And once I do, they start morphing into shapes that are rather inconvenient for whatever role I had in mind for them.

To put it another way: I am incapable of consciously designing a realistic, compelling character. But I can occasionally discover one...

Akasha Savage said...

When I first started writing 'seriously', I read endless self-help books on how to perfect the art, and invariably every book told me to plot and to do character studies before even thinking of trying to begin writing a novel. Thinking this must be the way 'proper' writers performed. I gave it a go. Mmmm. It may work for others but it sure as hell doesn't work for me! I have discovered that my characters come to life a lot easier if I just let them enter my pages unformed, they soon develop their own personalties and traits as they interact with my other characters. I find writing this way fun and it keeps my characters fresh...plus, I'm never quite sure who is waiting just round the next paragraph!