How to write a novel, I. Getting started.

Of course, the title is a bit of a joke.  I can’t tell you how to write a novel; no one can.  You can either do it or you can’t; that’s what they mean by talent.  If you have the talent, enough ideas and you’re sufficiently bl**dy-minded, you can finish a novel.  All I offer are some thoughts about the process from my own point of view.  It won’t tell you how to write a bestseller but it may offer a few pearls of wisdom to those who are hesitating about taking a crack at it and it may be of interest to other people who want a non-textbook perspective on writing.

Probably bl**dy-mindedness is the single most important requirement for the aspiring novelist.  We’ve all read about writers who churn out their first novels, as easy as sneezing, and the books turn out to be critically-acclaimed bestsellers.  Well, let’s remember that these paragons number no more than a handful.  We never hear anything about the vast majority of novelists, the ones like you and me who don’t have PR gurus.

In an earlier post, I remarked that I had started writing almost by accident and that my first attempt (first several attempts, in fact) fizzled out for lack of ideas. The crucial differences between the my attempt and my first successful attempt are, as I mentioned before, that I changed genres from thriller to speculative fiction and, as I didn’t mention, that I chose an open-ended subject.  The Four Horsemen was a post-apocalyptic story dealing with the travails of a group of survivors of a world-wide bacteriological-warfare disaster. That is what I mean by open-ended because, clearly, either the survivors die out or they go on living; and if they go one living, they will have problems and conflicts and all the other things that make for good fiction.   Whereas the thriller had died of starvation, because I simply didn’t have enough action to keep it going,  The Four Horsemen left me with the problem of where to draw a line under it.

Of course, that is the crux of all writing; do you have enough ideas?  There’s no hard-and-fast definition of a novel but, as a science-fiction writer at heart, I choose to use the Hugo Award criterion of 40,000 words or more.  Now, that is probably about 100 pages (obviously it depends on how many words you fit on a page) and for the beginner, 100 pages can take a lot of filling.  For the experienced writer, 100 pages can take a lot of filling.  At times, the greatest value of experience is that after completing five or ten novels, you stop looking at piles of typescript and saying “God!  I can’t finish this!”  That’s where the beginner has to rely on sheer bl**dy-mindedness.

So, in a nutshell, to write a novel, you need enough ideas to fill 100+ pages.  As to whether you need them all before you start, or whether you start and come up with ideas as you go along, or you have some ideas before you start and come up with more en route, that’s up to you.  An important part of learning how to write novels is to find a technique that works for you.  A lot of people will tell you to assemble all the ideas you need and plan things to the last detail.  Well, for some people, that is the only way to work but the people who tell you that it’s the only way for anyone to write are usually getting paid to tell people how to write novels and it probably would be fair to say that you don’t get paid for generalizing.  If Tolkein had attended one of these classes, he’d never have written The Hobbit, let alone The Lord of the Rings; believe me, when he started righting, he’d no idea what he was going to write.  The only golden rule is, if a system works for you, use it.

Which system do I use?  Well, it’s usually somewhere between the extremes. I usually start off with a beginning, an end and a good idea of at least some of what happens in between.  When I write, though, there is usually a point at which the characters and story develop their own inertia.  Beyond that, I find that everything goes the way it wants to and characters do things I don’t expect and things happen I never planned.  With that kind of system, plans are never more than a guide and sometimes a positive hindrance.  As an example, when I started Caught!, I had in mind that, in the romantic sub-plot, the character Sophie would end up with the hero, Adam.  By the time I reached the climax of the story, though, it was obvious that she favoured Adam’s friend, Toby, and he was definitely smitten with her.  The climax, indeed, suddenly depended on the strength of feeling that existed between the two of them.

Of course, the more idea you have what happens in your story, the better. When you’re starting out, it’s probably better to develop your ideas before setting pen to paper.  There are some “experts”, though, who will tell you not to start writing until you have all your ideas ready.  It is vitally important not to believe them.  If you have something to write, write it.  Even if you find that it doesn’t fit with the rest, even if you shove it in the back of a filing cabinet and never look at it again, it is not wasted effort.  Every time you write anything, you are developing the writer’s habit.

Writers write, that is what the noun means.  The vast majority of books are never written for the simple reason that the would-be writers do not write them.  If you start a book without enough preparation, as I have frequently done, you might never finish it.  If you never start it at all, you will never finish it.  It is always better to start writing something that you don’t finish than never to start it.

That leads me to the last point that I shall make this time.  It may be that you don’t have enough ideas to write a novel, or that your ideas aren’t big enough to fill a novel.  Fine!  Write a novella.  Or a novelette.  Or a short story.  Write any bl**dy thing!  Just write something!

Absolutely the most important thing to understand about writing is that if you want to be a writer, you have to write.  It doesn’t matter if you only write a page or two.  It doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish.  Just write!  The important thing is not whether you finish this or that book but whether you become a writer.  If you can become a writer, the books will come automatically (I feel like including that quote for Field of Dreams, but I won’t.)

And keep writing!  When you start something, slog through to the end.  If will probably be rubbish but If you have any talent at all, you will improve with practice.  Don’t kid yourself that you’re ever going to write a bestseller and you won’t break your heart if it stinks.

So, be bl**dy-minded and don’t break your heart.

Until next time!

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