The Most-Asked Question
So you're writing or thinking about writing a novel.
To put it mildly, you are not alone. The questions I’m asked most in the course of meeting hundreds of people promoting the Sanibel Sunset Detective mysteries have to do with the novel that appears to be bubbling in just about everyone.
Amazing. I would not have thought there were that many readers, let alone writers.
A great deal of this interest has to do with the revolution in technology and the new attitude it has produced. What used to be a highly restricted and difficult process has been democratized and opened up to everyone. Now you don’t have to interest a publisher in order to have your novel published. You can do it yourself—and hundreds, if not thousands, are doing just that, including large numbers of professional writers tired of banging their heads against the wall of traditional publishing.
The rise of Amazon has certainly helped. The scourge of traditional publishers, Amazon is the best thing that ever happened to authors. Now there exists a platform where everyone can sell their books to a worldwide audience. You get the same Amazon page to showcase your work as Stephen King or Nora Roberts. All you have to do is figure out how to sell your masterpiece, and Amazon will even help you do that.
What follows over the course of the next weeks and months is an attempt to address the questions and concerns I’ve heard expressed by fledgling authors. I should emphasize from the outset that these observations and suggestions are merely one writer’s point of view, drawn from sometimes painful personal publishing experiences.
I have been writing professionally since I was fifteen. Almost every day for the past five decades I have sat down to write something. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written scripts for television and movies. I’ve written nonfiction books and I’ve written novels.
Often I have been poorly paid, occasionally I have been extraordinarily well paid, and once in a while I haven’t been paid at all. None of it matters. Whatever the circumstances, I’ve just kept writing. It is what I do. It’s about the only thing I can do with any facility.
All along the fight has been to do it better, to keep learning, to keep trying to figure it out, not just by writing but also by talking to other writers, endeavoring (without great success I might add) to unlock their secrets. The writers include Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Peter Maas, Theodore H. White, Margaret Lawrence, Pierre Berton, David Halberstam, Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Irving Wallace, Jerzy Kosinski, Leon Uris, William Goldman. To name a few.
I don’t profess to know more than anyone else, and certainly I have experienced as much failure as success. But I have learned a few lessons along the way that might be helpful to someone starting out. The great thing about the creative process is that there really are no rules; if you can make it work, then it works. The mysteries of creation resist discovery with a handy set of instructions.
So, with all that said, let’s get started.
I’m often asked how you write a novel and the answer is dauntingly simple:
You write it.
There is no way of getting around that reality. At some point you must sit down and start writing.
“Writing is work,” says Margaret Atwood. “It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.”
The good news is that it has never been easier to get your words, if not on paper, onto a computer screen. When I started, back in the dark ages, I thumped away on my trusty manual typewriter. If you made a mistake or decided you had headed down the wrong path, then you had to start over again, an arduous, often frustrating process not helped much by deciding to write in long hand, the only option of great writers from Tolstoy to Dickens.
There is controversy over whether the personal computer helps or hinders the writing process—John le Carré, for example, still writes his novels in long hand—but for the novice faced with the task of composing thousands of words and afraid those words might not be the right ones, technology is a godsend. You can make mistakes to your heart’s content and then correct them again and again with the click of a mouse.
Make yourself write at least page a day. At the end of a year you will have 365 pages—a novel!
Once you have completed your word dump, you can see what you have and then edit and rewrite at your leisure, armed with the satisfaction that at least you have produced something.
Whether to outline a novel first is the subject of much discussion. In the days before computers, I would have said yes, by all means; the outline saved a lot of aggravation and hair pulling when working on a typewriter. But nowadays your first draft dumped into the computer can serve as an outline.
However, I do write a few general notes more or less laying out the beginnings of a plot so that there is some indication as to the plot and where I plan to move it.
Having done that, I take the journey as first reader, creating characters and plot twists as I go along. The writing becomes an adventure, an expedition deep into the unknown—cushioned by the failsafe of understanding that whatever you write not only can be changed but probably will be.
When I finish that journey, i.e. completer the novel, and look back, I realize only one thing: that everything I started out with, I ended up changing.
When you understand this, you are on your way to becoming a writer.
Rewrite! Rewrite! Rewrite!
The novelist and short story writer John O’Hara supposedly wrote a single draft and never touched it again. Mickey Spillane, the creator of the hard-boiled Mike Hammer private detective novels that revolutionized the paperback publishing industry in the 1950s, swore to me that he only wrote one draft and never even read it over.
These guys could get away with a single draft. Most of the rest of us can’t. This is stated and restated endlessly, but it is worth hammering home again; the cliché is absolutely true— it shouldn’t be called writing. It should be called rewriting. This is the essence of your creative literary process, what differentiates the amateur from the professional. Rewriting only makes your writing better. If you ever wonder why some professional novelists take years to produce a new work it is usually because they are making it better—they are rewriting.
Hire An Editor
This is the number one piece of advice I give anyone serious about writing a novel. Friends and family aren’t good enough, no matter how many of them swear they were great in English. Not that you don’t want to involve them in the process, but they invariably won’t tell you the truths you need to hear—an editor will. You don’t need kindness; you need help. An editor can provide that help.
An editor identifies plot inconsistencies, character shortcomings, and provides an unbiased overall view of what it is you have produced. As well, the editor can also perform nuts and bolts manuscript maintenance, weeding out the typos, misspellings, and missing words.
Write Something That Fits
This is a hard reality that it took me years to acknowledge.
It may or may not be a statement on the state of the publishing business, but the fact is traditional publishers, agents, bookstores, and online sellers such as Amazon, love easily identifiable slots for books. Thrillers, romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy are the most popular genres. Therefore if your novel fits into one of those slots it’s going to be much easier to sell.
Yes, yes, I’m not talking about the literary masterpiece that doesn’t fit into any particular genre. If you happen to have written the next masterpiece that takes the literary world by storm and wins all sorts of prizes, then you don’t have to worry—or you have to worry less.
But if you haven’t written that masterpiece, and, let’s face it, most of us haven’t, your life and the life of your novel will be much easier if it fits into one of those slots that publishers and readers love.
Showing Rather Than Telling
Another common mistake for writers starting out is to tell the reader what happens in the story rather than showing it. “I flew back to New York, met the girl of my dreams, married her that same weekend, and then flew out to Afghanistan Monday morning.”
Whoa. Wait a minute. That’s okay if you’re telling a friend what happened on the weekend. But you are writing a novel. That’s a dramatic scene you just told us about. What you have written is gazing down at events from thirty thousand feet. The novelist must land and go down in the trenches with characters, place the reader in the scene so he or she is living through it with your characters.
The British novelist John Brine (he wrote Room at the Top) said it very well: “Always write as if the action of your novel were taking place before your eyes on a brightly lit stage.”
Keep in mind that the essence of the novel is drama and conflict. Without those things you have real life and nobody wants that. Many first-time writers ramble on about this and that with characters who talk pleasantly to one another and bore the pants off the reader.
Don’t just write a scene, dramatize it. You can break the rule every so often, but my advice is not to write any scene that doesn’t contain conflict. It is the conflict that will make your scenes come alive.
You are writing about larger-than-life characters who are throwing lightning bolts at each other. It is no accident that everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Margaret Mitchell to Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer set their best work against the backdrop of war. Talk about drama and conflict writ large.
You don’t have to find a war, but you do have to remember that no matter what you are writing, your main character is on a journey with some sort of goal in mind—on a basic level, the detective must solve a murder—but there are, to put it mildly, obstacles along the way.
Nothing comes easily to our main character, whether it is Pip in Great Expectations, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, the old man in The Old Man and the Sea, Harry Potter in the Harry Potter adventures—great characters in great stories come out of great dramatic conflicts.
It’s okay to digress from time to time, stop and look at the scenery or impart a bit of philosophy (although I do constantly hear novelist Elmore Leonard’s gentle rants against too much scenery). But whatever you do, you are always setting the scene—you are continually showing the reader what happens, rather than merely telling him or her about it. Whatever digressions you momentarily conjure—and keep them to a minimum!—the plot and conflict should always be the motor humming along underneath.
Who You Are
To begin, I quote one of my favorite novelists, John le Carré, the author I have stuck by the longest having read—and reread—him since I was a kid: “The novelist is an egomane who refuses to delegate his job to anyone. He invents his own characters, dresses them, voices them, invests them with appetites, weaknesses and mannerisms. He creates scenes for them, sets them in whatever location takes his fancy, by day or night, in whatever season of the year. He can decide to be one minute the omniscient voice of God, and the next step down into the story and be part of it.”
That’s it exactly. As obvious as all this seems, it is one of the major shortcomings in the work of the aspiring novelists I’ve read. They forget where they are, what their characters are wearing, and how they should be comporting themselves.
As a novelist, it is your job to stage scenes, furnish the rooms, know the landscape, outfit your characters, and move them around so that they are not in one place when they should be in another. This is the shoe leather of writing a novel, not much talked about, but again, very important when it comes to lending an air of professionalism to your work. You are the director, screenwriter, producer all rolled into one as you create your movie of the mind.
If your hero, unarmed, arrives in a room with a wine glass, you must ensure he doesn’t leave with a coffee cup and a gun, that when he gazes out the window at the breath-taking view you remember that you previously described the room as windowless.