In this, for the first time ever, I shall attempt to write a serious post. Come along for the ride, as we explore the process of writing a novel. I have never taken a creative writing class or literature appreciation classes. This guide, therefore, is perfect for the lay author, written as it is by an untrained and totally lay writer. I believe you will find this a simple, easy to follow guide that contains hardly any technical terms. ( Mostly because I don’t know any … )
For a novel to be written at all, we need some ingredients, some tools, a few techniques. We need mental toughness to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous life. We need, most of all, an Idea.
The Idea, with a capital “I”, drives the novel. It is the basis of the plot, the story you wish to tell. You may, for example”, wish to write a boy-meets-girl story. Or a boy-meets-boy-meets-girl-meets-girl story. Or even, a girl-meets-girl-and-they-don’t-need-boys-complicating-their-blissful-life-together story. You may decide to pander to current market trends and add lashings of vampires, medieval witches, warlords and warrior princesses.
In short, your idea is yours.
The Idea, however, is NOT “I wonder if I can write a story”. Dismiss that idea. First of all, it only has a small “i” and second, you really cannot just write a novel because you want to try it out. See paragraph above. Well, you could write a 100,000 words, split them into sections you call chapters and call it a book. Is it a novel, though? And is it a good one?
The answer is the answer to yet another question: “Do you want to write a good novel or a bunch-of-words-broken-into-chapters?” I have read excerpts from “bunch-of-words-broken-into-chapters” and I wish I hadn’t. That’s a few minutes from my life I won’t be getting back.
Every novel is generally broken down into chapters. You can use the chapters to develop the Idea. Use the chapters to set up the story, move it along logically through to the final scene where the two main characters duke it out with fists, or where the two survivors cower under the shelter of the rock, covered in green protective slime so the marauding spiders can’t find them. You should leave them there, it’s an excellent way to create a starting point for the sequel.
It’s a good idea to list all the 20-25 chapters you need for the novel. Put down chapter number, the chapter synopsis and list the characters in the chapter. There are technical terms that are used for this by those who teach creative writing or those who have taken creative writing classes. Unfortunately, I don’t know what those technical terms are. I’m untrained, barely literate and just about scraped through graduation with a degree in accounting and business management. If you want to know those terms, attend a creative writing class or two.
You may have noticed that every novel has people in them. These people do things. They do them to themselves, they do things to others. They run, walk, jump, kill, hide things, travel, pack, unpack, have sex and generally do the things that most people do. Remember that they are your creations and you can make them do whatever you want.
Characters have parents, siblings, spouses ( and in multiples … ) and may be of a certain age or sexual orientation. The age could change as the story progresses. You could be documenting their life from the time they were a 10-year-old to the time they turn 37 and leave for a foreign land on a solo voyage of epic proportions. ( The voyage itself can then occupy the next 10 volumes. See the devilishly evil plan in such an approach? )
Characters also have relationships. With each other. Sometimes these relationships cause complications. The one major thing to worry about characters is that characters should remain true to themselves. Of course, sometimes the things that happen to these characters changes them in some way. Sometimes the story is the change the characters go through.
Characters exhibit behavior. This behavior is based on things that happen to them, things people say to them, the current situation they’re in, their past, their emotional and psychological makeup. The trick is to keep behaviors constant. If a character changes behavior pattern, you have explaining to do. It is possible, but normally, some extreme situation will have be set up as a the cause of the change in pattern. No, you don’t need a psychology course, but careful observation of the people around you and the way they react to things will throw up valuable lessons. Watch, observe, make notes. Go to a coffee shop and watch the people come in and out, who they’re with, what they’re wearing, how they behave. You can do this at airports, stations or any public place. Think about the people in your own life.
Characters provide credibility to your Idea. If your novel is entirely about the devastating beauty of the countryside and is bereft of any life other than plant life, you should check your output again. Are you sure it’s not a painting? Remember, your characters could be animals too. I have not read any novels where the characters would normally be studied in the branch of biology called botany. Prose about flora normally ends up as poetry. That’s the way it typically is. I did not write the rules; I’m simply describing them.
Where the action takes place is important. If it is set in modern times or an age gone by, the characters should typically behave and be governed by the speech, social mores of the time as well as the socio-economic and political situation. You cannot have, for instance, a character in the 1970’s using slang that didn’t exist then. The setting may also be governed by SEASONS, where the season may play a part in the plot. Stay true to the setting, the same rules apply as the one above about characters.
These are then the very basic building blocks for a novel. As I learn more I shall attempt another article on the subject.
Of course, as you start writing you novel for the first time strange things will happen. Here are some FAQs or Frequently Asked Questions that I dreamed up.
Q: My novel is only 3500 words long.
A. What you have is a short story. Add more detail ( aka words )
Q: I wrote some more and it is triple the number of words.
A. What you have is possibly a novella. To make it a novel, add more detail. If, however, you want to keep it as a short story, then go back to the first version.
Q: But I didn’t save my first version!!
A: Hmm – has your grandfather never taught you the value of version control and backups? Cut some of the detail out. All the fluff you added when you were trying to follow the instructions above ( to add more detail ) can be cut out. Good luck!
Q: My story is a play!
A: Maybe you were meant to write a play?
Q: But I don’t want to write a play!
A: Stick with it and complete the play.
Q: But then I’ll have a play, not a novel, the one thing that’s dearest to my heart!
A: Be patient. Put the story down from end to end. It will help to get it out of your head and to the hard drive.
Q: It’s a pain in the butt to constantly switch from italics for the directions and back to normal for the dialogue. Also constantly adding the names of the speakers is a reall PITA.
A: Well, it’s too late now. Keep moving ahead and finish that play.
Q: But I still won’t have a novel.
A: Once the play is written, send it out to a few close friends. Take the feedback / criticism and apply what makes sense. Look at it this way. If it turned from a short story into a 3-act play, then it may very well decide to turn itself back into a novel.
Q: Can I trust you to give me solid advice?
A: Yes, you can. It is happening to me. I have never written a novel. I have 2 pieces of fiction written in my entire life. I think you can totally, utterly trust me.
Q: Oh really? What are you doing about it?
A: I’m plugging away at completing the play.
Q: And then what will you do?
A: I’ll develop an app for novelists to use to keep tabs on their Idea, Setting, Chapters, Characters and their relationships. Here is a preliminary data model based on 20 minutes of not very hard work.
Q: !! WTF is that up there??
A: Ask me again in about 6 months time, I’ll give you a demo.