Friday, September 12, 2014

A few suggestions on starting a novel

Note: I was rereading some old articles I did a while back (read: seven plus years ago) and decided I'd repost a few of them here. Their relevance is for you to decide. 

Okay, so let’s get started.
So, you have a plot idea do you? Good! Excellent! 
You have a concept and an idea. Now, what are you going to do with it?
Well, as Sephera pointed out in her essay for this month, what you SHOULDN’T do with it is tell it to me or any other writer in the hopes that we will write it for you and give you half of the profits. Unless, of course, you are incredibly wealthy and intend to pay one of us writer types a ridiculous amount of money to write it for you, in which case, please have your lawyer contact my lawyer and we can start hammering out the details. I’m a professional writer, which means I am always glad to talk money and publication.
Now, by this point, you’re probably thinking I’ve already covered this subject in the past and here at Storytellers Unplugged no less. You’d be both right and wrong. Same subject, different approach. I’ve talked about getting started before and now it’s time to actually give a few, hopefully, useful pointers.
 Yes, I’m aware of the book by the same name, by Strunk and White. According to a few of my critics, I should read it again. Maybe, when I have the time. Currently I’m rather busy with three different novels and a monthly article right here.
What I’m talking about in this case is what style YOU intend to use. By style, I mean, what are you aiming for in the writing department? First person past? Third person present? Omniscient narrative or limited narrative?
How exactly do you want to tell the tale you’ve decided to write?
Yeah, now we’re getting into complications, aren’t we? There are strengths to each form, I suppose. I normally write third person, past tense with an omniscient narrative. Not long ago I decided to try the first person narrative in a novel length for the first time. It was challenging but fun and the end results will be announced later this year, but that is neither here nor there.
What I do isn’t what this is about. What are you going to do when it comes to writing your first novel, or your next novel if you already have a few of them done?
Let’s look at a few of the aspects we need to cover again, shall we?
How are you going to handle the prose? Think carefully about it, because how you write the tale is at least half of the end result. By that, I mean the voice that you use to tell the story. When you get down to it, there are only so many plots out there, right? So what is going to make your plot stand out if it isn’t the voice you use?
Once again, I’ve changed my voice on several occasions to fit the story. A lot of that is (or should be) intuitive in you, at least for the first draft. But when the time comes to edit your work, I can almost guarantee that the style changes a few times. Be prepared to kill your words in order to make the story you really want to tell.
And there are limitations that you will discover, ways of writing that simply don’t work for you. Be prepared for that and understand that sometimes the words just aren’t willing to do what you want them to.
Each writer is different. If we weren’t, we’d all be universally screwed.
I’m going to quote a sentence from Tom Piccirilli’s HEADSTONE CITY. The prose is so uniquely Tom that it’s like a fingerprint. I can’t think of another writer who is so lyrical with his words, so meticulous in what he says.
“His myths were quiet ones without heroes, where the storms broke quiet and heavy across the lawns of churches and neighbors hid in their homes full of small tragedies.”
That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about voice. Tom’s style is unique. Each of us should have out own voice, and I can almost guarantee you it will change from tale to tale.
What’s your novel going to be about? That’s an important aspect that, frankly, I’ve seen ignored a few times. For me, it the plot isn’t coherent, I’m not going to enjoy your work. I suspect I’m in the majority there. No guarantees, but a powerful suspicion.
Where is your novel going to take place, and for that matter, when? I’ve often stuck with smaller towns for a setting. Not necessarily because I prefer a smaller town as a place to live, but because I have more control over the setting if it’s a smaller town instead of a massive, sprawling city. Let me give you an example: Let’s say there’s a killer running around town and doing his business. Ten bodies cut into pieces and left scattered over a couple of acres each time. In a small town, you have a couple of cops and detectives to take care of the situation. In a major city, like New York, the odds are remarkably good that you’ll be dealing with several precincts and the political red tape associated with the same. While I might like certain aspects of the police procedural novel, I would rather focus on different points in most of my writing. So, small towns or controlled environments work better for me.
Hell, in some cases a single building might work for your entire novel and if that’s the case, great! Run with it. But you need to figure it out in advance, just like those guys in Hollywood have to scope out the places where the are going to film. Setting is definitely an important aspect to writing your tale.
Yes, I’ve discussed it before, but it’s still pertinent. Just how fast do you want this book to go? I’ve had novels that spanned a three hundred year town history and I’ve done tales where over half of the novel took place in an hour, or a day. But it’s more than just chronological pacing. You have to consider how frantic the activity is going to be when the time comes. Erik Tomblin’s amazing RIVERSIDE BLUES takes place at a slow, leisurely pace that works perfectly for the story. If it was faster, the tale would fall apart. Chris Golden has done a few novels, like THE MYTH HUNTERS where the action starts fast and only gets faster as the story progresses. And, again, the tale wouldn’t work as well at a different speed.
Once again, we’ve discussed this before. Atmosphere is a part of your prose, really. It’s the subliminal setting. Is it a dark and stormy night? Is it a cold winter’s day? How you use the setting and the character’s emotions to make the atmosphere of your novel is important. It’s an aspect that I feel a lot of writers miss, and others overdo. There’s no right or wrong, just guesswork. Be careful with how you approach it and make remember that like perfume, atmosphere should normally be subtle.
I’ll never stop saying it: for me, if the characters fail to keep my interest, the rest of the book is guaranteed to fail. No matter what, YOU need to know YOUR characters and you need to make sure that the reader gets to know them, too.
That means everything about them, from how they like to dress to how they’re going to react when they meet other characters. One of the worst mistakes I’ve seen in a hundred books comes down to characters who are too much alike or too far removed from the norm. Yes, some people are weird, but if I can’t like or dislike them before you’re done explaining them, I have no use for them.
Here are the two points that keep ruining writers. Patience and Control.
Patience is that ability to not beat on yourself each time you don’t make your writing goal. It WILL happen, believe me. Be patient with yourself, just like you would be if you were starting a jogging regimen. Writing takes time and energy and sometimes life will get in the way.
Control is the mental fortitude to stop yourself from editing your first th
ree chapters to death before you’ve even started the fourth chapter. It’s tempting. It’s ALWAYS tempting, to look over what you’ve just written and make changes. That temptation has killed more short stories and books than anything else I’ve run across with the possible exception of heavy drinking and drugs. Finish what you start and edit it to death later. If you think something you’ve written in the last two days has drastically altered something you wrote two weeks ago, the odds are damned decent that the earlier part of the story needs to be fixed. Let it wait. Write a note to yourself and fix it later. Failure to follow this simple bit of advice will inevitably mire you down in the changes you feel you need to make and will often lead to apathy regarding the forward progression of your story.
Translated: It’ll slow down your momentum and leave you wanting to work on something else instead.
Yes, time. You plan on writing a novel? Set aside the time. It’s not easy and it’s never fast. Set aside the time you need to write and do your very best to stick to it.
I’ve never entered, and likely never will, the NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel In a Month, I believe) contest. I think it’s a great concept and a wonderful way to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve also topped the goals for the contest on three separate occasions. How? Because I set aside the time to do it. Novels do not write themselves. If they did, there’d be a lot more novelists out there. Make the time.
So, there you have it. A moderate list of prerequisites for finally starting that novel. Computers are nice, but not necessary. Got a pencil and paper? excellent. Get started.
Well? What are you waiting for? Seriously! Get started!

James A. Moore