Monday, April 12, 2010

Writing a Novel: Step 1

Usually when someone asks me about my approach to writing a novel, I offer the answer: Everyone writes differently. This is very much true, and it is what often makes "How to write a novel" books frustrating. Some writers outline a novel, some don't. Some layout the plot chapter by chapter, others just start typing. There really is no right way, except maybe the way that works best for the writer. That would be the "right" way.

Now that I've given a few reasons on why a post like this shouldn't be helpful, let me see if I can turn it around. There are some common elements in all writing approaches. While their priority might vary from person to person, these elements tend to be the foundation to all novel writing - and short fiction writing. So to start with I'll try to offer up a few things that will cover the early groundwork:

1: Write about something you enjoy.
This seems obvious, but often writers get frustrated and start writing whatever they think will get published. There is nothing wrong with writing what publishers are publishing, but try to match that with something you enjoy. In the end, if the writer has no passion for the subject, it will come through in the writing.

2: Write about what you know.
We've all heard this one before. But I'm not sure everyone interrupts it the same way. It is important to have knowledge of your subject, but it doesn't have to be limited to the knowledge you already have. Research can help. And, it is possible that you might have a passion for a topic you know nothing about. Does that mean you shouldn't write a novel on the subject? No. It means you'll want to spend some time researching it, getting a strong grasp on the matter, and then venture into it. Once again, passion for the subject will likely carry you through the research, making it all the easier.

3: Read.
This one is pretty easy. Before you start your novel, read a few books in the genre. Learn what the readers expect and how the genre is usually approached. You don't have to read every book out there. In fact, I'd suggest you avoid even thinking about that. All you want to do is read enough to comprehend the form of the genre. In other words, if you're writing a mystery novel, know that usually someone is murdered in these genre novels, and quite often the reader expects someone to be murdered. Again, passion for the subject should help here, and if you have passion for it, you've most likely read a number of books already.

Along with this suggestion comes a warning. Some writers are "mimics." That is to say, they write in the style of the author they most commonly read, or enjoyed. This sometimes leads to a writer appropriating the style of another author. To avoid this, put some time between the genre reading and the writing. In fact, it might be a great time to do research. I usually put a few months between my writing and any reading in the genre - even though I love the genres I write. This also helps me find new approaches and create characters and plots that are hopefully unique. Mind you "unique" in genre is difficult as there are certain things which are expected. Monsters must appear in a novel about monsters - well, at least they should. And typically someone is killed in a murder mystery. With that said, feel free to play with the "form." It is important to understand and use the form of a genre without becoming "formulaic."


Charles Gramlich said...

I find for me that I like to read a few books in the genre I'm writing in while writing the novel. It helps keep me aware of the conventions. And although I started out writing sounding like whoever I was reading, that's no longer the case. My own style is just comfortable to me and I don't find myself modifying it without intent.

Anonymous said...

"Write about what you know."
I think you're on to something, when you say not everyone interprets this statement the same way.

I like what John Gardner has to say about the misinterpretation of this piece of advice:

"Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination, nothing is quicker to turn on the psyche's censoring devices and distortion systems, than trying to write truthfully and interestingly about one's own home town, one's Episcopalian mother, one's crippled younger sister."

He goes on to say that a better piece of advice is to write the kind of story you know and like best, which in my mind mirrors your first two pieces of advice.

Write the genre you like, research things that are interesting to you. At the very least, you'll enjoy yourself.

TonyKenealy said...

Good article William. I sincerely believe that the truest statement that can be given to anyone who wants to write is that there is no wrong or right way, there are no rules except rules of grammar and spelling. It's what suits your own style or situation that really matters.

Akasha Savage. said...

Good post. I would add - write the sort of stuff you enjoy reading. I have always loved reading dark fantasy/ horror, but when I started writing I first tried romance/chick lit, which I never read, and found I couldn't write it. The same went for historical romance and crime fiction. For me its horror and fantasy all the way.

Rick said...

What an absolutely helpful post, William. Especially the part about putting some distance between reading and writing.

William Jones said...

Charles - That is common. Writers often mimic the latest novel they have read. And, as you pointed out, it tends to vanish the more one writes.

Christine - Thanks for your insight, and the valuable quote. I agree with you. If you enjoy what you write and research, it transforms the effort from labor into love.

Tony - You're on the mark! Yes, there are rules of grammar and format (related to manuscript layout), but beyond that there are no rules. In fact, if there were a "correct" method of writing, everyone would be writing brilliant works, and we'd have no variation - which often leads to brilliant works. And of course, writers can even break the rules of grammar, so long as they know what they are breaking. :)

Akasha - You hit upon something that is often overlooked. Many writers enjoy one genre, but find out they have a natural voice for another genre. Usually, they end up enjoying the other genre as well. :) In fact, there are very few writers who jump from one genre to another. It takes quite a bit of investment of time and love. That is to say, overall, authors write about the same thing over and over. There is good news and bad news in that. While characters can vary, the story is often the same. This might get boring as an occupation. But it also allows one to improve upon the craft. Wow, didn't I get far off topic. More ot the point, your post raises an issue many writers struggle with. While a person might love Fantasy, his or her voice might be better suited for Mystery.

Rick - Thanks! :)

Lee Thompson/Thomas Morgan/James Logan/Julian Vaughn said...

Great article, William. I find that going past the 'what I know' and writing 'what I feel' about God, family, life, and work, all the joys and sorrows, I feel much more connected to the work, even though I'm creating mostly different back stories and present dilemmas for my characters.