As jokes go, it’s not fantastic. However, it does seem to ring true. The novel is a long piece of sustained fiction–very different from the short story or even the play/screen play. In addition, for most authors,the story of their first novel is a long one, fraught with all the usual conundrums of writing but coupled with the attendant scorn of “Sure you are–everybody’s writing a novel.”
Not long ago, one of my students approached me about this very subject. He had written poetry for years, and had recently made a foray into fiction. His question was straightforward enough, but I confess it is one of those I’d rather not have to answer. “How do you write a novel?”
There are answers a-plenty, ranging from esoteric to sophistical, pithy to the book-length. But I can’t say that any of them are particularly good at explaining what amounts to ongoing experiential learning. Its a problem of input-output. You can read all the books in the world on flying a plane, but if you haven’t logged the hours in test flight, you really don’t know what you’re up against. So, unfortunately, my answer to questions like this tend to sound painfully uninteresting and almost unhelpful. How do you write a novel? You write one, that’s how. But in the spirit of helpfulness, perhaps a humorous illustration…
WRITING A NOVEL in 20 EASY STEPS
- Write that novel
- Have reader explain that minutia and historical realism do not make up for action. Note: Realize that Tolstoy’s War and Peace is not a good beginners model.
- Revise novel. Add lots of ACTION and SUSPENSE and EXCLAMATION POINTS.
- Have reader explain that action does not make up for plot. Note: Die Hard III also not a good model.
- Scrap novel, apologize for hitting reader in nose. Write new novel with plot.
- Notice that plot mimics storyline of Lost, Jersey Shore or The Godfather.
- Drink too much.
- Take Aspirin. Revise novel.
- Realize that, as with children and pets, loving your characters a lot will not make them interesting to other people.
- Revise novel
- Revise novel
- (Celebrate fourteen holidays, get married, get re-married, run for office…)
- Revise novel
- Complete draft and select new reader. While waiting to hear from reader, re-read book. Decide that it’s awful and think about committimg various crimes (mostly arson).
- Hear back from reader that draft does not suck. Realize that not-sucking is not greatness.
- Re-think audience and pitch. Revisit what makes opening lines and scenes interesting. Begin to see the way other people see.
- Get writer’s block. Get tired. Decide if you look at it one more time you with burn your house down. Start six new writing projects instead of–
- Revising novel. All the time. In your head.
- Have conversation with not-real characters about where things are going (a sign you are nearly there)
- Send to readers, and finally–send out to agents.
—Who will ask you to revise the novel.
And you will. Because they are usually right. So hang in there, novel writers! It’s a journey more than a destination, anyway.