Monday, April 23, 2012

O: On Writing a Novel

Writing a novel is hard.

I set a goal for myself, in April, to take a stab at writing a novel in a month. (Yeah, like that was going to happen.) But while I haven't been able to complete it, the important thing for my purposes was using that as incentive to start it. I designed the challenge so that even if I didn't meet the goal, I would still be in a good position. And I am.

Here are some of the lessons I've learned from my first attempt to write a novel.

1) Plan, plan, plan: One of the problems I ran into in this case was not enough planning. Don't get me wrong, I spent a month planning and wrote a detailed initial outline. But after that, because of the time constraints, I never set aside more time for brainstorming. I felt like any time I sat down to write, I had to produce word count, or I would fall behind.

That is ultimately a failing strategy. The important thing isn't the word count, it's the thought that goes into the word count. In my experience here, what I found was not that I produced something awful, but that as the underlying thought behind the story dried up, eventually I just couldn't write at all.

At the end of the day, your story has two values, Thought, and Word Count. The higher you can get the ratio of Thought/Word Count the better. I don't know if, for my purposes, I'll use word count as a benchmark again. It directs my attention and energy to the wrong place.

2) Character Growth: One of the things I found missing was character growth for my protagonist. The outline I drew up looks very good on paper, but as you go through, exploring the reality of the story, you find things out that you didn't realize before. What I need to do, at this point, is take a step back and think about her story, where she came from, and where she's going. That's going to require some re-writing; and that's not compatible with pounding out the most rapid word count I can.

3) Villain Depth: Another thing I discovered as I went along is that my villain has all the depth of a lily pad on dry ground. This is another opportunity for re-thinking and re-writing. It *can* work to have a villain with "evil" drives, such as wanting to dominate and control other people, but I had nothing to him except that. As a friend pointed out, nobody thinks of themselves as evil. In order to make a villain more than a 2D caricature, you need to get inside their head and understand how they see themselves. If I want my villain to be "evil," by any sane standard, that begs the question... how does he justify it in his own mind? A good answer to that could turn a comic villain into a deeply interesting human being.

4) Time to Germinate: Another thing I realized is that sometimes, you can't just sit down and make this stuff up. I knew when I ran into points where something was missing. But it wasn't coming to me, and I couldn't force it to. I tried going on anyway, and felt very dissatisfied with the result. The only thing I can assume at this point is that my inner creative cauldron just needs more time to simmer.

So, these are the obstacles I ran into. I don't know if they'll be relevant in all situations, but if you find yourself in a similar situation, blocked in a novel, maybe this could be a helpful checklist, to see if any of these are the roadblocks you're facing.

Looking back on this challenge to myself, I think it was a ringing success. Though I didn't meet my stated goal (100,000 words in one month,) I knew at the start that I might not, and that would be okay, because I would probably learn valuable lessons along the way. And that's exactly what's happened. I'm one step closer to writing my first novel, and that first novel will probably be a little better for having done this exercise.


  1. These are all great points, Ashton. Time to germinate is important as it helps gets the story straight in one's head. I make sure I capture all the story ideas that float into my brain (by writing them down ASAP). This means that although I may have several seemingly redundant story ideas, they may grow and I never know when I will have extra time to bash out an idea or when, for some reason, one of my ideas will be needed.

    Villains are always a tough one - they get a lot more discussion than heroes as they are more complicated for the reasons you stated and there can be many types of villains with many types of motivations. I am just going through Shakespeare's Othello and Iago seems like a particularly nefarious villain (especially since everyone loves him).

  2. I do the same thing with ideas. When I'm already working on a project (or four) it seems like new ideas are just popping out of the woodwork everywhere I look. But then, when I need to start a new project, not an idea to be found. That's why writing them down when they come makes such a difference. You just can't rush it or force it.

    I'm curious to hear your impressions about Iago. What do you think makes him such a great villain?