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?

  3. Few weeks ago i was reading book downloaded from Pinterest Pintodown That The feelings and ideas and memories that we put into the writing also matter, and are layered, and we can't force an understanding of them.