Taking on the Novel
by Tricia Dower
This afternoon, my Victoria writing group will be sharing our nascent knowledge of how to approach a novel. With a whip and chair? Wearing beekeeper hats and asbestos gloves? Or staring in trepidation at a blank screen? Three of the group are already into the process; another woman and I are thinking about it. We agreed to come prepared with helpful ideas. Having none of my own, I did some research.
A bazillion people want to give you advice, some of it simply (although it’s never simple) about writing well: hooking the reader, developing interesting characters, bringing a setting alive, avoiding clichés, evoking all senses, writing believable dialogue, and so forth. The suggestions I find most practical address structure and discipline. I’m used to the rhythm of short stories and the relatively rapid reward of finishing one. A novel, I suspect, requires more endurance and a deferral of gratification. If I should embark on one, here are some things I'd try to do:
- Be sure the story I want to tell has sufficient scope, conflict and complexity to support a novel for the reader and market I have in mind.
- Capture in first one sentence and then a paragraph the essence of the novel I want to write.
- Decide on structure. Some recommend the Basic Three Act Structure described here.
- Make a plan. I’m anal enough to love this suggestion. I can see it letting me put off writing indefinitely. The plan should cover the who, what, where, when and why of my story. It will describe the plot, internal and external conflicts, and outcome; identify point of view and tense; profile my main characters; and include anything else I want it to. I’m unlikely to stick to this plan but I like the delusional comfort of having one.
- Complete major research before starting to write — easy! I love research. Learning new stuff puts the zing in my writing zang. But, once I’m into my novel, I’m to avoid getting distracted by any additional research and save it for the editing stage — hard! Sometimes I can’t go on without knowing the precise colour of the berries on the shrub outside my protagonist’s bedroom window.
- Turn my plan into a detailed outline: what characters appear and what events occur in what scenes in which chapters? If there’s a subplot, in which chapters will I introduce and resolve it? More anal indulgence. Supposedly, an outline will allow me to see what the novel is about without actually writing it —sort of like making a dress pattern and pinning it onto a mannequin. My chapters can be long or short. They can end with a shift in character viewpoint or after each climactic scene, depending on the rhythm and pacing I want to establish. The wild and crazy part of the planning, I guess.
- Find devices to keep everything straight: my choices range from bubble designs and step sheets to flowcharts, chronologies, character charts, index cards and spreadsheet software. Lacking the patience for tools that require a manual, I’ll probably go with index cards until they fall on the floor in a Derrida-inspired design.
- Start writing and don’t stop. (Here’s a slogan for Novelists Anonymous: One Scene at a Time.) If I manage 500 words a day without listening to my internal editor, I’ll have 60,000 crappy words within 120 days.
- Revise, edit and proofread. Inflict it chapter by chapter on my writing group for their comments —hey, it’s their job, and I can’t imagine a more talented, supportive group of readers. Revise, edit and proofread some more.
- Remember what William Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”