Friday, May 27, 2011

To Write a Good Novel, Read This

Dear me,

Sometime soon, maybe not this month, maybe not even before summer ends, but sometime soon, you're going to start another book. Your sixth novel (!!), and like the ones before, you're going to get very excited about the project. You're going to start storyboarding, start building the characters, then say, what the hell, and jump into the story only half ready because you simply can't wait.

I'm writing you today to remind you, to beg you: Don't do this! Read this letter again. Pay attention to everything you've learned. Make number six the novel that gets it right—from the beginning. So remember:

1. Plot it out!

Remember that first novel? The one that clocked in at 1,300+ pages and took three years to write? There she languishes on a shelf in my desk, the first draft finished, the third attempt at editing it with only 80 pages completed before you realized that length does not equal a complete story. This behemoth proves that writing the story as it comes to you does not work. Writing a story as it comes to you means a lot of great ideas get mushed together in a knot too large and complicated to unsnarl.

2. Plot all of it out.

Don't let your excitement to get started cripple you. Don't let yourself plot out the first two acts, then put in vague generic scene markers for the last part of the book. You'll forget something this way. Your second and third novels didn't have a third act because you didn't plot it all the way out. They ended, but it wasn't complete, and you had to go back and rewrite extensively to make it work. Spare yourself this anguish!

3. Plot out everything, including the emotional arc.

Five books in and you realize this? Okay, breathe. A story is only as good as its storyboard. A plot includes the internal conflict as well as the external conflict. Trying to keep the pacing of the internal conflict as you write is impossible, whether the book takes 30 days or 9 months. Make it easier on yourself. You can always make adjustments later, if it doesn't feel true to the story.

4. Double-check the plot.

The hero's arc is your friend. Use it. Live it. Breathe it. Love it. Know when you can toss it out the window, but do it consciously.

5. Know your character. Thoroughly.

Oh, it's tempting to piecemeal her together, to get the outline of her, and to think, I'll get to know you as I write, as I throw you into horrible situation after horrible situation.


You've got to live with her first. Talk with her. Ask her about her love life. Ask her about what scares her. Make her uncomfortable before you even introduce her to the plot. Then paw through her closet, her medicine cabinet, her vehicle. Look up her friends in her address book. Go through their belongings. Pull out her yearbook, talk to her past acquaintances, especially the ones that hate her or the ones she hates. Crawl so deep into her life that she begs you to leave her alone, then befriend her. Don't tell her, but do background checks on all her past, present, and future friends, lovers, employers, neighbors, enemies, acquaintances, and family. See if she tells you the truth (because she probably won't, not all of it, at least). Only then think of starting to write.

6. Know your theme.

You're going to have one. Not at first. Not even possibly during the entire plotting process. But you're going to reach a point when you realize this story is more than just an adventure. There's something else you're trying to say. Now make it conscious, but make it look like it was unintentional. No one likes to be beaten over the head with a message.

7. Above all, entertain yourself.

If you're bored, the reader will be bored. You're writing for fun. You're writing for pleasure. Yes, you want to sell your novel and make lots of money, but unless you're having fun, no one else is going to. So that idea you were thinking of saving for another novel? Throw it in this one. Those characters that crack you up? Flush them out, add them in. You'll get more ideas. No need to hoard these.

Good luck!

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