Today I finished my novel. Yes, the day Farrah and MJ died is historic for me.
Why is me finishing a novel significant? I have been trying to finish a novel for 20 years. It’s like I’ve been wandering in a desert and finally found civilization (I just hope it’s not a mirage).
A couple months ago I had an epiphany. Really a series of epiphanies (which is why there is no exact date). Like many epiphanies, my revelation seems blatantly obvious in retrospect. But when you’re blinded, it’s tough to see your flaws. In eighth grade I made the decision to be a writer. That was part of my problem. You see, I used the word “writer” and not “novelist.” Yet all I read back then were novels. Novels were what I adored. I loved being able to escape into another world. That was what I wanted to do: create worlds of real people. Yet because I had chosen “writer,” I got distracted. In high school I got into journalism and I wrote short stories, poems, short plays. Later I wrote magazine articles. I wrote lots of things, but no novels. I expected novels would just come. But here’s one of the things I’ve learned: novel writing is about the craft of constructing a story. Really a novel is many stories in one, but so interwoven in terms of plot and themes that it is one long story. Because of that, story crafting is essential. Short stories you can “wing.” Just start writing and see where it goes. If it takes a wrong turn, weave your way back, try something different, explore. Not a huge problem as you’re only dealing with a few thousand words. But with a novel, you end up wasting thousands of pages and years of journeying with that approach. It’s like trying to draw a map in pitch black darkness. You might end up with something, but it probably won’t be very good.
The bottom line? You cannot learn how to write novels by writing short stories.
I used to think that writing had to be done like that. All instinct and no plan. I approached writing the way I approached reading. In reading, a great deal of the pleasure comes from the unknown. Where is the story going? What is going to happen? Will the ogre save the princess? Will he eat the princess after rescuing her? You don’t know. You’re just the reader. But the author needs to know. I see that now. But always feared that if I knew too much about the plot the writing would be boring. I was writing as a reader, and that’s a grave mistake.
Writing a novel is all about story craft. It’s about structure. I used to read wonderful, amazing novels and just be astonished at how perfectly everything worked out. Even novels that had endings that surprised me — one of the major characters suddenly dies, the killer turns out to be the last one you’d expect — the ending seemed to fit in retrospect. Why was that? That’s because the author intended that ending all along. There were hints of that ending throughout the book, so that by the time I got to the end it subconsciously made sense. But how can an author put in those hints, frame the story in that direction, without knowing where he or she is going in the first place? It can be done, of course. The author can go back and insert those references via revision. But it’s a lot more work and I’m not convinced it’s as effective.
Here’s the other problem with “writing from the hip.” You’re doing two jobs at once. Worse, these jobs have opposite agendas and focus. I liken it to golf. What makes golf ridiculously challenging is that it’s made up of two games, long and short. In the long game, power and vision rule. In the short game, it’s all about reading the green and having a delicate touch. Writing a novel is just like that. Structuring your novel is the long game, all about the power of story and long-term vision. The “short game” is putting the actual words together to form sentences and scenes. Those are different skills. They require different parts of your brain, a different focus. It’s impossible to concentrate on two things at once. So how can you play the long and short games of novel writing simultaneously? You cannot. Yet that was exactly what I was trying to do. Now wonder all my novels stopped about 30,000 words in! I had no vision, no direction.
Keep in mind I thought I did. I had a destination in mind. But I didn’t have a path. It was like knowing I needed to go to New York and just starting to walk without a compass or map. What did it matter that I knew New York was my final destination if I was going to take a wild path to get there?
Thus every novel I wrote started off well. I had a basic vision. I had a vague idea of my ending. I knew my main characters. I knew my setting. I was able to write a few chapters and establish the beginning of the story. Then I got stuck. My story ran out of energy because I didn’t know, precisely, where it was going. Worse, I needed to make decisions about the story and I didn’t have the information or the thought process necessary to do that.
I used to make decisions on the fly. I’d get to a chapter and realize I needed another character. “Ah,” I’d think. “My Hero needs a best friend.” So I’d pull a best friend character out of the air and stick it in the scene. Then I’d have to go back and rewrite earlier chapters, to include the new character. Then I’d realize that the best friend character really messed things up plot-wise, as wouldn’t my hero ask his best friend for help in chapter 3? So I’d rewrite chapter 3. I’d end up throwing out 50 pages and starting over. Then I’d suddenly realize that the best friend character really messed with my overall theme of loneliness, that the hero is supposed to be alienated and alone. He wouldn’t be the kind to have a best friend in the first place! And I’d have to go back to my earlier version and of course everything would be in a huge mess by that point, as I’d made other corrections and changes I wanted to keep. The bottom line is that I was trying to make large-scale changes while focusing on the narrow, on just one scene.
Let me give you another example. It’s frightfully easy when you’re writing a scene to throw something in you don’t think much about. You’re describing your teenage hero’s bedroom and you stick a trophy on a bookshelf or a rock poster on the wall. It’s needed for verisimilitude: teens have that stuff in their rooms. But what have you done? By those tiny things that seem insignificant, you’re changing the character dramatically. What’s the trophy for? A sport? You’ve made the character an athlete. Or maybe he’s a spelling bee champion or a debate wizard. Or maybe the trophy’s one of those “everyone who participates gets one” kind of things. Any answer is valid — it’s your story — but my point is every answer changes your character. He’s a different person as a skateboarding winner than as a former chess champ. The same goes with that rock star poster: who is it? Is your hero a Motley Crue or Michael Jackson fan? Or maybe it’s one of those kids Disney promotes as the newest teen singing sensation. The choice of poster says all kinds of things about the era, your hero’s influences, values, dreams and desires, and tastes. You need to think about these things.
Even broader, small aspects of your characters like this have an impact on your plot and storyline. They seem insignificant, but can be crucial. If your hero shows no signs of physical dexterity but saves the day in the end by suddenly revealing that he’s a martial arts expert, your ending will come off as flawed and faked. But if you fill his room with martial arts trophies and Bruce Lee posters, suddenly that ending works.
Again, it is possible to realize this late in the process and fix things via revision, but is that the best way? Isn’t it better to plan?
My flaw was that I always thought of good writing as magic. I couldn’t imagine the world of Narnia being any different from the precise way C.S. Lewis described it. Yet who knows what ideas he originally had that he threw out because they didn’t fit his theme and plot? The reality is that writing isn’t magic. It isn’t all inspiration. It’s a lot of hard work, thinking, and planning. Trying to plan and write at the same time is like using your putting strategy on the fairway. You may get there, but it won’t be quick.
I was terrified that planning would make the actual writing of the chapters boring since I already knew what was going to happen. But do you know what I discovered? It was exactly the opposite. Knowing where the story was going enhanced my writing by a magnitude of ten. Suddenly I knew what I needed to accomplish in the scene. For instance, I might know that the following scene contained death, so I could foreshadow it in this one, with an ominous tone. Without having to worry about the plot, I could concentrate on vivid writing, interesting dialog, etc. Before I was always trying to do two jobs at once: write the words and formulate the story, and the result was that neither worked well.
There’s a lot more to my epiphanies, but this is the crux of it. Separating the planning from the writing freed me from the curse of “magic” writing. Suddenly I could see story creation as pure craft, not magic. I’m still learning, of course. I have a great deal to learn. That’s fine. But I’m no longer stuck. I know how to do it. It’s just a matter of perfecting the craft, now. Every novel I write will be better than the previous. But it’s frustrating to realize that all these years I’ve been struggling to write a novel, I wasn’t even trying to solve the correct problem!
The conclusion to all this is that once I figured this out I was able to set aside my writing and plan out my novel. I planned it out in intricate detail. This particular novel’s a form of murder mystery, so tight plotting is crucial. There were a million tiny details that needed to be figured out so that everything would lead to the conclusions I sought. Nothing could be forced: it had to come naturally from the situations. I thought about the psychology of my characters, how they would react. I thought about their motivations and desires. I worked out real world scenarios. I tested many and threw them out for various reasons. Sometimes they didn’t work. Sometimes they did but introduced other complexities I realized were distractions. Sometimes they just didn’t fit with the theme. In the end, it was difficult. It was frustrating. It was time-consuming and it felt like I was wasting time I should have been using to write. But it was infinitely easier than my old way of trying to figure out the story as I wrote the words. So I stuck with it. I didn’t stop until every detail of my story was figured out. I went over and over it, testing it to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, that the plot worked. When I was satisfied, then I returned to the writing. And an astonishing thing happen.
I mean, I wrote. I pretty much dropped everything else in my life and for nearly two months, I wrote. I hardly saw any films, watched TV, or anything. I was starving to write. I would wake up at 7 a.m. and write until 10, have breakfast, and at 10:30 write until 2-3 and force myself to stop for lunch. Then I’d write until evening. After dinner I would write until 2 a.m. Then I’d be up the next day before seven so eager to write I wouldn’t even shower or put in my contacts, but rush to my laptop and finish another chapter. In three years I’d written 20,000 words of my novel. In the past two months I ballooned that to 74,000 and finished it.
Why was I so inspired? It was because I had a path. I had a structure. I could clearly see where I was going. It gave me focus. The writing itself came easily. I’ve never had a problem forming sentences. My struggle was with the structure and my foolish belief that writing shouldn’t be planned, that it needed to be “magical” and inspired (otherwise it wouldn’t be fresh but stale and boring). Turns out, it’s the opposite of that.
Now I know my process isn’t going to work for everyone. An astonishing number of writers write from the cuff. (I doubt that many are published, though.) Writing from the seat of your pants is a strategy. If it works for you, fine. But it stalemated me for 20 years. Planning is a hard switch and I’m still learning, but I am firmly convinced that the success of your novel (and the ease of writing it) is directly related to the amount of planning you do. Less planning = more work and weaker novel. More planning = easier writing and better novel.
Also note that everyone’s definition of a “complete plan” will vary. I’m still learning mine. For this particular novel, since it involves a murder and police investigation, it was essential that every significant detail be planned. I couldn’t wing anything. I probably still didn’t do enough planning. There were a few mistakes I discovered (and corrected) during the writing and revision process. One of those was something that seemed to be a major hole in my plot — I was terrified it ruined everything. But I came up with a simple and elegant solution, and the novel’s the better for it.
My point about this last is remind you that no matter how much planning you do, there is still plenty of room for inspiration and creativity in the actual writing. I occasionally made changes to small aspects of my plot during the writing when inspiration made me realize things about my characters I hadn’t known. Most of these were significant from the reader’s perspective, but they actually didn’t impact the plot much. They mostly just changed the perspective a reader would have on the plot. That was why they were significant.
So what I am doing with my novel? Well, first I’m having some people read it so I can get feedback. Next, I’ll be looking for a literary agent. This is a highly commercial piece of a writing, a psychological thriller, so I’m confident I will be able to sell the novel. It’s just a question of finding the right agent and publisher, which can take years from what I hear. It also could be the novel has aspects that make it unpublishable. Who knows? I’m too close to the project right now to see it. I’m sure it has first novel flaws, but it still seems better than a lot of books I’ve read. In the meantime, I’m using my newfound knowledge on my next book.
I’m also considering self-publishing it. Not as a permanent solution, but just for fun and perhaps a little bit of profit. I don’t have too much of an interest in marketing it: I want to concentrate on my next novel. I may put up the first chapter on this website if there’s interest. Please post a comment if you’d like to see it.
I’ll keep you informed as to my progress. And I may use this blog to post more “writing on writing.”