Jun 10, 2015

Five Things You Need to Know About Writing a Novel

There are five things you need to know before you start writing a novel. If you don't know these five things, you will probably crash and burn.

Forgive the hyperbole. I know you're not an airplane. Or a boat. The worst thing that can happen is, you won't finish what you started.
So, here are five things you really need to know.

Sunset at Bom Jesus do Monte, Portugal
by John Magnet Bell
view larger on Tumblr


1. Much like design, writing a novel is 1% inspiration and 99% iteration. 

Think of the text as a block of stone and of yourself as a sculptor. Except you have to create the block of stone before you can chisel away and "reveal the statue hidden within it."

You have one advantage over sculptors, though — if you make a mistake, you can create more "stone" to work with.

Here's a tip: Go watch some drawing/painting videos and tutorials on YouTube. Notice how artists begin with rough shapes and define the final composition step by step, never worrying about 'getting it right' all the time. They know they can go back and erase things or correct shapes at any time. You have the same freedom.

Let me point you to a couple of my favorites --

Mural Joe: How to Paint Water on a Beach


Design Cinema, Episode 41: Alien Spaceships 


2. You will love and hate what you've written. 

This is normal. You see the scaffolding around your words, the reader doesn't. You look at your characters and you see puppets on strings, but a reader will come to your puppet show and forget about the strings.

You can always find things to improve and polish, but the reader enters your work through the front door, not the catacombs of your mind, and will not dwell on every imperfection, or every mistake you think you made. I promise.

3. Write the kind of book you would like to read. 

Passion and persistence fuel the best tales ever written. If you write for the market instead of writing for yourself, you're doing it wrong. First, because the market changes on you like a werewolf made of rainbows. Second, because writing to sell is the province of copywriters.

You can be professional, unique, original, and come up with a salable manuscript at the same time: these things aren't mutually exclusive.

Ravens, Clouded Sky
Big Pink in downtown Portland, OR. View larger on Tumblr.


4. World-building is more useful in games than in books.

The nature of games cannot allow the game world to stay undefined. A game world needs boundaries and the player needs to know where to go and what to do.

You will not, I repeat, will not be able to present the entirety of your fantasy world in a single novel. And what's more, readers don't want that. They want to see a story unfold and root for the characters as they peel away mysteries and look for solutions.

The world of a novel is allowed to remain porous and vague. Yes, it is useful to know the geography of the world you created, its proverbs and foods and religions, but allow yourself a modest number of unknowns. Come up with enough information to tell the story and let some questions go without answers.

Dark Chocolate, Cherries and Neon
by John Magnet Bell
looks good on a t-shirt


5. When in doubt, add adventure.

Let's say we have a protagonist called Sam.

Sam goes to a Bell Witch concert and takes a liking to the bassist. So far, that's unremarkable. But... maybe he's taken, so Sam has to deal with her conscience and decide what kind of woman she wants to be. Would she steal someone's boyfriend?

Sam is researching her genealogy and finds out her great-grandmother was an expert archer and her great-grandfather conducted séances in the family home. Interesting, but how does any of this affect Sam's life? Give Sam a problem she can't walk away from. Maybe the ghosts of her grandparents take up residence in her apartment and demand that Sam uncover a big family secret — they won't go away until she does. When Sam crashes at a friend's apartment for a bit of relief, the ghosts follow her there and keep her awake all night. They even torment Sam's friend. Or her grandfather takes over her boyfriend's body and needs to be cast out.

Regarding drama and adventure, the best piece of advice I ever read comes from James N. Frey. The things readers hate in their lives, like stress, heartbreak, danger, conflict, he says, those are the things they will love in your book.

See you soon.

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