December 18, 2004

How to Write a Novel

I am back in Birmingham, so I can not access e-mail for a few days...

Right before I left, I got an e-mail asking, "How does one write a novel."
Short answer = I have no idea.
Long answer = I have no idea, but here is how I do it:

1) Draft a horrifying chapter 1 that is bad on every level.
2) Draft a horrifying chapter 2 that is bad on every level.
3) Drafting 2 has given me a break from 1, so I have some distance, and I see it's really MUCH worse than I thought it was at first. In other words, yes, we started at horrifying and have gone down from there. So go back and revise one. While doing that I will learn things that cause me to revise 2.
4) Draft a horrifying chapter 3 that is bad on every level. While drafting, I will learn things that mean I must go back and revise 1 and 2, which will make me learn things that I must use to revise chapter 3.

And so on, with the next step being, draft a horrifying chapter 4 etc etc. The nice thing about working this way is I would estimate I spend 90 - 95% of my work time revising, and the revisions are an ongoing process that shape the part I am drafting. It also means I do not ever have to hold a whole draft of new, raw maetrial in my head. I learn the novel by heart slowly, as I go through rereading, revising, rewriting.

I know people who draft a book and then go back to the beginning and revise it (and they work well this way) but I couldn't WRITE A WHOLE DRAFT in a NaNoWriMo way and have to deal with that much AWFUL, WRETCHED prose. This is because I generally have NO IDEA WHAT I AM STINKING WRITING ABOUT. I have a character and a starting image that flips my cookie in some internal way I don't understand and do not wish to examine, and I write from there, following the person, and themes seem to build themselves out of the story which grows as I revise, and eventually (hopefully long after I have a completed draft because this is a PARALYZING realization) I will come to understand that I am actually approaching something personal, something important to me, via story and imagery --- but if I had KNOWN I writing something personal I wouldn't have done it.

I'm VERY good at NOT seeing the connections between my characters and my themes and my life. I am SO good at it that sometimes I don't learn what the heck I was trying to say until the book has SOLD and my editor TELLS ME. Okay that's a slight exaggeration. Usually my writing group will tell me before that... *RIMSHOT!*

Another advantage of revise-as-ya-go: At any given time (once I am past the beginning) I will have pieces of the novel that are gorgeous and polished and working perfectly that make me prance around the room hugging myself in an orgy of repugnant self-love, and some parts that are in varying stages of PROGRESS, so I can SEE they are moving toward goodness, and only a SMALL percentage very very very very very bad things that make me want to staple an apology to the flesh of my ankle and drink a giant bleach martini. I NEVER want to look at a MOUNTAINOUS PILE of 70K words of MESS that smells like a donkey and try to form it into a good, cohesive whole.

Posted by joshilyn at December 18, 2004 8:51 AM

I usually work on the revise-as-you write method, and I always thought it was a bad thing, because it was a slower method...or so I thought. But, it also was a compulsion. I can NOT write full steam ahead without going back and rewriting. Impossible. I'd break out in itchy hives unless I re-wrote what I wrote...

Now, I tried the NaNO...and it was great...I got to the 50,000 words, and I actually did an outline for this book, something I never do. (okay, I didn't follow the outline, but so what, I WROTE the outline). And, I love what came out of November's orgy of writing. But, you know what, I still went back and rewrote, while writing the 50,000 words...I just wrote longer periods of time.

Can't help it...anal rentative writer seeking the perfect word. I will know it's the right word when I find it, because we were meant to be together, that word and me.
But, hey, ain't we having fun?

Posted by: dee at December 18, 2004 1:20 PM

POST WHAT YOU GOT FOR CHRISTMAS IN BIRMINGHAM!!! Those of us whose small children are forcing us to wait for The Day Of Actual Christmas need to know.


Posted by: Slartibartfast at December 18, 2004 9:49 PM

Buuhhh.... I don't understand your categories. Brainfruit? Click this? Eat this? WOT'S IT ALL MEAN, OLIVAH? WE NEEDS TO RTFM?


Posted by: F F of M at December 18, 2004 9:51 PM

So -- you have a starting image and character. Do you outline the chapters on the front end, or just wing it?

Posted by: KarenB at December 19, 2004 9:25 AM

She scales it. Lizardlike, our Joss.

Posted by: Slarty at December 19, 2004 10:11 AM

I usually know (or think I know) the end, and I woerk my characters waY from my starting image to my closing one in 80 or 90 thousand words. The route is never what I think it is initially. I have never written an outline that I didn't render obsolete within 20 pages.

So madarling Slarty is 'zactly right, I scale it, climbing from one point to another. Then (assuming it is springtime) I puff my throat out at it in a big red hump and chirrup "THE END THE END!"


Posted by: Joshilyn at December 19, 2004 11:34 AM

Ah, Joshylin. Thanks for that bit of reinforcement/encouragement. I, too, edit as I write. More slowly than most, too, since I'm a two-fingered-hunt-n-pecker. I start with a character and a goal and just write till I get there. No outline; the story seems to know how it wants to get there. Sometimes it surprises me, too. Ain't it great?

Posted by: David at December 20, 2004 10:23 AM

Yeah, it's like ironing a shirt! Just when you think you've got one wrinkle worked out you realize you created a whole other wrinkle you have to iron out. So you go back over the same space again and again, sprinkling water or pushing the steamer/starcher button, until it's just right. Then you move out to another space and you do the same thing. But you find as you go along that the wrinkles you create get less and less as the shirt stiffens and the smooth places predominate. Sure, you have to take care when you get to the collars and plackets and cuffs. And, yes, you curse when you realize your detergent didn't get all the brown sweaty dirt off the collar. But, hey, when you finish you've got a neat, ironed shirt. Or novel, as the case may be.
BTW, thanks for the nod to the reading group. We try.
BTBTW, I'm over 3/4 through my novel and am still juggling two endings either of which would be devastating and make you want to go back and read the whole damn book again (or wait 'til it comes out in paperback and buy yet another copy!).

Happy Christmas, Jos. See you in the New Year (when you're not out flogging your book).
Jim H.

Posted by: langame at December 23, 2004 6:40 PM