Monday, May 12, 2014

5 Misconceptions About Writing a Novel

I scour my favorite authors' FAQs on a regular basis, but most of them skip from "How Do I Start My Novel?" to the "How Do I Submit My Novel?" mental process when it comes to their writing tips. Now that I have experienced the completion of my novel and am going through a major revision process, I can see why people go through entire MFA programs to understand this missing link of advice.

The hardest part of this concept is that the process does change from person to person depending on their temperament and writing style. The more "how to write" advice I read from different historical and modern writers, the more I begin to understand that my way of motivating myself to get to the end is very different from how they survive to the end. But, in the meantime, I have also confronted many misconceptions that can lead a writer to roadblocks and the dreaded Novelist's Despair. Here are a few pieces of warning-sign advice that I have suffered through that people who have finished their first chapter and feel like they have a good thing going for them might want to know.

1. Your Characters Practically Write the Novel For You

What I have learned from suffering from this revision process is that characters are like my old rabbit Tinkerbelle, a.k.a. Royal Butthurts. They will do whatever they want if you let them and lead the story astray or, if you intimidate them too much, they will be wish-washy and let you move them around like depressed little puppets. Neither of these is ideal for a novel. I like to think of how I handle my characters in the same way one might deal with building a zoo. Sometimes, humane ideals go out the window and you do what you want with them like a deranged Emperor Nero. Sometimes, you want to create an ideal atmosphere of happiness, but one rabbit won't stop peeing in a corner of the room and your parakeet keeps attacking the dog. That's fine. Give the rabbit a litter box where they want it and damage control the situation with the other two until either the dog and the bird or both lose the desire to create conflict (a.k.a. happy ending) or one takes a suicide spiral through the window (a.k.a. sad ending).

Sometimes these things happen. It's stressful. It's annoying. But you have to deal with it because you chose to build a freaking zoo.

2. Writing Requires Inspiration

I could have placed this as a #1 misconception, but I am deciding to not be too judgmental of our poetic counterparts. The truth is, I've been there before. I spent years thinking of myself as the figurehead of teen angst who wrote very little because her muse was on vacation. Turns out, Ms. Muse is mercenary and goes towards whoever makes the most bitcoins for their brain. That means you have to actively create the means in which your inspiration feeds, and, unless you are writing a novel about Tumblr crazies, this does not involve surfing Tumblr or staring out the window of a cafe with a scarf and a cool hat.


3. Writing Feels Like Dying

This is also a misconception that is the flipside of #2. Do you feel like writing is a repetition of slamming your head into a wall? That's probably because you keep staring at a wall and running into it. I know what that feels like because this is the precursor to Novelist's Despair, which is sitting front of the screen and feeling like you have no idea what you are doing there and no idea how to get out of it. It reminds me an awful lot like taking Geometry my sophomore year of high school and having to make proofs that go directly from one step to the next.

I hate proofs. What if you want to create a new rule that will change how the world views the transitive property? I mean, it sort of makes sense if you look at it upside-down, don't you think?

Wrong. There is a way out of this. Some people may go for the solid-seeming route and start writing upside down, but I seem to have found a solution to this problem in a variety of ways.
  • Revise your previous pages and, if necessary, re-examine your characters and conflict. If you don't have the right conflict, your characters may not know how to react next. Make sure even your minor characters have a hidden motivation, so they can possibly come back bring new light to the original conflict. This will also enable you to continue writing in the same tone you started with and not have a complete break in voice when you return from your zombie-like frustration.
  • Treat your chapters like short stories and guide your characters to a resolution tinged with conflict. What I ask myself is, "How can she obtain closure from the problem presented in the first page?" and then, "How can I screw with the reader to make them read more?" This type of twisted pleasure is how I turn despair into cackling glee.
  • Ask yourself, "What happens next?" This is my favorite solution, but can be dangerous if you don't have the right handle on your characters' motivations. What I do is write a word-vomit sketch of what will carry the plot forward, with brief snippets of what I want characters to say to reach the resolution. Always remember if you take this route, don't add too much detail to the next chapters if you want to keep your pace steady and not get overwhelmed by how much work you have ahead of yourself.

4. The First Draft Law (?)

This is probably the strangest law ever created. Probably because the first draft is the strangest thing a writer can create. Most authors say this law is, "Your first draft can be awful as long as you finish it!" There is some credence to this, I admit, and I hesitate to call it a misconception. My primary reason for being insecure about this law is that there are some things I like to develop and maintain in a first draft, ie. character voice and researched details. But other than my being picky, yes, you can have typos in the first draft. Yes, you can overwhelm your characters motivations with your dream plot if you don't know them all too well yet. The thing is, a first draft can be a ten page long outline of word-vomit or over 200 pages of well-researched, typo-filled prose. The only things that has really resonated with me as a law for the first draft is, "Never show your first draft to anyone professional."

This might even include the second or third draft, if you're doing your very first novel like me and haven't gotten the hang of it yet.

You can show bits and pieces to your writing group to critique and explain some of the pathways you are thinking of developing it into. You can have your boyfriend/girlfriend read it to see if they think it doesn't follow the mental pathway of a rational human being. But you probably shouldn't think that your NaNoWriMo novel is ready to submit to an agent or publisher or even editor on November 31st.

Other than that, finishing your first draft is seriously the shit and I congratulate you on that.

5. You Can Do It On Your Own

This is huge. Like, bigger than the elephants holding up Discworld huge. Maybe even the Giant Star Turtle type of huge. Because you definitely cannot do this on your own. You will make glaringly huge mistakes that your little brother can pick out, but did not even occur to you in the writing process. Not all of us can be geniuses and I know I am not. We all need readers to yell at us and tell us that they love it. It's just not the same on your own, because sometimes you can forget to celebrate things that need to be celebrated and sometimes you forget to be more critical.

But, just like Tinkerbelle the Butthurt, you can't rely too much on your readers to force you to write. They can't be your babysitter all the time and they usually aren't getting paid. Your dedication to your novel comes directly from you.

Other people just help sometimes.

Let me help you, buddy.

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