Charter Member of the Sub-Media

August 31, 2004

The Brainfertilizer Way to Write Novels « The Brain Fertilizer Way »

Well, this "Brain Fertilizer Way" is not well-developed, to tell the truth. Mainly because I still have never finished a novel, so how can I say for sure what works?

But Rae asks some serious questions about my basic approach to writing, and how can I refuse her anything?

So here goes:

Short story writing is a good way to get your feet wet in actually getting stuff written. But it really doesn't help at all in writing a novel. Sure, you can work on word choice, dialogue, scene-setting, and so forth, but they really are two different animals, much like the difference between a sprint and a marathon.

You can write a short story in one sitting. You can (and should!) write a short story with the intent to explore one idea, and everything you do should be subordinate to that idea. Dialogue, character revelation, scene-setting, all should be subordinate to that one idea. You just don't have room for much else.

Whereas a novel gives you much more space to work with. Not only do you have room to explore related and subordinate ideas, a novel demands that you do so. You cannot usually sustain an entire novel with just one idea. But the trade-off is that you can explore more complex issues from several different directions, you can fully develope multiple important characters, you can have rich subplots, you can really heighten tension with delayed resolutions.

For me, however, one of my biggest difficulties is in holding a complete novel story in my head. When conceiving of a novel, I usually think of a problem, or beginning, or hook, and then I have the resolution/end-state clear, but the middle is this big, fuzzy, "something happens" area. I then work from both ends to try and clear up the middle fuzziness, but at some point I have to start writing because that's the only way to see if what I have planned will work or not. I've abandoned at least three novels because my writing skills were insufficient to resolve that middle gray area. The only things I could think of were implausible even to me.

But this novel is different. I've restarted it at least three times (this is the 4th iteration), but each time I clear up some specific problems for myself. I have a good idea of what I want to do at each stage of the novel, and all aspects work together to underscore the main idea I have in mind. Sure, I still don't know how many minor characters I'm going to have or what they're going to do, much less what their names are...but I have such a clear storyline in my head that even if the minor characters do some things I'm not expecting right now, I don't think they can take over the novel.

The only real outline I have is in my head, although I do have a listing of the things I want to have happen in each chapter.

Right now, I'm thinking of each chapter as a bucket of 3,000 words that I have to fill. I'm doing that for pacing and motivation. If I cover all the action in less than 3000 words, then I have to add more words of description. If I take 5000 words to cover everything, I'm going to consider if some of it can't move into an adjacent chapter. I may end up abandoning this attempt, as well, and trying a different way, but even if I do, I will have learned something about writing.

To date, I've learned alot about subplots, foreshadowing, pacing, dialogue, "showing not telling", obstacles to writing, the dangers of momentum, etc. I've shared much of it in this blog and in previous blogs whose archives are lost in the mists of time [alas!], but I'll share with you all as I learn more, and maybe even revisit some of the things I'd learned previously.

The thing is, I think the lessons learned in writing are very personal and performance-based. I can read an excellent book on writing, like the ones written by Lawrence Block, but they can really do no more than give me an idea of the problems I will encounter on my own. They can't really give me any solutions, or help me avoid problems in the first place.

The physical act of typing on a keyboard is not difficult. The process of considering, developing, deciding, critiquing, adjusting, rewriting, and accepting the final product in writing a novel is quite difficult, and may be one of the most difficult things to do in life. You risk your self-esteem. You open up old wounds within yourself. You grow as much as your characters do.

Yeah, it's hard. Don't let anyone tell you differently. But the most worthwhile things in life are hard to obtain. The most worthwhile things in life are worth the effort. Do you want to be a writer? Then the pain and difficulty and effort will be worth it. It may take me 60 years to finish my novel. It will still be worth it.

I admit that I'm not exactly in a rush. I have a family with two young children, a career, a rich life of hobbies (including marksmanship, strategy wargames, reading, guitar, language, and exercise) that take up much time. I want to be a professional writer by the time I finish my military career, partially because finishing my military career dovetails nicely into being a professional writer, in that I can live off of my military retirement if necessary (albeit only simply), so the pension acts as a nice safety net to fill in the times of slow income. I have about 10 years, then, to finish and sell at least my first novel, if not 3-5. But the later ones will take care of themselves. I've got to finish this one first.

Posted by Nathan at 09:07 AM | Comments (2)

Bravo! Nathan, that was very informative. Thank you. Now, more questions:

1) How do you keep count of your words? Do you have a program that does this?

2) Do you think that some are more "geared" toward a certain style or genre? What is yours?

3)Is your wife supportive of your attempt? If she isn't, how do you reconcile it in yourself?

4)John Grisham once said that he wouldn't write anything that would be embarrassing for his mother and grandmother to read or for him to read aloud to them. Knowing you are a Christian, do you feel your worldview affects your language selection and development of characters and situations?

5)Do you attend writers conferences or communicate with other writers or are you more of a loner?

6)Do you use personal experiences or interesting stories from other people as springboards into characters or character situations?

7)How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll tootsie pop ?

;)Thanks, Nathan.

Posted by: Rae at September 2, 2004 03:20 PM

You know, several days later, I just read the "how can I refuse her anything?" Ahhh, that was so nice, me blogger friend.

Now, the above questions Mr?

Posted by: Rae at September 6, 2004 08:12 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?