Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On Writing Novels

I hear lots of different responses when I mention that I’ve written a novel, even more when I say that I’ve written a total of twelve.

“How did you do that?” “Wow! That must have been really hard.” “I wish I could write a novel.”

My favorite is when someone responds by saying, “Yeah, I’m going to write a story myself one day.”

So then the question is: how have I done it, how has it not entirely devoured my life, and why am I not the person who is just sitting back claiming that someday I will make the attempt? There is one simple answer in response to all of this: I write. But I think that it can be broken down a bit further as well, and so my goal now is to delineate it into to three key elements that can be applied by any person who wants to take that next step and enter the ranks of the novelists.

#1 Be Responsible to Yourself

This is a key element to any personal project that you might have. It is impossible to get anywhere if you are not willing to be held responsible to one person, and one person only, yourself.

Admittedly, for many aspects of my life, I am horrible at holding myself accountable to this single person. There are times when my room will go months without being cleaned because I just can’t find the motivation to hold myself responsible for it, I let the excuses of being tired and busy pass. For the greater portion of my schooling career I would let myself get by with the excuses that I was a genius, I could not study and not do homework and still pass with B’s, so why do the extra work, it would just hurt my brain.

Strangely enough it was during such a time of being unwilling to hold myself responsible for anything that I came across the beautiful art of novel writing in the form of a challenge, NaNoWriMo, something that I know many writers in the world are already familiar with. I guess I must have been subconsciously fed-up with myself for not being faithful to anything, and so I saw this as an opportunity to do something and do it all the way.

I can see that now in retrospect the entire endeavor was particularly strange for me to take on. I had not written much since I had tried writing a story that I never completed back in fifth grade. I had made the resolution that English was my least favorite subject (and here I am majoring in English, I can only imagine the kind of reaction that would have been evinced from that thirteen year old if I could go back in time and tell him just what he would be doing with his life). And, as aforementioned, I was unwilling to put any true effort into anything.

Now that unmotivated, uncultured, writing-hating, thirteen-year-old boy managed to write 50,000 words in the month of November, and also to keep a B average in all of his honors, high school classes. Not only that, but by the end of December he had added the last ten thousand words or so to his manuscript so that he had his first finished novel. How did that boy do that? He learned that he could be responsible to one person, himself, and that if he was, he could do anything… or at least write a novel.

#2 Read

This is something every writer who has ever picked up a book on writing, who has been to a writing club and/or conference, or who even just perused writing forums has heard repetitively, and there’s probably a reason why. For some reason though, my young-writer self didn’t understand why he should read when he could write stories. I was a voracious reader up until the point I entered high school, which queerly enough corresponded with the time that I started writing.

During the time period in which I wrote my first three novels I fell victim to the rather perverse reasoning that there was no point in reading if you could write stories yourself. It was after I wrote my third novel (which just so happens to be the recently published, and severely edited, Let Them Come) that I began to think there was something to the suggestion to read all the time after all.

Nowadays I go a bit further than the usual recommendation to read: I say read the best literature that you can get your hands on, go back to the early writing, understand where the art of writing came from. I have probably taken this a bit too far myself recently. In the past two years or so I have only read three or four books written after the 1930’s—that is compared to a total over fifty. One thing about this experiment is that it has improved my writing by leaps and bounds. My characters are several layers deeper; I have forgone a lot of my own prejudice as I’ve seen how it affects the older literature that was written in a time when such things were accepted.

So I recommend reading, and even if you are not a fan of the classics I at least encourage every writer to read at a rate of five to one, five modern works to one classic (the best ones to read are written before the turn of the century). Trust me; it will elevate your writing beyond your greatest expectations. (Charles Dickens reference anyone?)

#3 Write

Yes, we are back to that one essential that I mentioned at the very beginning, but it deserves repetition. If anyone is to ever call him/herself a writer he/she must write, and not just once a year, but consistently. A novelist has to take it a step further—a novelist should be writing novels consistently. I’m a sprinter when it comes to novelling: I have to give myself a short span of time to complete a project or else I’ll never get it done. But even then I don’t limit my novel writing just to NaNoWriMo, which would be an easy thing to do, but I throw in a seventy-two hour novel in the middle of the year. Even with all of that writing I still feel like I need to do more, so I write short stories all the time throughout the rest of the year.

The brain is not just a single muscle, it is a group of them, and just like when you try to use a muscle group in your body that you never use you end up only being able to do half of what you were expecting and lying in bed sore for the next two days, so if you become lazy with writing you will try and sit down to a big project, such as a novel, and will only be able to get half way through it, and you’ll want to avoid it for the next several months.

There you go, three simple keys: Be Responsible to Yourself, Read, and Write. If any person applies these three keys then he/she can write a novel. Take it from a guy who has written twelve, and already has a thirteenth brewing in the back of his mind.

Good luck, and happy writing.

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