NOVEL WRITING FOR NOVICES
Starting your first novel? Great! Here are a number of do’s and don’ts for your very first opus. I began this list as a handout for the writing class I teach at the Writers Center in Bethesda, MD. I was inspired by the horrific and annoying errors that infest so many newbie manuscripts. If people could just avoid a few of them, what a savation in time and stomach lining could be achieved!
What’s that? You say that every single one of these points has been magnificently violated, time and again, by writers who are now literary immortals? Indeed this is true – but I assure you they didn’t do it in their first novel. If this is your first time swimming, you do not have to begin against Michael Phelps with the 100-meter breast stroke at the Olympics. It is okay to begin at your local pool. Here it is, the shallow end. I will hold your hand. Hop in.
-Do not tell us what is going to happen. The ONLY time you are allowed to have the characters lay out the upcoming schedule of events is so that the plans can progressively go pear-shaped. (“Our agenda: Gandalf takes us to Mount Doom and then Aragorn throws the Ring into the caldera. A couple days should do it.”)
-Do know the characters’ basic goal, and convey this to the reader. It should be possible no later than page fifteen to say, “Ring into volcano” or “Joker to Gotham jail” or “If the Bennett girls don’t marry they will starve.” The sooner you convey this data the better; the first sentence is not too soon.
-Simplify! Clarify! Vivify! You can never go too far with this. I promise that nobody will ever say to you, “It’s just too clear and vivid – can’t you make it duller and confuse me more?”
– No “as you know Bob” monologues. There are other ways of conveying large gobs of data. For instance, instead of telling each other the history of recent events, the characters could argue about it. (“Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans because of the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers!” “No, that wasn’t the cause, you clown — it was because the town was full of homosexuals, so God had to smite the sinners!” “Idiot! Everyone knows that global warming was to blame!”)
– Casts of characters MUST be varied. They cannot all be adults who agree on everything and are masters of magic, except for the white males who are without exception incompetent dick-wavers. They cannot all be trendy teens in belly shirts, or vampires, or baby-Goth elves. While you’re at it, vary the way they talk.
– No unpronounceable names. Make a cast list and have a friend who has never seen it before read it aloud three times; if he or she is still stumbling at round three, simplify them. While you’re looking at the cast list, run each made-up name through Google. If your heroine’s name is actually the Finnish slang term for an illegal act performed on under-aged partners, you would like to know this before publication.
-No cute stuff with names. If a character has two or three or five names, epithets, titles or cognomens, get them all in the first time he appears. (“Clark Kent, secret identity of Superman, the Man of Steel.”) Pointlessly hiding a character’s name until later in the text is annoying and gains you nothing but confusion
.-The only time you are allowed to use a name with an apostrophe is if it can be found in the Boston telephone book: O’Donnell, O’Hara, etc. Otherwise, apostrophes in proper names are verboten.
– No random head-hopping; only one point of view per chapter allowed. Remember that every viewpoint you add multiplies the difficulty of making the novel coherent and unified. Yes, Isaac Asimov wrote a novel with twelve viewpoint characters. It was not his first novel.
-Make the characters work against a deadline.
-Give the characters reasons to be in conflict with each other.
-No insane, megalomanic or obsessional villains. Nor are characters are allowed to suddenly lapse into stupidity and do dumb things that are helpful to the author. Remember that every character (and every nation, every business, indeed every entity in your book) has his, her or its own agenda. They do not do things simply to further your plot. Every action a character takes is for their own benefit or to further their own ends. They can clearly rationalize them, and so should you. When Osama bin Laden looks into the mirror, he sees a reasonable and intelligent hero, not a nutbar.
As You Write:
-Do not write in present tense. Do not write in second person. Do I have to tell you not to begin with double half-gainers off the high diving board?
-Do not begin the novel with a quotation, especially from the Encyclopaedia Galactica. Do not begin with a dream sequence. Do not begin with a data dump. Do not begin with a flashback. Do not begin with the protagonist driving to a destination – at the very minimum, begin it when she arrives. I know, I know — I begin Revise the World with a long historical quotation; this rule really is broken all the time. Just remember, next time you are standing in Barnes & Noble, opening a novel to the first page to see whether you want to buy it. Does that long quotation from the Encyclopaedia Galactica attract you, or do you shut the book and stick it back up on the shelf?
-Facts are good. But be careful when and where you throw them in. The tyrannosaurus rex charges the helpless explorer, smashing trees with his mighty tail as it lunges forward, jaws agape! Is this the moment to break in and inform us that the dinosaur is 17 feet three inches tall? Are we to believe the hero took out a measuring tape before fleeing for his life?
-Burn your thesaurus. NO using words unless you are absolutely sure of their meaning. Better yet, no using words unless you are confident your 12-year-old sister knows their meaning. Ask her to be sure. You are certain you are ordained by Heaven to be the heir to Gene Wolfe or James Joyce? Great – save the neologisms and wordplay for novel #2.
– NO homogenous chapters. Chapters cannot be composed solely of conversation, of action, or of sex. You must have variety.
– NO repetition of incidents. If the quest party was ambushed in chapters 1 and 2, do not regale me with a third ambush in chapter 3 and top it with another in chapter 4.
-Do not bring up a problem in a chapter and resolve it in the same chapter. String your reader along; suspense is your friend. Ideally your reader should pick up the book in Barnes & Noble, and be unable to set it down as he is waiting in the checkout line.
– No prologues. No afterwords. The novel should be able to stand on its own two feet, without outside props.
This is just the beginning, of course. There are many other things that a first novelist ought to know! Anybody have contributions to the list?