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Top Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Novel
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Feeling the pinch? Been kicked off your perch and into the gutter? Why not salvage your sad finances by writing a best-selling novel. One out of two people polled on leaving bookshops are reported to either be writing a book, to have written a book or to be planning to write one in the future. If you decide to have a go, beware the following follies.
1. The folly of the unattractive narrator
The reader has to like your narrator’s voice (not the narrator himself but his voice; they are connected but different) otherwise you don’t care what happens. A novel is all about caring what happens. True, Jorge Luis Borges, in his collection of short stories, Labyrinths, does manage an unrepentant Nazi concentration camp boss as the narrator of Deutsches Requiem – but that only lasted four pages. Four pages of flagrant fascistic foulness is all a normal person can stand. Be likeable, be fascinating, be evil if you like – but don’t be deeply unattractive.
2. The folly of ‘plot’ first
Leave ‘plot’ or structure until last. There are millionaires out there like Robert McKee, author of Story, who have made a fortune telling us ‘Story’ is everything. They then provide a strict format to follow. To be fair, even some esteemed writers advocate this structural approach but it kills more than it cures. The real problem with plot-driven plotting is that the events of the novel are conceived to fit the plot. This tends to make them contrived. Better to find events you are convinced you need and can render plausibly, and then later weld them together with adequate structure.
3. The folly of facts before relationships
Nabokov informed us, convincingly, that a novel is a world. Reading this, a new writer of fiction hares off and starts describing this world in intricate detail, inventing all manner of places and events. But think of your own world – it isn’t about detail, it’s about relationships.
To create a world you need a certain number of relationships. And the key is: they must cross age groups and boundaries. If everyone is the same age then you have a subculture not a world. One of the devices always used by Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction author of Memoirs of a Crap Artist, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which was to becomeBlade Runner), was a three-way relationship between a grandfather, a father and a son. In some of his books the grandfather was a guide figure. You can see how this fits with both Star Wars and Harry Potter – with Dumbledore as the archetypal grandfather.
4. The folly of not being heartfelt
A novel deals with that which is heartfelt by the characters. You can’t write about the weather and the state of the nation if your main character has a hang up about sex. Sex is his thing, his heartfelt concern, so get that out in the open. Even a clever scene well done will feel thin and containing too much information if it is not heartfelt, if the character doesn’t care that much.
5. The folly of not leaving things out
You’re writing about a policeman who plays golf, which is his passion. You know about golf but not much about the police. To prove the opposite you keep putting in references that show you’ve done your homework on the boys in blue. Forget it. Leave it out. Write about the thing you do know – golf – and skip over the rest. One good tip is to make all policemen (if this is your weak spot) hate their work – that way you don’t have to write about technical things at all. Remember an author can miss anything he likes out – and should – otherwise it becomes far too boring.
6. The folly of excessive detail
What level of detail to put in is a frequent concern for the novelist. In fact it’s the narrative voice which determines the correct level of detail. ‘Voice’, when you strip it down, is just a reflection of the one or two basic concerns of the narrator – most usually, what is threatening him either physically or mentally. Depending on what is at stake for the narrator, or the character through whose eyes we view things, we see and take note differently. Just as we notice all kinds of trivial details as we wait expectantly in a room for the results of a medical examination, so the level of detail is intimately connected to the ‘level of threat’ under which the central character/narrator is put.
7. The folly of mistaking linked events for real plot
One damn thing after another, tied up neatly, is usually called ‘the plot’. But real plot exists in the first sentence. It is the sense of tension or expectation in that sentence, not story or event sequence or causal sequence or character motive.
It’s about the least understood part of writing – but you can easily develop a nose for it. The best way is to think of a character with a conflict in their personality – say a body builder who works in a library restoring old manuscripts. From the very start there is something to write about here.
Plot is simply that: something to write about. That’s how you can feel its presence in the first sentence – are you being pulled by this ‘something’ or are you pushing an idea in your head out onto the page? You need to get used to being pulled along. The situation you put the characters in – the world, if you like – must exert sufficient pressure on them to give you something to write about.
8. The folly of proposals
It’s tempting to try to get a deal before you do the hard work but it’s the writing equivalent of a 110 per cent mortgage. You’ll have to write a cracking proposal as well as the first few chapters and it will take as long as the book to do this. You will have to do the book anyway, you will have to solve the problems some time – so why not now?
9. The folly of not having an agent
In Naples a lowly thug stands with his hand over a post box – you pay him to remove his hand so you can post your letter. Many writers feel the same way about agents. Don’t. Getting your novel accepted is a process of serially convincing people. The first person is an agent. They don’t have to be famous. In fact a young gun going all out beats an old lag who thinks life’s a drag anytime. But you need to have convinced one person after your mother that your work deserves a readership of millions. Best of luck!
Originally posted as “Nine follies to avoid when writing your first novel” on theweek.co.uk. Photo by theweek.co.uk.
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