First, Catch an Idea – writing your novel, part 1
*Sorry to be so late. I am apparently catching this virus every month in slightly more attenuated form. Last night’s was nothing, really, but enough to send me to bed early and make it impossible for me to write blogs. Hopefully my fellow MGC don’t kick me out! I’ve been dead weight lately.*
I’m not going to tell you that you can’t write a novel without having the slightest idea what in heaven it is about. It would come pretty hypocritical from me, since I’ve done it.
Most of my novels start with a voice in my head, a line, a paragraph, the impression of a character I can’t evade.
But even I, at some point have to stop, step back and go “So, what is this book all about?” Now with some books (Darkship Thieves, coff) that only happened as I read my first draft, but that was a good time because it gave me the opportunity to reinforce it, as I did my revisions.
Still, even if your idea doesn’t come in the form of “this is a novel about the human condition” (that is not an idea, it’s a … condition.) or “this is a novel about a planet that decides to abolish sex differences” or something, you have to have an idea to start.
Now the idea might be where the character is, and what his situation is and a sense of who he is. My idea for A Few Good Men was this:
The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille burst open before the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.
They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.
Monsters like me.
So, I knew that he was in jail, and there is a prison break. I knew it was in the world of Darkships, so I knew the break was the break of Never-Never at the end of Darkship Thieves, and I knew that he was unjustly in jail (I don’t write anti-heros) and that somehow they’d got inside his head. And that was it.
His name came next, and then I had to find a possible way he had that name, since I’d killed the one character of that name.
But A Few Good Men was strange, as I literally wrote it a page at a time, having to trust that my subconscious. This is a very unnerving way to write and even though this was my 23 or 24th book, I was spooked. Don’t do a book that way if you can help it.
The one thing I know is that regardless of what form your idea comes in, fishing for ideas is much like any other fishing. About half of your ideas you’ll have to throw back because they’re just not big enough.
This is hard to explain, but after a while you get a sense for what is a strong enough idea, and what isn’t and cut the line before hooking it – i.e. before starting a novel. – Until that blessed time comes, you’ll have a “throw back” rate of about fifty percent.
Now this is not an excuse to leave things unfinished. A “this story isn’t strong enough to be a novel/doesn’t interest me enough for me to write” usually dies in the first chapter or second at most.
Some rules of thumb, though not always right, is that unless there are extraordinary circumstances, if the action takes place all in a day, it’s probably a short story, not a novel. Or if it’s a gimmick/problem story (you know, where the mcguffin must be found, or the mystery solved) and it’s not a mystery novel, and there are no red-herrings, chances are it’s a short story or at most a novella.
If you only have a couple of characters, the world is ours, and nothing/no one else is coming alive for you, you might not have a full novel.
Now, mind you, this is not hard and fast rules. Only one character in the Shakespeare novels ever came alive for me, and I had to steal the plot from Tam Lin. But a novel it was.
“But Sarah,” you say, “What if it’s larger than a novel?”
Well, yes, that is a problem too. If you’re a beginning writer, you usually don’t realize when you’ve hooked a trilogy. And I don’t know how to tell you how to figure it out, because it has to do with how you write plot.
Some writers take longer to write the same events than others. And I don’t mean take a long time (though some do that too) but take more book-time-space. Dave Drake says Bellisarius was the plot for ONE BOOK, until he handed it to Eric Flint, and it became a series.
The only thing I can advise is that if you find yourself passing page 400, you might have more than one novel, particularly if you find yourself passing page 400 and intend to publish indie.
Then there are the ideas you’ll hook which aren’t yours to write. This I also can’t give you hard and fast rules for. This too will get easier with practice.
At my time of the writing life, I KNOW when an idea is spiffy, but I can’t write it. This is why my husband’s “Maybe you should write political thrillers” was met with a scream of “Noooooo” and why the only work for hire I ever turned down (to be fair no one offers me many. I don’t watch TV and most people know that, so no show tie-ins, ever) was one that was “a struggle in the corridors of power.”
The reason is I can’t write it because I don’t believe in it. (Same reason I don’t have lesbian characters, at least none in whose head I dwell. Yes, I have lesbian friends. Yes, I know lesbians exist But my back brain refuses to believe anyone can fall in love with a woman. I can barely write it convincingly for my male characters, and that’s ONLY because I’ve been loved by a guy for 30 years [that still astonishes me, too!] so the dinosaur brain had to learn to cope.
So I could have a great idea for a lesbian romance in congress, but I couldn’t write it. And I know that.
Part of the reason I can’t write “in the corridors of power” novels is that I don’t believe in politics and centralized government. Yes, like lesbian love I KNOW they happen, but rational knowledge is not what’s involved in ”selling” it in story telling. THAT is a gut-knowledge or gut belief. And that you can’t command. Now, if you feel it’s worth it to have years of therapy to write a novel, go for it. I’m still at large and the various psych professionals can’t find me.
You’ll have to find your own blind spots.
Now, let’s say you have an idea, or a character, or half a dozen lines that intrigue you. How do you write this novel?
Stay tuned tour thrilling next episode: Reading The Road Map of Plot.