The Novel Was THIS BIG — How to write a novel workshop — 6

There are entire books devoted to writing a “big” novel, including books with names like “How to write a blockbuster novel.”

This is not one of those books in post form.

Why is it not?

Because those books, by and large, were designed to write a novel that NYC publishers would recognize as big and promote. This is not something that matters much now. For one because unless you hit a very narrow field of their current obsessions, or unless you happen to be sleping with one of them, it’s unlikely to do you much good.

Those books would go on about how to hit matters of world-shattering concern, besides the normal problems of the characters, etc. If possible, they wanted you to put in… well, some form of activism or an important world figure. So, for instance, in the second book in the Shakespeare biography, my then agent forced me to have Queen Elizabeth I show up. I just told him to take a hike when he suggested she be a voice character. (Queens aren’t interesting, unless the story is about, you know, the signing of edicts and such.)

I always found it very artificial that historical books had to have these “socially relevant talk D*MN REGENCY ROMANCE featuring either a suffragette or a woman who ran an abused women shelter? Because, yeah. It’s not at the point of hitting the wall, yet, if the rest of the book is interesting, but it’s annoying as heck.

And it’s because that’s one way to get the publishers to target it for a lot of distribution. It’s “Serious” and about “big issues.”

If you want to break into that type of market, figure out what the talking heads are making much about and go for it. I wish you luck.

There are two other meanings to a big story. The first one is not synonymous with “long” but it almost for sure ends up meaning “long.” – that is a novel that ends up with lots of subplots. I accidentally did this with Witchfinder, when it exploded into a four-heads (or six?) novel with various settings. It wasn’t meant to be that way, and it made the novel very long.

Two things: this type of big book is better because it allows you to bring in a complexity of views and a more complete understanding of your world (this is particularly good in speculative fiction.) OTOH it is bad, unless you can tightly control the theme and the multiple stories, so they converge/touch at certain points and follow a central problem/disruption. Otherwise what you have is a salad, not a book.

On the other hand, you can have a big book even if you have a SHORT book and/or it is first person or third person following a single character. Here in no particular order are the things that make a book “big” as opposed to small.



A big book is thoroughly imagined

  • This means that you don’t move your characters through a blank landscape
  • Your secondary characters aren’t chess pieces, and how they are affected means something for the main character, too. And sometimes it can alter the story.
  • Your character doesn’t get so concentrated on the main problem that he’s two dimensional. Yes, in the middle of apocalyptic events, people still need to eat, sleep and (if they’re lucky) bathe.

A big book doesn’t putty over the weak spots.

  • Or at least not all of them.
  • Every book has weak spots, places where you need something to happen that is maybe the fourth most likely thing, or something that’s out of character, or… A big book spends time making it more likely and goes back and foreshadows the d*mn thing, instead of dropping it, elephant-like from the ceiling.
  • A big book makes the most of the tension, instead of veering away from it, because you’re sorry for your character.
  • A big book goes there. Yes, that scary thing, that bloody scene, that part where the character unwinds/is sick/wounded? A big book goes there.

A big book has richness of setting or characters.

– Unless that is the point of the story, make sure not all your characters are one thing, be they space captains or waitresses

– Unless that is the point of your story, make sure not all your settings are the same type. Not all classrooms, not all public parks, not all diners (ah!), not all public transportation. IF your characters had the last big fight in the bedroom, take them out to the ice-cream parlor for the next one.

– Remember that you don’t have to pay for special effects. If you’re writing about magic or space battles, give as rich a description as you can. I’ve found, over time, that people like that (heaven knows why, but they do. Apparently they pay you to imagine that stuff for them, not being able/willing to imagine it themselves.)


Now go consider embigenning your novel.

Next week The Perils of multiple POVs or How to Braid a Plot.

Disclaimer: I don’t know if big novels do better with the public.  No one does.  All I can tell you is that they SEEM to.


  1. So Lois Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt would be an example of that last type of big book?

      1. C4C means “Comment For Comments”. Unless you know how to work WordPress, it’s the only way to see other people’s comments via email. Note, the people doing the ‘C4C’ also “check” the “notify me of new comments via email” checkbox.

  2. “Make the most of the tension…” Does that mean I have to describe in detail the part where the king has his men beat the MC to a pulp? Or, just that he does get beaten to a pulp? (Which I felt bad about, trust me).

    1. Good question, and one I’ve wondered about. I’m not one for graphic descriptions of pain and abuse, and will avoid them as a reader. BUT you can’t brush off a major, plot-changing scene with “and the king had his men beat him to a pulp.” This may sound odd, but take a look at the early Dick Francis mysteries. His heroes were always beaten and tortured. It’s been a while since I read them, but I remember Francis would describe the beating/torture in simple, straightforward language, then punched up the horror with the hero’s reactions.

      1. Will do. This is my NaNo story, and I’m only just now learning what one of the important characters wants. I already know I need to go backfill all of that.
        I described the beating. I was kind of hoping I could go undescribe it after i didn’t need the word count anymore. I really felt like I had “gone there.” Now, I will backfill the MC’s reactions to the beating. I kind of wanted to get away from it. I did much better with the emotional blow he suffered at the first turn in the W plot. This poor guy finished his military service and he and his new bride went off on a starship to a new colony world. The ship got lost and he awakens three centuries later to a devolved feudal state. And then things start to get bad.

          1. Might I solicit a critique? I don’t know what the proper protocol is, but I’ll put up a vignette from National Novel Writing Month for anyone who has the time. Is it too bloody, to graphic, to improbable? I could make the men more proficient, expand it into a chapter, but my intent is to build the character ‘Akiko’. The story (at this point) is about a young girl growing up on the space based equivalent of an archeology dig. At this point in the story she is a young adult, and an expert on the Alien vessel they are attempting to get back into operation.

            Link is in my name.

  3. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is such a book, though little more than a novella.
    It has been made into three movies so far, although the most recent one missed the point of the story.

  4. Looks at elephant-shaped hole in plot. Looks at ceiling. So *that’s* where it came from. Buys multiple buckets of spackle. Sigh.

  5. “…a salad, not a book.”
    :: Sigh :: I haz this problem. Unconnected subplots just proliferate like dust bunnies. Sometimes I can pull them out and turn them into a short story, sometimes they can become relevant with a bit of maneuvering.

  6. “Apparently they pay you to imagine that stuff for them, not being able/willing to imagine it themselves.” .. Meh – I can imagine stuff, but when reading for entertainment I don’t have anywhere near the time required to flesh it out the way the author who created this universe can, going off into that speculation will break the flow, AND I know I’ll probably get it “wrong” – i.e. not supportive of what the author will do with it later. So – details by author = goodness.

  7. How to write a big story?
    Start with a short story and add to it?
    Thoroughly imagined? From the very beginning, or it just kinda grows.?

    Unrelated sub plots, like the old daytime soap operas when the second wife’s third affair produces a replicant that unexpectedly shows up at Thanksgiving dinner?

    “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf” starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (Ok I just threw that in there because I didn’t understand any of that movie.)

    Please expedite that next piece; multiple points of view. I really need that one, seriously, no joke. I just hope I can understand it.

    Thank you for your efforts. I am trying to learn this craft despite my tendency to heresy. Can’t help it, it’s genetic, re enforced by environment.

    Post Script. If I were to build a piece of fine cabinetry, I would start with an image of the finished product, and detailed engineering drawings, before making the first cut. Ok, I get the point.

      1. “It’s in my head, I just don’t have it written down.”
        I have experienced that.

        In boat building, wooden boat building, there is a thing called a ‘moaning chair’ where the builder can sit and moan about the mistakes that have to be corrected as he gazes at the skeletal outline of a looming catastrophe.

    1. Writing and fine cabinetry are a tough comparison . . . The first draft of a book is that rough sketch, where you decided what to build, the size, the style, how many doors, and/or drawers, glass front or solid wood? What wood would be best . . .
      Then you edit that rough draft, get it all together. (Draw your image of the finished furniture.) Send it out to trusted readers for a critique. (Ask someone whose tastes you trust if they think you’ve got the proportions right.) Work over the rough spots the beta readers pointed out. (Make the upper cupboards glass fronted, the lower wood.) Send it for copy and continuity editing. (Fire up the drafting tools, and get the detailed engineering drawing done.)

      With writing, the word processor has removed the problem of “mis-cutting the wood” and having to type it all over again. And ebooks remove the labor and parts costs, the need for expensive machinery, and warehousing the furniture until the store wants it.

      1. In the olden days, wooden boats were built from ‘the lines’ scribed on the shop floor. Arcs that were drawn by eye and specified the hull cross section, and the fore and aft lines that described the vessel’s profile. Everything else was in the builder’s head.

        My imagination starts with a character and a situation,, and I do wish I could have been like the characters I imagine. Go ahead and laugh, I wanna be my heroes, and I want other people to want to be like the heroes I imagine.

        ‘The lines’ of the story start out as vignettes.

        If you liked ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’ the whole thing was a set up for the scene where River Tam is revealed by the opening door. And it was a fun story all the way through.

  8. So, would you say it’s harder to write a big book if you’re writing in First person, since you don’t have the luxury of changing points of view or jumping over to another character to follow a subplot?

      1. Speaking as a reader, I see no reason that an author couldn’t have more than one “First Person narrators”.

        The author would have to be more careful about making sure the reader realized that he had changed POV. [Smile]

        1. I know I’ve read books that had one first person POV and one or more third person POV. I find the switch kind of annoying but not put the book down worthy by itself. It’s very clear whose head you’re in, though.

          1. I think I’ve seen something like that too. IIRC, the POV only changed at the chapter, and the chapter actually had a subheading indicating who it was.

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