Five Things Not To Do When Trying To Write Your First Novel
Some people suppress an insistent urge to attempt novel-length fiction all their lives. That’s like giving yourself permission to hide from who you are. If your soul is that of a writer, to write is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Like many novice writers, you may be overwhelmed with the process of producing a novel. Here are five suggestions for your journey.
*ONE - Don’t force your writing, but DO write often, even if you’re just making notes.*
You will often hear practitioners advise you to “write every day.” Some sit down and consort with their muse at five o’clock every morning without fail, and some work from an outline. If these techniques work for you, that’s great, but don’t berate yourself if you tend to write sporadically and randomly.
In the book, The Writer’s Desk, by Jill Krementz, Stephen King was quoted as saying that he doesn’t take notes, doesn’t outline and tends to just “flail away” at the thing.
You will find that when you reach a certain point in a story and the pieces are starting to assemble, you will have a natural desire to spend time at the keyboard. But some days, the words and ideas will hide behind cement walls. You should just let them hide. They will come out when they’re ready; just present them with plenty of opportunities.
You’ve probably heard the suggestion to keep a notepad, electronic device, or some other method for capturing those juicy little snippets and fragments at impact, to be sorted and scrutinized later. They come from reading, watching, eavesdropping and experiencing life, and they come without warning.
My own experience has been that those little scraps of paper or digital bytes do lead to plot ideas, character profiles and dialogue passages. I had a large file box of such material when I sat down to work on the first draft of Wearing the Spider. The concept for the title came to me while hiking on a remote tropical island, and I jotted down my thoughts on a trail map.
* TWO - Don’t stop reading and viewing others’ writings. *
Writing instructors will tell you that you must read with almost the same intensity with which you write. You must learn to see, hear, observe and absorb your environment like a writer. The other day, my three-year-old asked me, “Can you wonder…?” Indeed. It occurred to me that the answer to this question may be the primary pre-requisite for any kind of creative writing.
You will experience the written word in a new way once you’ve tried writing. The novelist illuminates the level of consciousness that is sensed, felt and heard only by the heart. Novelists give voice to the unspoken and good ones do it with a rich serenade of words. To fully understand this concept, you must make reading other fiction a large component of your ongoing education. Synapses in our minds network in ways we can only speculate about. Components of others’ stories, plots and characters ignite epiphanies and stir emotions in our own subconscious mind, where the best stories originate.
While viewing the work of another writer, however, keep in mind the parameters of general copyright law. The original expression of an idea is protected under U.S. and international copyright laws the moment it is captured in a fixed medium of expression. You cannot legally copy any amount of another’s writing and call it your own. And, if you do use the words of another, you must attribute and, in most cases, seek permission from the copyright holder.
Even when a writer borrows small quantities, but also utilizes the same theme or format, or follows the pattern of expression, he or she can run afoul of copyright law. There are exceptions under various categories of “fair use,” but one should contact an attorney who specializes in copyright law for specific guidance.
While taking notes from someone else’s work, you must capture enough information for attributions and permissions that may be necessary, depending upon the portions you use. If you are simply tracking your inspirations and free thoughts that come from the stimulation of another’s writings, you should jot down that fact in your notes so that you won’t wonder whether a particular passage was a summary or paraphrase months later when sorting through a miscellaneous stack.
* THREE - Don’t cloister yourself. *
You must be in the presence of life to editorialize about it. The richness of life and the serendipity of social interaction are crucial to the evolution of your novel. The natural flow of conflict, resolution, affinity and antipathy make for interesting characters. Don’t take yourself out of circulation while penning stories, as you may be missing an influence of great importance. And, it’s not uncommon to find valuable storylines in the troughs of life. Conflict is good.
The development of a good story can be compared to the creation of a pearl in the “womb” of an oyster. An irritating grain of sand prompts the oyster to surround the intruding particle with mother of pearl. So, that irritant is the nucleus of enduring beauty, just as the challenges a character embraces in a tale can gracefully illustrate strength of conviction.
As a novelist, you will be courting conflict at every juncture of the writing process. Harvesting the obstacles in your own life is a suitable means by which to find it.
* FOUR - Don’t be afraid of where the story takes you. *
I’ve heard many writers say that well-crafted characters, with whom you’ve let yourself become properly acquainted, will actually tell you their story. Many have written about the “voyeuristic” role of the writer.
When I started writing Wearing the Spider, I didn’t really believe this. I tried to be in control of the direction of the plot, but I discovered that I was sacrificing some level of authenticity. The more time I spent thinking and writing about the characters I’d created, and the more I “watched” them in my mind, the more vocal they became, informing me when I’d committed a misstep in the telling of their story. When I decided to let myself truly follow the course of action that a character seemed to be dictating, the story became much more authentic and interesting.
For example, in Wearing the Spider, against the common wisdom, I let my lead character “decide” how to handle an incident of sexual harassment. Most people would advise a victim to report such an episode. But, having had such experiences myself, I know it is not so black and white.
How one reacts or doesn’t react is quite complex. A victim, who is frequently a female, must grapple with a number of unknowns: Will she be believed?; Does she have proof?; Did she do anything that might be interpreted as encouragement?; Could she have misunderstood the actions of the harasser?; What will they think she is expecting to gain by reporting the situation? And, even if she successfully neutralizes her harasser, how will she be treated by other men after the incident is documented, investigated and publicly-known?
* FIVE - Don’t send manuscripts out too early. *
Everyone needs an editor, even the most skilled and experienced of writers. There is simply no way to view your manuscripts objectively after you’ve spent hundreds of hours immersed in them. And, when you are just starting out, you must find your own. There are wonderful free-lance editors who will not only help you shape your vision, but teach you many things about your craft (and yourself). You can search any number of online writing resource sites, such as Preditors and Editors: http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/index.htm. You might also try contacting these New York based organizations: Words into Print at http://www.wordsintoprint.org and The Editors Circle at http://www.theeditorscircle.com.
Writing is not just putting words on paper. A good writer must develop artistic discernment - the ability to recognize whether or not a passage “has legs.” A good editor can help you develop this judgment, but it may take time. Be patient.
Good writing does not happen with the first draft and may not happen with the second or third. Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird that “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”
If you are destined to be a writer, you will feel the need to express yourself with words no matter what the outcome. Time will reveal whether or not your novel will find a home with a publisher, but no one can deny to you a feeling of triumph when you’re staring at a final manuscript bearing your name.
This article was posted on July 12, 2007
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