The Five Basics of Novel Writing

Basic #1 You need something gnawing at you, some sort of singular understanding of the key to existence or just a character in panda jammies.

The first book which I wrote was inspired by the image of a group of prostitutes being driven across the country in a tractor trailer. Don’t ask why, but that was the idea that came into my head late at night in a Parisian apartment. It developed into my first novel The Sacred Whore.

My second book was based on the impossible idea of a landowner refusing to mine a rich deposit of gold to keep his land pristine, which evolved into Manitou Island.

My latest work, a speculative trilogy about a generational journey to another planet, was borne out of an image of a serval by a watering hole.

Photo credit: Micheal Nichols, National Geographic

This image was the impetus for four books and some fifteen years of writing.

One thing to be careful of in your inspiration mode is the issue of the moment. Avoid delving into a topic that has recently impacted you. In other words, you need at least a couple more years before writing your Covid-19 piece.

Basic #2 Manage your work as it comes out of you, bit by bit. You need to write what needs to be written, which could be anything from a full outline to a character description or snippets of dialogue. Whatever it is, build out from there.

The key to this step is patience. You have to wait for the moment and/or characters to reveal themselves. I came to understand this when writing The Sacred Whore, I was stuck in the middle of the book and realized I had way too many characters (something like 20) and decided to eliminate half of them. The funny thing was that one of the characters I tried to eliminate – Chantal Deschampes – immediately wanted back in the story. It wasn’t my idea. It was hers. That’s when I knew I had something.

Basic #3 When you’re stuck, go back to the beginning and go through it again. Get the momentum you need to continue and just plow ahead. You have to face the simple fact that a lot of what you have already written is junk and will eventually be deleted.

It’s like being stuck in the snow or mud in your car. You’ve got to go back, dig out the rear wheels, clean the path, and get a little space to move ahead. You have to do this again and again, so much so that your first page gets rewritten a hundred times, which can be a good thing. Or not. But don’t worry about that now.

Basic #4 Leave the work alone for a long period of time, at least half a year. If not more. Let it ruminate. Your eyes need to be new. Let go of everything you held tight and see if it still works without you wishing it along.

This is probably the area that I personally need to work on the most. I can be impatient and move ahead when I should be waiting. I have only recently learned to enlist the work of a professional editor. Hopefully that helps me turn the corner at long last.

Basic #5 It’s time to share, to submit to agents, to attend conferences and workshops, to do that over and over again. You need a tanker load of luck with this. I’ve had the equivalent of a toy tugboat. I’ve tried for many years now and have even had a few decent conversations and follow-up emails. But then it ends.

Leaving me with the pictures of sunsets and goody bags of pens and paper. And so I take the hint and start all over again.

Bad News Hustlers: Sports in a Scene

Sporting moments can make for effective points in the narrative arc – both the highs and lows – and draw the audience in.

Bad News Hustlers: Sports in a Scene

Bad News Bears

But most often they don’t. The team scores. Everybody cheers. So what?

Bad News Hustlers: Sports in a Scene

The Natural

These moments are too grounded in winning; the immediacy is all that matters. Indeed, one of the weakest moments in my script, Sister Prometheus, is a game of badminton between the Adamantine sisters. Virginia and Willow are the younger siblings and have something to prove.

WILLOW serves the shuttlecock. VIRGINIA slams it back for a winner. WILLOW lobs to LOUISE who serves. DIANE volleys back. LOUISE volleys. Bad News Hustlers: Sports in a SceneWILLOW volleys. DIANE drops. WILLOW volleys. VIRGINIA volleys. WILLOW drops. DIANE volleys. LOUISE slams it for the winner.

Yes, it’s badminton; there’s lots of volleying. I’ve inserted the glares, exclamations, even a bit of profanity, but it’s still flat. And so I took them out again. It was too stuffed and pointless.

Bad News Hustlers: Sports in a Scene

Caddyshack

The key in these sporting moments is in the stakes, as the script gurus say, making the winning proposition more than a game. Something real.

Bad News Hustlers: Sports in a Scene

The Hustler

It’s not the game that matters, but why they’re playing it.

VIRGINIA (Slumping over the shuttlecock): Fucking birdie.