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.

Safe. Writing too.

I know my blog has been lacking as of late – and will be again – but in the meantime, I will get at it as I am writing as I should, attempting to complete a third draft of Aqaara, the second part of my speculative trilogy. Anyway, here is an expunged scene:

“You ever been on the subway in New York, Faith?”

“Yes, of course I have.”

“Ever take your son there?”

She looked scared, like she might leave. “Yes.”

“I was on the subway a few years ago, and there were two men arguing, two guys yelling at each other. Everybody backed away from them. It was the commuter rush. Nobody wanted to get near. And then one of them punched the other guy, hard, knocking him backwards into a wooden bench.”

“Bam! Bam!” The boy jumped up and down.

“The guy yelled, ‘And stay down!’ And walked right onto the train with us. No one spoke. He was standing right beside me. I knew I should have said something. ‘You assaulted that man! That is a crime! You can’t do that.’ But I didn’t. I said nothing. I did nothing, like everyone else. I was afraid he might have a gun or a knife. That’s what I told myself. The subway doors closed. He looked around at all of us, defiant. Nobody would meet his eyes. And we stayed like that, us commuters just going home like it was a normal day, a criminal with us now, and then it pulls into the next stop, 59th Street, and he gets off. I looked at the woman next to me. We were both so relieved to have him gone. The doors closed, and we continued on our way.”