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.

Writing Tips from Great Writers

Writing advice is everywhere. The question is finding what works best for your craft. First, there is advice on the physical practice:

Jose Saramago: I do require a certain amount of written work per day, which usually corresponds to two pages. Two pages per day adds up to almost eight hundred per year.

Raymond Carver: Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.

Ernest Hemingway: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.

Writing Tips from Great Writers

And then there is advice on what you are writing.

Toni Morrison: Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.

Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Ian Fleming: Make sure that you don’t like your protagonist too much – or at all.

Writing Tips from Great Writers

Finally, there is the broader advice, how to understand exactly what you are doing.

Joan Didion: Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

Alice Munro: There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think honest feedback is very important. But it’s also hard to find. Other writers can be useful, also they can not, because they’re doing the same thing, and sometimes they want you to become like them.

Writing Tips from Great Writers

Writing Camp: Final Day at Kenyon

I learned a lot at my Kenyon College writing camp. I learned about when to use different forms of dialogue. I learned about revelations, voice and x and y. I learned about repetition. I learned to listen. Chris Tilghman is a lovely man. He guides with self-deprecating wisdom. He shares his soul in an easy, remarkable fashion. He and my colleagues – especially Caitlin Fitzpatrick, our writing fellow – buoyed my spirits, reminded me to be less of an ass and more a writer. Just listen.

The final lesson: Endings need to be surprising and yet inevitable. The writer needs to resolve things and have something else to say in the end. 

Writing Camp: Day Seven at Kenyon College

A writing guidebook doesn’t exist, and if it did, that would only confuse.

A story can’t be someone reflecting about their self. That’s boring. Same with the Uber Voice. Boring. The first person is interesting because it looks out at the world. The third person examines others in detail as well as, of course, the self. Seeing someone else through another’s eyes just might be the highest level of interiority. Omniscient first person, that’s the thing. Half of us are firsters. Half of us are thirders. In the end, first and third person is mere grammar. Boom, boom.

Writing Camp: Day Four at Kenyon College

I did a reading last evening, which was this: There weren’t any hours. They didn’t exist. Dee thought about that too much, every day she had been on this ship, every day if days had existed. But they didn’t. Those things, those ticks, didn’t exist, not anymore. And she didn’t understand what the point was of pretending they did. There were no months, no years, no millennia, no seconds. There was none of that. They didn’t have a sun, no weather, no storm coming, no frost, nothing like that, nothing that was real, nothing. They were relative to nothing. Absolutely nothing. She hated thinking about that, thinking it again and again. In spite of all of their schedules and notifications, their habits, despite what everyone said, none of that existed. They just didn’t have time anymore. There was no planet, no star, no system. They were relative to nothing. It was that simple. They no longer rotated. They no longer revolved around anything, and nothing revolved around them. There was no longer a gravitational field, nothing to hold them, to give them weight. They had removed themselves, purposely dropped themselves into the abyss. They had left. They were relative to nothing. And nothing was relative to them. They were separate, moving, independent, away, further, closer, something else, deeper, whatever the word would be, whatever they would concoct in the days, the not-days, the not-months, the not-years to come, that word that defined their current state, their collective morass, their disappearing, connected to nothingness, broken free, going too fast – .91 light speed? Really that speed? Really that?

Writing Camp: Day One at Kenyon College

I’ve arrived in Ohio for a writing conference or, as my niece calls it, ‘camp’. This is actually – her favorite word – a more accurate description given not so much the bucolic atmosphere as the bleak accommodations. It’s the sort of place – despite the well-placed trees and 200-year history – that does not inspire as much as subdue. My best work from the day: The fucking earnestness of discussing the horrors of the world when they are so far away – that deeper feeling of humanity, the western mind – is what is wrong with this fucking world, pretending to care, to love, to be willing to die for, when the truth is, the time will come – it’s called 5pm – when they don’t care because the children have come home and a favorite show is on. And that is all.

Being at a writing nadir, more interested in my video poker than figuring out what I should be writing next, I need more than new writers who think they might be interested in writing but aren’t quite sure.I know I am being judgmental, but I really have to get out of my sci-fi quagmire!