Novel Writing 101

So you want to be a writer. If you’re a WordPress enthusiast, chances are you may be a writer already. Maybe, like many of us, you think you might be or would like to be a writer, but have little understanding of what writing might actually entail. The good news is, there are a number of useful books already published on the matter from which the literary aspirant can glean wisdom (I highly recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing,” though I absolutely disagree with a good bit of it.) And, in even better news, there’s a free guide right in front of you.

I am not a published author. However, I am acquainted with the writing process on a level of intimacy which, I believe, qualifies me to make the following judgments concerning my experiences with literary composition, in the hopes that you, too, can find them useful on your own path to linguistic renown (or give your own dissenting and presumably useful opinion – I’ve got a lot to learn, too.)

First of all, and I think King will agree with me on this one, writing is all about finding a “space.” Stories spin themselves out within certain mental parameters that construct the boundaries and intricacies of wholly different worlds within an author’s mind, and to go there you are going to want a physical and mental space that will minimize distraction and catalyze inspiration, ultimately dragging you more deeply into the story and away from this goofy primary reality we all spend so much time complaining about.

I’m not saying you need to sprint off to Ikea and drop your savings on a well-equipped office – a laptop and a familiar tree will be just as sufficient, weather permitting. If you’re feeling glitzy, a cup of coffee and a good bowl are as much as you’ll probably need in the way of glamour.

Which brings me to my next point. Oftentimes, the Dickenses and Hemingways of the world are cited as irrefutable proof that one must be a drug-mongering addict to succeed as an author. This is bullshit. Those familiar with my work at PGT will know that I am unapologetically pro drug use, and even I am called to stand against this errant myth. I do believe it is true that there are certain types of people who are inclined, by their psyucho-spiritual constitution, to write in certain ways and even with a certain zeal; and that these people often find themselves compelled to indulge in abusables recreationally. This correlation is a coincidence of nature – wild, drugged out aesthetic types tend to be prolific. They and I could easily write just as well sober.

If you are so inclined, however, and not too dodgy on the heart, I’ve always had luck with the “hippie speedball.” Caffeine and cannabis were simply meant to be taken together by aspiring authors with a certain disregard for their own physical health.

So you’ve found your space, chemically and physically, and you’re almost ready to write. Now that you’ve got that, I’m going to contradict myself. You do not need extravagantly aesthetic surroundings to produce literature, but they can help a lot. After attaining the proper mental state, I would sit at my desk in my apartment, with a lava lamp and a computer speaker on either side, and crank something suitably mood-inducing before I really got writing. Since my current project is a combination of adult fantasy and Hessian introspection, I tend to play darker, more surreal songs while I write (Tool, Opeth, NearLy, etc.). The rule should be anything that gets you grooving, even if it’s silence.

As for the actual writing, a novel is clearly something one does not attempt in one sitting. I personally am writing my first draft without chapter breaks, because the final size and content of the story will determine where these breaks are best placed (I believe this placement to be a critical aspect of pacing.) Writing with a goal of “I will write X number of words” or “I will advance the story to point Y” is advisable, if your aspirations are realistic. Still – and this is where I cop to unpardonable slack-assery – these things take time, and often I find that sitting down to do “goal X” makes everything seem more like work, and actually impedes my getting anywhere.

Some people say this is bullshit. A friend of mine, who would later go on to achieve blogging renown as the infamous HelloLion, once counseled me that until you’ve won a Pulitzer, you’re not allowed to have writer’s block. I generally endorse this maxim; which is not to say that I haven’t discarded, spat on, and generally ignored it (my work has probably suffered for this.) Then again, I also like to say that writing is a lot like masturbation – sometimes you produce a little, sometimes the paper before is veritably dripping with your seed, but the bottom line is that you enjoyed the process.

In Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, there is a selection wherein the Danish sage analogizes complaints about the way of things to a character in a novel telling their author “No, I won’t do that.” Contrary to this, it is my experience that when a character does this, you had better not make him do that – it will not bode well.

Writing, as King reminds us, is about telling the truth. No matter how much it would help fulfill your pre-conceived (and admittedly precious) notion of what the book will look like, there is nothing more pathetic than passing the buck to a character and asking him to lie for you. The lie has done been told, and the reader is going to know it.

Right now, I am at a crucial point with my current project. I began with aspirations of a novella, maybe something in the vicinity of seventeen thousand words. I am now around seventy seven and a half thousand, with no clear idea of how I’m going to get from that point to the ending (maybe around a hundred thousand, though I don’t care to constrain the work with a preset word count, and don’t necessarily suggest that you should either.)

The point is, one of my characters, a high-profile antagonist, is pulling things in a certain direction well before another character could conceivably get where I would like her to be before said direction is pursued. I could rewrite, backpaddle, and force my plotline down my character’s throats, but what I’m going to do is to send the party into battle without her. The characters I am utilizing here are all big names within the story, and I have the sort of relationship with them where I know can trust them with a little bit of freedom. If you don’t, you might want to think about either adding some character depth or controlling the work less.

This, of course, is my perspective. Maybe you’re a completely Type A detail-fiend – I’m not. I can only show you what has worked for me.

There are two more things I want to address before I release you to your writing space. The first is the notion of perfectionism. A fairly high-profile writer once told me that it is impossible write and to edit simultaneously. The journey from first draft to final publication allows plenty of time for revision, and it is imperative that the work be completed before you begin agonizing over whether or not that last sentence in that bit of dialogue really warrants a hyphen, or whether a semi-colon would prove sufficient.

Just as it is impossible to write and edit at one time, so do I recommend you separate the conception of the story from the articulation. As I write, I will inevitably come upon the point where my vision is waning, at which time I will stop, save my progress, and go for a walk. Sometimes I can ad lib the next chapter, and I’ve done incredible work doing just that, but sometimes you just can’t build without a blueprint. Take a minute, take twenty, and just get your ideas together. With some effort, some faith, and maybe a moment to rekindle your fading buzz, it will all come together.

Red Pill Neo is a contributing writer for Project Group Think. Follow us on Twitter – we’re “PGTblog”!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Novel Writing 101

  1. There are several things you mentioned in here that make me very happy, and I tend to agree with:
    “a cup of coffee and a good bowl are as much as you’ll probably need in the way of glamour.”
    and: “Contrary to this, it is my experience that when a character does this, you had better not make him do that – it will not bode well.”

    To address the atmosphere, I have found that much of my successful writing has been done in smokey cafes and bars or any secluded area I could find when the mood struck me. In high school, when I was without paper, I would often write on body parts until I could leave. Nowadays I usually have some form of paper always on me.

    Additionally, I feel that part of the atmosphere is having writing paraphernalia that is personal and appropriate for the writing piece. For example, I have my 1. creative and experimental writing pieces, 2. my notes on (for lack of a better term) magic, and 3. I have my academic science pieces. Each have separate notebooks (or folders). Magical notes are almost exclusively written by hand in a black moleskine. Creative works go into a personal small notebook that I have chosen to fit my mood or mindset. Many of my darker pieces are kept in a maroon velvet notebook with smokey-colored pages. My light observations are in a journal with brightly colored geometric shapes. My scientific research notes are in my tightly bound lab notebook, on my work PC and on small scratch pads. Depending on my dedication to a piece, one notebook may be exclusively for that piece. Blogs are arranged in a similar fashion: theskinhorse being a kind of all purpose personal one, psychedelichorse being an exclusively experiential one and a hidden one under a different name for acid-spitting and whining (it needs an outlet, too).

    I like writing by hand, even if this means I must transcribe it later onto the computer anyway. Writing by hand feels like a more organic experience to me, and I feel it is important to go through that process with significant creative pieces. Additionally, I can look back and see what I crossed out or modified without saving numerous versions on my computer. Transcribing the piece makes editing necessary, and with the time it takes to decipher my own passion-possessed handwriting, it allows me to read my piece more carefully without glossing over certain details.

    I am rambling, but bear with me. (You got me too excited about this post.)

    re: Characters
    I completely agree with you in that a writer should respect the evolution and development of a character. Creating characters, imo, is not about control. A writer relinquishes control after he creation and “childhood” of a character. They go through life processes much like ourselves. Once their consciousness and drive is evident, it almost feels dirty to me to try to steer their futures. Once a character exerts a kind of independence, I can only set their stages and give them opportunities; I feel that they must choose and act on their own. So what if my original conception and projection do not come to fruition? Just as parents should not live through their children, I should not push to live through my characters. They were made for more than just me.

    Currently, I am working with characters whose kind has rich history and mythology behind them. My Salamander may be different in some ways from the traditional elemental or alchemical being, but there is no way I can deny its heavy Fire influence. My hyena may be breaking the “evil” or nasty reputation they gain in many myths, but I cannot separate them from their Solar and Lunar natures or their matriarchal social structure.

    Sure, a bit of ourselves will be in our characters and a bit of them will be reflected in us, but the distinction should not be lost and their life is not our life.

    “I could rewrite, backpaddle, and force my plotline down my character’s throats, but what I’m going to do is to send the party into battle without her.”

    Good. :) I don’t think she’s ready for the battle then. Perhaps she has her own internal one to face before any physical one can manifest.
    I noticed in writing my current story that all of sudden my characters are ‘here’ doing ‘this thing’ that I didn’t really plan for, and I am left scratching my head and asking myself how they actually got there. I realize that I have loose ends to tie up or bigger concepts to explain, but I trust the evolution of the story itself. These smaller journeys and tangents within the story occur for a reason. Sure, upon editing, I may realize that a scene doesn’t quite “belong,” but that is part of the editing process. Likely I needed to get it out in order for myself to move on and understand my characters (or atmosphere) more.

    As you could tell, I really enjoyed today’s post. Cheers, the red-pilled Neo.

    -K

  2. jakefunc

    “Which brings me to my next point. Oftentimes, the Dickenses and Hemingways of the world are cited as irrefutable proof that one must be a drug-mongering addict to succeed as an author. This is bullshit. Those familiar with my work at PGT will know that I am unapologetically pro drug use, and even I am called to stand against this errant myth. I do believe it is true that there are certain types of people who are inclined, by their psyucho-spiritual constitution, to write in certain ways and even with a certain zeal; and that these people often find themselves compelled to indulge in abusables recreationally. This correlation is a coincidence of nature – wild, drugged out aesthetic types tend to be prolific. They and I could easily write just as well sober.”

    I disagree with you on this point. Sure, you and these other drug-addled authors could “easily write just as well sober”, but would whatever it is that your sober ass has written be worth my time reading?

    Toke up some random guy with no musical experience and hand him a guitar; I doubt anything wonderful will come from it. Replace said douschebag with a musician with 10+ years of experience, and you may very well be rewarded.

    Drugs and alcohol can add an edge to things. The users consciousness is altered, possibly giving them insight from within as well as different perceptions of their senses of the outside world.

    Not every drugged out tirade is worthwhile, but I feel that some authors like Hunter S. Thompson and Aldous Huxley would not have written such timeless works without a helping hand.

    (Or are you just referencing the act of actually writing? I have no idea which authors a guilty of WUI, Writing-Under-the-Influence, and I don’t think we’ll be able to find much evidence on their habits.)

    George R.R. Martin some brief advice for beginning writers:
    http://www.georgerrmartin.com/faq.html

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