How to Write a Novel: The Emmie Way
I got a really nice email about three weeks ago. And because I am terrible, I didn’t answer it until today because A: it got lost in a filter (now fixed), and B: crazy life schtuff. After I sent it, I went to feed the kitties, and I thought, yanno, it might help somebody else.
I need a friendly kick in the ass.
So I’ve been writing for a few years. I have no problem writing and finishing short stories, but I can’t seem to finish a fucking novel to save my life (seriously, there’s this dude with a gun and he says I better finish a book or else). But honestly, what the fuck… I get stuck after the first few chapters. I dunno, fear of boring the reader? How do you keep the story interesting without just skipping to the exciting ending? What am I missing? In other words: HOW DO YOU DO EEEET!? WRITING IS HAAAAARRD!
So please, fooking kick me in me fooking arse.
Ahem. This calls for a Chuck GIF.
Writing IS hard.
*gathers you all to my bosom and pats*
*releases before anyone makes it weird*
DON’T MAKE IT WEIRD
Okay, we’re back. Ass-kicking time!
A novel is a rather small thing, but it is also a very VAST thing. It needs a lot to make it go, and a lot besides a spine and binding to make it stand up on its own. Here’s how I do it. YMMV, you do you, refer to previous post re: writing advice, check it against your bullshit-o-meter and proceed accordingly, etc.
Step numero uno is making sure you have an idea that is big enough for a novel. I would recommend picking up a couple craft books at this stage. 1. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, and 2. Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass. Both of those books talk about honing ideas at the idea stage, and I found both of them to be indispensable when I was learning to write novels.
A lot of people rec Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s On the Bird, which are both lovely books, but they’re written very much from the perspective of flinging their arms wide and prancing about saying “just write write write and the craft will come!” which…okay…is nice and kind of fine (and those books are both very entertaining and merit-ful on their own), but craft IS something that can be learned intentionally, and basically Stephen King took 20 years to figure out how to write a novel and THAT IS A REALLY LONG TIME YOU DON’T NEED TO DO THAT.
When I get a novel idea it usually works like this: (YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY EVERYBODY IS WEIRD AND DIFFERENT)
1. First line pops into my head and I jot it down with an urgent zomg
2. The idea for the main character saunters into my head with a hey how ya doin’
3. The end happens and/or
4. The antagonist waves frantically from the other side of my brain
5. I sit down and scribble the first chapter or so in one giant burst
6. I sit down and figure out the main structural points of the story (READ STORY ENGINEERING)
7. I figure out the other main and secondary characters, where they fit, sub-plots, etc.
8. I plot it in quartiles, the plot turns often working backward from each main structural point
9. The first quartile of actual drafting makes me think I’m the absolute worst ever
10. The second makes me want to cry because HOW DID THIS GET SO COMPLICATED
11. The third feels marginally better, interspersed with panic
12. The fourth is usually, “I could finish this in a day if I really had to, so WRITE JACKASS WRITE” (aka, my brain is an asshole)
13. It’s done, I run circles around the house (sometimes literally) because my brain then will not shut off for several hours.
Ooh, 13 steps. I like that.
Okay, so to go back to the structure thing (READ STORY ENGINEERING), there are three major things I figure out before I start chapter 2 that hold up the story’s middle (this is número 6):
1. The First Plot Point. Larry’ll teach you all about this, but it happens 20-25% through your story (that is important) and it is the first time our hero catches a true glimpse of what they’re up against. This may be the main antagonist, it may not. It’s the first major break into a new act. It needs to have emotional weight, plot significance, and push the protagonist to make a choice.
2. The Midpoint. This is at the 50% mark. AT. Like…you should be able to crack most published novels open halfway and be right at this spot in the plot. This is the point where the context shifts. The hero/es thought they knew everything, but really they are Jon Snow or something. In the first Ayala book
(which you may have read, and if not SPOILER SPOILER it’s in white, so highlight the rest of this line to see it), it’s when Mason speaks for to Ayala on top of that building. It’s NOT the big pants-wetting gore scene from a moment before. It’s those words coming out of the mouth of a monster that change everything for her.
3. The Second Plot Point. This is the kick-the-ball-down-the-hill moment, the last bit of revelatory info-giving that allows the hero to propel the plot into the climax. This is often preceded by an all is lost, dark night of the soul moment, but not always.
Once you know what those things are, it’s a lot easier to fill in the gaps than if you just know where the story starts and where the story ends and try to jump across from there. These are the things that hold the whole damn thing up and help ensure you don’t get Soggy Middle Syndrome.
Some people figure all that out by the seat of their trousers, and that’s fine — but even those people will have to make sure the finished product is structurally sound when they finish.
Lest it sound formulaic, think of every movie script ever. Screenwriters are given an incredibly rigid structural format when they learn their craft. Also think of a house. They all have walls and ceilings and roofs, whether they’re made out of cardboard, tarps, drywall, or brick. A house can look like so many things, even if they’re all made of a similar structural format.
SO GO FORTH AND SCRIBBLE. (Read first though, seriously; those books changed my world.)
And when you’re done with the first novel, go track down Margie Lawson’s lecture packets on self-editing, because she’s a winner and her lecture packets ALSO changed my world.
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