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How To Write A Novel Without Reading A 'how To' Book
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So, you've decided to write a novel.
Good for you.
It's a big project to take a bite from, and to be successful, you need to finish the meal and wipe the gravy from the plate with a napkin. In other words, don't be the yutz who starts then never gets back to it.
I hope this miniaturized gleaning provides some assistance. If not, well, you can always complete an MFA program in Fiction.
Before jumping in with fork and knife, I would like to start with a some advice. You have heard this before, along with a thousand other nibblets that somewhat float about your head and come to the surface when someone new says it in a different light. It doesn't matter, as it bears repeating.
Before you begin, you must make a blood pact with yourself to write the novel. You must sit in that chair everyday, in seclusion, with the internet disabled. You must have an iron butt. You must write every day, and it must be productive writing toward your ultimate goal. You must know why you are writing a novel. Copping out with, 'I just want to be famous,' or, 'I want that hefty $5.74 royalty check every other week,' are not adequate declarations of writing purpose. Appropriate reasons might be, but are not limited to, having a need to share you unique perspective on simian romance in northern Japan, scaring the living bejeebus out of your readers with tales of knife sharpening and saturated fats, or the ever popular, disappointing your parents. Whatever the case, you must clearly understand and be able to verbalize your purpose.
And one last thing I'd like to throw in - for the love of all that's good between the Earth's core and the depths of space, you must be comfortable with your creativity.
That being said, let's cut into this over-sized slab of brisket.
#1 - Tool of the Trade
Just like a Boy Scout, you can't write if you are not prepared, so - if you don't have a notebook/journal already dedicated to your project, go down to your local mom and pop stationary store and buy the most expensive one you can find. I'm not kidding. The one I'm currently working in is bound with re-purposed, antique corinthian leather. The reason is simple: writers are cheap bastards, and tend not lose something that costs more than a bottle of top-shelf Glenfiddich. A journal should be a companion, present with every step you take, ready to receive your hastily scribbled notes. Whether it be on the nightstand during your no-tell motel tryst, in your pack while selecting corn at the local farmer's market, or on the bathroom sill while doing your business, it must be your within reach at all times. How well do you trust your memory to retain the flash of inspiration that concisely bridges your character's fetish for silver-backed gorilla hair and their intellectual reverence for Monet's water lilies? Write down everything with as much detail as possible so you don't forget. Inscribe paragraphs you aren't ready to deal with yet. Doodle your characters' faces. Visualize sub-plots and time lines. Map out the journey as if you were Amerigo Vespucci.
#2 - A structural formula, if you will
By this time, you should be aware of the elements to be incorporated into your novel. Central characters, locations, motivations, supporting characters, etc. These derive from your own creativity and there's no magic wand in the world that can make anyone but yourself come up with these elements. And don't be stymied if these change throughout the project- it is more important that they exist to send you off on your journey.
Take your notebook in hand and dedicate two overlapping pages to a time line- simply draw a line in the middle of the pages from the far left to the far right. On the right, jot down the word, Beginning. Mark similar words in between- conflict introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Leave plenty of space between, because you will add the details of what they are as you go along, and trust me, there will be plenty. This is your organizational master.
The beginning: Start writing here. The early chapters are forever forged to serve this purpose. Here you will introduce your establishing details: Genre, tone, characters, motivations, and desires. A character who has no desire is a flat piece of gristle stuck between your reader's teeth, so make sure characters have some. No desires, no beginning. Make sure these wants are purposeful in order to assist the progression of your story's development. If your plot line runs along the idea of searching for grandpa's hidden BBQ recipe, who cares that your character wants to win a tennis trophy. Who the hell said anything about tennis. It's a silly sport, anyway, with awkward fashion trends and a confusing point structure. Instead, your characters should want to devour short ribs every chance they get. Memphis style, Louisiana, English, even Chinese. Bucket loads of them. Entire cows. A character wanting something they don't yet have adds tension. And yes, that is important.
The body: Here, the sole purpose is to expand the plot line, to introduce and overcome obstacles. Character development forms freely within these pages, between chapter two and wherever it takes you, and each detail must be critical and sensible to the storyline. Rising action and climax occur organically within these walls. Thoughtful exposition is critical here - if you write something to progress your novel, make sure it is done to supplement the story, not simply eat up space. This is what the body is for. For example: Your protagonist is watching the sun set midway through the story's progression. He has not yet found that buried glass jar with grandpa's recipe, and hasn't eaten a thing in a very long time.
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