The Run Up

Or, In Which Things Have Already Gone Wrong

What happens very often when one decides to write a novel is: everything goes wrong.

It is a well-known fact to those who participate in National Novel Writing Month in November* every year that it seems to attract bad luck. One year, I had a pet die, a relative die, the roof over my office leak, and the printer develop a fatal short. I haven’t participated since because I’m afraid my livestock will die — I don’t have livestock.

The last two weeks haven’t been quite so bad, but I’ve got a lot of unexpected work, ranging from short stories to blogs to promoting my new book A Few Good Men, at the same time as one of my sons brought home something “interesting” from school that made 15 hours of sleep per day irresistible.

So — and this is part of successfully writing a novel or completing any project — we’re adapting to changed circumstances and carrying on.

Let’s start with frequently asked questions which, hopefully, will lay out what you need to know before tomorrow, when I will explain my method and schedule. And then we’ll have a post on ideas and how to work an idea.

1. What is a novel?

A novel is a work longer than a short story and normally involving weightier subjects or more involved action. The length has varied throughout the last century, mostly in response to technology. The people of NANOWRIMO* set their length for a completed novel at fifty thousand words. When they did this, you could not get a fifty thousand word novel published anywhere. The minimum in the last decade has hovered around eighty thousand. (Some category romances are thinner, but they also tend to be work for hire.)

However, if you read books from the first half of the twentieth century, you’ll find what is sold as a novel is often around fifty thousand words, and could be as low as twenty thousand.

On the other hand, it appeared to be cheaper to print longer works — hence things like the Ace doubles — thus leading to a slow growth in the size of the books.

In the late seventies and early eighties, a fatal intersection of word processing technology, marketing trends, and printing tech created the dreaded goat gagger — a novel so long that the only way to attain it was to combine several novels into one.  This ran around two hundred and fifty thousand words, and could be near-deadly to write. Often it was a group adventure with multiple story lines.

The advent of ebooks is pushing things the other way. People perceive books differently on the Kindle, and I’ve bought things called “novels” that were around thirty thousand words and not regretted the purchase.

So if you have anything between thirty thousand and two hundred and fifty thousand words, it can be “a novel.”

The only limitation on the size is if you want to send it to a traditional press. They still prefer works of around a hundred thousand words or more, though the goat gagger has gone out of style.

2. Do you plot?

The question is normally asked in the field as “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” (Pantser is shorthand for flying by the seat of your pants, with no plot.) My answer is normally “yes.”

I started out writing detailed plots and some books still require me to — for instance, Noah’s Boy, the last one I delivered to my publisher — yet some books  refuse to be plotted. Sometimes I can only see a chapter ahead.

However, for beginning writers — i.e., anyone who’s written fewer than five novels — I advise plotting the book in advance.  You see, I think the reason I no longer plot that much in advance is that I’ve internalized a lot of the rules and sense of what a novel is. I should have, after 23 novels.

This said, writing a novel is an intensely personal endeavor. I’m going to give several methods which will work, from full outline to “high points” outline, to a couple of paragraphs pinning down your idea. You can pick whichever you want to use, or none — we’ll still be talking about how long it will take to write, etc., even if you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Be aware that pantsers who are inexperienced at writing usually end up having to do heavy revision at the end. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, just something you should know.

3. How do I know if what I’m writing is really bad?

Well … you don’t. Because the first thing you have to ask is “Bad according to whom?” I encourage you to pick up ten books from either the New York Times bestseller list or from the “ten best books” list of anyone you respect. Unless you respect that someone so much as to subordinate your taste to theirs, I guarantee you’ll disagree with at least five of the book choices, and in fact you’ll consider one of them fit only to line bird cages (which is hard to do with Kindle books).

So when I lay out the best methods for writing a novel, and tell you how we should be trying to get better at this or that, what do I mean, exactly?

It’s hard to explain, but part of it is doing it better to your taste. If your dialogue sucks on ice, according to yourself, I can tell you how to improve it. If you can’t pin down a historical time period, I can pinpoint the best research shortcuts (most of the time).

The other part of it is doing it more like the style/ideas of someone you admire. If there’s a writer you really like, you can be looking to make your material more like his or hers. (Isn’t that plagiarism? No. No human being alive writes that much like another human being. Not even Spider Robinson’s conscious imitation of Heinlein classifies as plagiarism.) This involves studying the author, and we’ll cover this too, as we go through the thirteen weeks. If there’s a critic whose opinions you respect, you can try to fit more closely with what they consider good.

Still, there is no absolute good when it comes to art, and therefore no absolute direction. Each of us has one, and the best I can do is help you pinpoint it.

What about NANOWRIMO? How come they write novels in a month?

It’s obviously sheer madness to write novels in a month. All the best people write them in 13 weeks.

On the other hand, if you think you can be that fast, then feel free to write three novels.


* Comments about it being madness to write a novel in four weeks are obviously tongue-in-cheek, and not intended to be taken seriously. That said, I do borrow a lot of their hints on “how to get unstuck” — notably, “take a lot of showers.” More on that later.

images courtesy shutterstock / Dudarev Mikhail / kubais /  auremar / Lana K