MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Monday, December 29, 2008

How to Publish Your Novel | A NOVELIST’S TOOL KIT - Part Four

A NOVELIST’S TOOL KIT
Continued From previous post: How to Publish Your Novel by Ken Atchity
Chapter Thirteen: Perfecting Your Craft

Now that we’ve got a handle on the basic elements of the novelist’s craft, let’s look at some of the techniques you’ll use to create your stories.

First vs. third person narrative

I recommend that writers stick to writing in third person during the early part of their careers. In general, only experienced novelists can write effectively in first person, because with a prodigious amount of writing under their belts, they understand the clear distinction that must be made between a fictional narrator and the author himself.

For example, in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which I consider to be the first modern novel, the narrator is introduced to us from the beginning as someone who has a point of view distinct from the author’s. He debates the spelling of Quixote’s name, but remarks that it is ultimately unimportant to his story, “…providing that in the telling of it we do not depart one iota from the truth.”

First person storytelling only works if the storyteller is himself clearly fictional. The storyteller must be a character in the book, explicitly or implicitly, with his own clearly defined point of view. It must be obvious to the reader that this is not the author doing the talking. This is trickier than it may sound. New writers often struggle with the nuances of “voice” in their novels. This is one technique that’s better left for a later phase of your career.

Write what you know—or what you can imagine

Everyone tells you to write about what you know best, which for most people is themselves and their personal experience. What they don’t tell you is that fictionalizing your life is an entirely different matter, one that’s fraught with perils. Just because your life has been filled with hazards and drama doesn’t mean it translates well to the novel. Usually it’s for a simple reason: your life is in chronological order, a novel must be written in dramatic order. That’s what Sophocles, the great Greek tragedian, said, “Count no man happy until he is dead. The ending is all.”

Your own experience is a goldmine for dramatic inspiration, though, if not for dramatic structure. It’s all right to turn your relatives and acquaintances into characters, but proceed with caution. You don’t want to get hit with a libel suit. Besides, they do have a right to their privacy.

Every writer taps into the reservoir of his own personal acquaintances in order to garner material for his characters—how else could he create them? But the trick to doing this effectively, legally, and ethically is not to borrow too much from any given real person. Your characters should be an amalgam of the people you know.

It’s common for a character to be a combination of three or four real people from the author’s memory. He’s just taken the most memorable attributes of each and rolled them into one. Look for the characteristics that make the most dramatic combination, and above all, that serve your story’s action.

Your writing time

The secret to making time your ally instead of your enemy is to respect your own personal rhythms. Follow your energy. If the task of plotting everything out meticulously on index cards stops your creative process in its tracks, the odds are against your ever getting past the first blush of any idea.
If this is the case, skip this step and come back to it later. As I mentioned earlier, you will need to get all your elements working in concert before you enter that first keystroke. But you don’t need to have every scene plotted out before you begin. If it works best for you, you can write the first third of your book with the heat of inspiration, then stop and outline the rest of it. Leave the end to suggest itself along the way.

Beating the middle

The middle portion of a novel seems to be the toughest part for writers to get through. Many novels fizzle out in midstream because their writers have lost their perspective. Writers get exhausted, and sometimes mistake this normal, natural exhaustion for depression. They begin to second-guess their decision to undertake the project. And their exhaustion colors their judgment with negativity. Pretty soon, they’ve convinced themselves that the novel isn’t worth finishing, and they abandon it. But this drop in enthusiasm is just a symptom. It’s a normal part of the process, one that you should anticipate and prepare yourself to deal with before it cripples your efforts.

The best way to handle this inevitable burnout is to take vacations. Lots of them. Plan to take them at regular intervals, and any time you feel the writers’ doldrums starting to creep in.
Does the prospect of walking away from the project for a week or two fill you with anxiety? Good. That’s the whole idea. By stepping back from the process whenever it starts to bog down, you’re putting a healthy pressure on yourself. You’ll feel that much more compelled to use your time productively when you do get back to it.

Creating a story of 250 pages or more is a daunting task. You can make it feel like less of a monster by dividing it up into smaller chunks. Keep plugging away at this series of manageable-sized tasks until the rush of adrenaline that comes along toward the end of a project scoops you up and carries you to the finish line.

Read this entire post from the beginning.

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