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Tue, 06 May 2003

On writing novels

Long discursive essay coming up. I'd just finished writing a novel and, on one of the newsgroups I hang out on (where the topic of writing fiction is meat and drink) someone asked the following question:

I have two ideas I think could be novel length, and once I let the ideas ferment a bit longer and get into 'voice' I think I might give it a shot. FWIW I don't outline physically on paper. Once the story seems set in my mind, I hit the keyboard.

I guess my question would be is there a way to prepare my mind for the wider latitude that a novel offers? Or do I sit my @ss down and write like I always do and practice day after day, slowly learning how to explore in ways that a short didn't allow?

What follows is my brain dump on the novel-writing process. It's not prescriptive, it's simply a description of how I work. As the Man said, "there's more than one way to do it," and your mind probably doesn't work the same way as mine. Moreover, you'll have to wait until August (or later) to judge how good or bad the results are.

Having said that, here's my response to the short story writer asking about how to prepare for writing their first novel ...

The first thing to understand is that a novel is structurally different from a short story. It's not just longer -- although you're looking at a minimum 80,000 words to the 3-4000 you've been working with -- but qualitatively different. Short stories don't have room for sub-plots, not if they're also going to have characterisation or ideas. Moreover, short stories almost never have room for character development. Novels need all of this, and more.

The next thing to understand is that you never have as many ideas as you think you do when you start out writing a novel. Your novel absorbs material like crazy; you throw loads of stuff at it, stuff you're used to leaving out of your short stories because there simply isn't room, and the novel just sits there in a corner and belches, then says "think you're tough, eh? Gimme another sub-plot! And a recomplication on the side!"

So. How to start?

I just finished writing a 90,000 word novel which I did at speed. The reason it went fast was that I had most of it nailed down before I began. The ingredients consisted of: a central character, and a situation of jeopardy the character finds themselves in, the situation arising organically from a sociological-SF idea. The soc-SF idea in question unpacks, exhibiting complex side-effects which recomplicate throughout the book, generating sub-plots and alarums and excursions -- it's not just one idea, but a concept that unleashes a fleet of ideas as logical consequences.

A quarter of the way through the book, having established the protagonist, their predicament, some friends and rivals, and their situation, I realised that in another 50-60,000 words I'd have to send off for a resolution. I therefore needed something to resolve, which suggested a back-story behind the original soc-SF idea. Scribble some history and suddenly our protagonist has a background that explains why they're probing the soc-SF McGuffin in the first place, and suggests some Bad Guys lurking in the shadows to be confronted later.

(Word processors are marvelous tools when you need to go back and add some foreshadowing. Just as long as you keep track of all the loose ends.)

While writing the novel I was also writing the outline. Which flailed around like a wet flag in a gale, never quite pointing in the right direction but acting as a tool to let me steer the novel. (I've done it differently in the past, but when writing a novel as fast and intense as this one, I didn't need the outline to remind me where I'd been so much as I needed it as a what-if modelling tool for the plot.)

Now, the previous novel I wrote took me (counts on fingers, nearly runs out of fingers) six years. And I provide it by way of a ghastly counter-example. It's a sequel to an earlier novel (Singularity Sky). I began writing it cold after completing draft 1.0 of the first novel, then realised this was a Bad Idea and put it down, half-finished (at 65,000 words) when novel #1 hadn't sold instantly. Lo, novel #1 sold eventually, and it said in my contract that they expected novel #2 by-and-by. So I picked it up and handed in the first couple of chapters as a taster, then realised that the next 55K words were mostly shit. Oops.

Novel #2 had three interlacing sub-plots written around an elaborate temporal paradox. Which sounds great, except one of the sub-plots was as big as the other two put together, one of them had wandered in from an entirely different novel (which may turn out to be #3 in the series if they ever drag me kicking and screaming back to it), and I tied my brain into a moebius strip whenever I tried to understand the temporal paradox.

I resolved the situation by viciously excising sub-plots, throwing away the temporal paradox, and resolving to write a more or less straight space opera, cannibalizing anything I could keep. To replace the missing subplot I created another, which worked okay ... but didn't want to join up with the remaining two, until I realised I needed a fourth subplot to act as glue and provide some Space Nazis. This lot occured to me over the course of writing draft 2 (cut draft 1 to 15,000 words then write out to 60,000 words) and draft 3 (cut draft 2 to 40,000 words and write out to 90,000 words). None of drafts 1-3 actually reached the end of the book, but finally I managed to bolt an ending onto draft 3 that sort-of-worked.

This was something of a fiasco, but I have a secret weapon up my sleeve that most people don't have -- namely, an agent who likes reading my work and who, as a former editor, has a good eye for plot. I asked her if she'd cast an eye over it, and she came back with some cogent suggestions which involved beefing up one sub-plot, merging two major characters from different threads, and throwing away the ending. I took everything on board except throwing away the ending, which I mutated out of recognition instead. This turned into draft #4, at 140,000 words, and is what has finally gone in to my editor, with a working plot, about ten major characters, and comments from one reviewer to the effect that it's better than the first novel. But it came at a price -- 140K words of novel and 80K words of junk on the cutting room floor. That's no way to earn a living at any job, turning in 40% junk. (Must Do Better.)

Which gives rise to a critically important lesson: don't get clever-clever! Yes, the novel will absorb lots more material than you expect, but at the same time, if you try to weave a complex structure you stand a very good chance of losing control of it because while writing a novel your detail memory of what's going on and your projection of what's going to happen is a moving window on the novel that extends maybe one real-time work day behind and ahead of you. If you're working at 1000 words per day you probably only have a really fine view of the past 2000 words and the next 2000 words you're planning to write. Which is, by no coincidence at all, of the same order as the length of a short story (except what you're writing is not a short story and isn't structured the same way).

So. What would I do if I was in your shoes (short story writer contemplating trying their hand at a novel for the first time)?

Start with a character portrait of your main character. Just have a look at them interacting with other people in the context of wherever it is they live. Write 2-4000 words around them. You can use it in the novel, or not -- you don't have to decide right away.

Start making notes on the universe, its history, and the things your character needs to know about where they live and how they relate to other people. Be as detailed or as vague as you like, just make sure you have some idea. (You'll need this stuff later in any case: it comes in handy when you put together a detailed outline for the pitch to a publisher.)

Be aware of your foibles. I've just had the fun experience of sub-edits and/or proofing on four novels. This has made me hypersensitive to my usual overuse problem: colons. Which, at one point, got completely out of control: no sentence was complete without one. (In the most recent novel I rationed myself to one per thousand words, max. I seem to have kicked the habit.)

Think about the plot. No need to get too hardcore at this stage, the plot will almost certainly change because you will add subplots at random as you write, when a minor character kicks you in your authorial shins and says "I wouldn't do that! I'd do THIS instead! Now how're you going to tie everything up at the ending, eh?"

Plots can come in bits'n'pieces, but usually follow a story arc. The novel begins with scene-setting, then something disrupts the status quo. There's a long rise in tension as the disruption recomplicates, adding complexity and making our protagonists Do Things. Eventually we hit a resolution point at which things Change -- the climax. Finally we have a look at the new status quo (optional, if you're good enough to imply what it will look like to the readers before you get there).

You need to keep an eye on pacing. One thing I find myself doing if I haven't thought through the next major development in a novel properly is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the scene leading up to it, going into far too much detail. (So I don't have to put my brain in gear and confront the hill-climb of the upcoming chunk.) At its worst this can result in a novel that sags in the middle, or with an excessively long beginning or (rarely) a grossly over-long ending. Watch out for it. If you find your scenes normally run to 1-2000 words and you're 4000 words into one that isn't something special (like the climax to the entire novel, or the pivot scene that triggers the disruption of the status quo) it's probably a sign that something's wrong.

Don't get silly and try to write a multi-threaded novel straight off, you'll tie your own shoelaces together and trip over them. If you must do multithreaded, a better way to do it is to write a novella -- say, 30,000 words long -- and then write a second novella of the same length showing the same story from a different angle. Then intercut them chapter by chapter, like chunks of salami. The trick here is to find a story that has enough different angles to be worth looking at repeatedly.

A valuable asset if you can find it is a plot generator. This is an idea (like the one I mentioned in my most recent novel) that can be established early in the novel and that sits there generating side-effects. Your characters can then bounce off the side-effects until they get dizzy and send off for the ending.

Another useful tool is some source of rivalry. It's not vital, but character development and the climax scene tend to be helped by having an excuse to stick ten inches of cold steel into the moustachio-twirling villain's abdomen, or through the heroine's bodice laces, or whatever. (And remember, rivalry tends to be a major source of plot development in romance, as well as in action-oriented fiction.) But remember, bad guys need to have at least a marginally believable motivation. If you can plausibly imagine yourself writing the novel from the bad guys' point of view then you've probably got a plausible bad guy -- if you can't, then you haven't designed them properly.

Horror is a tone. Horror is like monosodium glutamate -- used sparingly in the right places it can enhance the flavour, used to excess you just get a splattery mess everywhere. A dose of horror in the run-up to the climax provides a sense of increased jeopardy. A dose of horror in the initial disruption of the status quo provides an added incentive to the protagonists to Do Something. And so on. A thick coating of horror everywhere, however, is best left to Guy N. Smith. (Killer crabs, anyone?)

Character development is something to keep an eye on. The plot changes the personality of the main protagonists, and it's likely that the protagonists determine the climax. Certainly they probably ought to be changed by their experiences in the novel, otherwise what is it telling us about the human condition that justifies reading it (as opposed to a bunch of short stories)?

One of the easiest and commonest character development McGuffins is the romantic engagement or "boy meets girl" plot. The conventional rendering is "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl". With or without variations -- in the case of my most recent novel, "boy meets six-armed alien penguin, boy and six-armed alien penguin have great sex, boy turns into girl, girl loses six-armed alien penguin ..." -- it's a handy tool because it gives your protagonist a goal to aim for and a yardstick for character development. By the way, people have been running riffs on this since the 16th century (and earlier); Shakespeare's comedies are a good source of ideas, notably "As You Like It", "All's Well that Ends Well", "Much Ado About Nothing", and so on. As somebody or other said, "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" -- there's a full run of synopses at http://www.bardweb.net/plays/ that provide a suite of off-the-shelf romantic subplots if you're not imaginative enough to work out the details of six-armed alien penguin sex with hermaphrodites.

The other big character development things are, as Heinlein noted, "the man who learned better" (i.e. your protagonist gets an education about something), and "the brave little tailor" (humble little guy goes off, has picaresque adventures, wins through partly because of his humble background, and turns out to be quite a mensch). Heinlein classified them as plots, but I'm not so sure that's where they belong -- they're things that happen to your protagonist's self-definition, and you can mix and match them to order. (For example, "The Odyssey" is a mixture of "the man who learned better" and "the brave little tailor", framed by the back end of a "boy meets girl" plot to provide Odysseus' motivation for getting home again.)

Fun things you can throw in that I haven't mentioned already include: unreliable narrators and ignorant protagonists. These are variations on the central idea that the main character not only doesn't know everything that's going on, but may have been actively misled about some of it. Amnesia is one handy cause of misconceptions, as are lies by another party (the bad guy?), stupidity (but be careful -- readers can't easily relate to excessively stupid protagonists), and misunderstandings caused by miscommunication. You can use unreliable information to trigger a plot development. For example, in the "boy meets girl" sequence you can do: "boy meets girl, boy is misinformed about girl's unvirtuous past, boy loses girl/goes off in a huff, boy learns better", which mixes in a dose of "the man who learned better" and gives your boy a plausible reason to be pissed off at the villain when you need to work out the climax.

Does all this sound trite and mechanical? Well, yes it is and no it isn't. These are all standard tools that can be used as easily by a hack as by a giant of literature. What makes the difference is the extra something you bring to the task -- your own insight. If you have a better way of handling characterisation, and you're not interested in plot-driven fiction with a conventional climax, then obviously you should follow your own muse. The reason I list them here is because they're useful guidelines that allow me to focus on those details of the novel that I find most interesting, while colouring the background on autopilot.

Remember, none of this is written in stone. These are just a bunch of suggestions and ideas for tools you can use. You'll probably find yourself using several of these tools on any given novel, because novels are big projects. But there's no rule saying you can't invent your own wholly original tool that nobody has ever deployed in a novel before, or that you have to use all of these tools, or any particular one of them. They're just tools, you're the author, and in the final analysis what you build in the workshop of your mind depends on how good you are at design and which tools you feel comfortable using.

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