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17 January 2009

So You’re Writing a Novel

“Novel (noun): an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.”   — Merriam-Webster

My hit tracking service reports daily on how many people are tuning in, and from where. This alone is great fun for me, but the fun’s enhanced by the pattern I’ve seen over the weeks. The tracker’s graph line shows peaks and valleys of reader interest as reflected in the number of “hits” day by day, week by week, and — much to my amazement — the blogs in which I deal with the art of the novel are those that consistently draw the largest numbers of readers who spend the most time on my site.

This may mean nothing much to you, but to me it says, loud and clear, that we have big bunches of aspiring novelists out there, from Aukland to Zanzibar, and that I happen to be the most interesting to them when I pontificate on fiction and how she is writ. I don’t pretend to be the know-all, be-all, high and mighty guru — there are jillions of books and essays on “Writing the Novel” by some very savvy and successful folks — but I do have sufficient credentials to put me in the game. And so, always anxious to please, I’ll offer up more such fare from time to time. If what I say goes counter to the vast spread of knowledge delivered in Professor Rigmarole’s three-credit course on “Your Future as a Best-selling Novelist,” you needn’t feel ripped off, because my advice comes free and you can afford to dismiss it as half-vast.

So all right, then: you love to read. You love fiction in particular, because there’s a magic in the way it humanizes the shadowy past or gives a clearer context to today’s absurd realities. Which eventually has led you to an idea that refuses to go away. Novels are written by people, your mind whispers, and I’m a people. Why shouldn’t I try to write a novel based on . . . . ? (Name any subject that means a lot to you.)

But you can’t seem to get off the dime. You suspect that you don’t really want to write a novel, you want to have written a novel. It’s like wanting to go swimming without getting wet. And you keep telling yourself you’re not really qualified, don’t know enough, barely passed English Lit 2000 in your senior year at Smithereen High, are allergic to scratch-pad paper, Capricorn is out of phase with Gemini and on the cusp of Leo. Whatever.

Fortunately though, you eventually tire of making excuses and surrender to the mind-whispers. In some quiet interval in your busy life — a rainy day, or on a night when nothing much is going on — you forgo the tube or whatever time-filler is your habit and you instead pick up a pencil and pad, or boot up your computer, and write, “This is the first sentence in a novel I propose to write on. . . .” (Name subject.) “I’m going to invent a whole cast of characters whose experiences and feelings and human weaknesses and strengths throw a new light on. . . .” (Name subject.)

Ta-da! You’re on your way.

This simple exercise accomplishes two important things: (1) it breaks your “stage fright” and (2) it triggers a kind of excitement and anticipation that will be fundamental to the effort that follows over the coming weeks and months. To cite a personal example: On a quiet Sunday in Vermont 48 years ago, I sat at the maple-shaded picnic table outside our farmhouse and, on a schoolboy’s composition pad, I penciled something like, “I’m a nut on World War I aviation and have read just about all the literature on the subject there is. But there’s one serious void: nobody has ever written an English-language novel about the subject from the German point of view. There’s no so-called aerial All Quiet on the Western Front. Well, I’m going to change that. I spent a lot of my young manhood in Germany and have direct knowledge of that country’s pivotal role in military-political history. With these basic credentials, I’m going to invent a cast of characters whose experiences and human weaknesses and strengths throw a new light on how the Germans initiated — defined, actually — what we know today as ‘air power’ and set the stage for the Nazism that so tragically consumed their great nation.”

With that sort of pompously pedantic “statement of intentions” staring back at me from the pad, I found I’d lost my stage fright. And by noon I was already writing the opening scene of what, seven months later, would be a stack of 400 handwritten pages entitled, The Blue Max.

Sounds clunky, but I kid you not. The process worked for me. Why shouldn’t it work for you? Find your own “quiet Sunday” and try it out. I suspect you’ll eventually be glad you did.

Meanwhile, in several blogs to come I’ll offer additional tips for you to consider as you embark on the crafting of your novel, which, you’ll find, is far more exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting, and exalting than any of those be-your-own-boss, work-at-home enterprises touted on TV.

But don’t even think money yet. Think personal creativity, satisfaction. We’ll get to money later.

Keep tuned in.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 - 2009 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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