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24 January 2009

The Art of the Novel Part 2

Okay, so now that you’ve decided to write your first novel, just how do you get started?

First off, forget categories — mystery, adventure, romance, and so on. Think compelling story. Think interesting people involved in interesting problems. Write the story that’s uppermost in your mind and heart. If the writing is done honestly and well, one theme will eventually dominate and thus the novel will, in essence, categorize itself.

To organize and keep track of things as they go, many writers like an outline, a kind of blueprint to follow while construction is under way. I, for one, prefer to keep things simple. Since the typical popular novel — and that’s what we’ll be talking about here — has 30 chapters and roughly 90,000 words, I write the numbers 1 to 30, vertically, in the left margin on a sheet of paper. Next to each number, I write a single sentence that best describes the proposed content of that particular chapter.

I also keep in mind the three-act play format, which calls for a beginning, a “muddle,” and an ending. The first 10 chapters are given to introducing the primary characters and establishing the problems they and the supporting cast are facing. In the second 10 chapters the problems explode into a “muddle” so complex and difficult we wonder how our poor hero (man or woman) can possibly prevail. And in the final 10 we see how the central character (hero), through courage and smarts and personal integrity, overcomes personal weaknesses and demons to resolve the problems and win the day.

So what’s the best way to begin the “beginning?”

Write a “grabber” — anything from a sentence to a paragraph, maybe two, that takes instant hold of the reader’s imagination and compels him to stay with you, to read on, to see what happens next. And in the opinion of many generations of fiction writers, the best grabber is an arrival of some sort. Something or somebody arrives. It doesn’t have to burst with melodrama; it can, actually, be somewhat laid-back, cool, unruffled, but it must be an arrival. A door opens. A meteor falls. A body washes ashore. A train pulls into a station. A plane lands. A car enters a driveway. A baby is born. A parachute descends from a midnight sky. A horseman appears on the horizon. In each case, the reader’s curiosity is tweaked. What’s going on here?

And then, at this stage, you’ll probably want to establish your “tone,” or “mood.” Is the story light? Dark? Droll? Ominous? Tense? Giddy? Portentous? Your grabber will let the reader know.

Let’s look at some examples, using the car arrival.

Ominous: “It was one of those purring luxury sedans, large, low, all black, with opaque glass, whispering windshield wipers, and fat tires that hissed softly as it came out of the midnight to enter the storm-washed driveway.”

Light: “When she finally showed up in the peach-colored afternoon, she was at the wheel of one of those flappy-topped, jeepy things, leaning out from a nest of yipping pooches, reading the mailbox numbers through sunglasses that suggested a praying mantis.”

Droll: “‘Where the hell am I?’ Bertie shouted from the window of his shuddering, senile Ford.
  “The dour dowager, her trowel slashing angrily at a bed of petunias at the end of the driveway, didn’t even look up. ‘You get any word on that, buster, let me know. I’ve been asking that same question for the past forty years.’”

Thus armed with grabber and tone, I begin to write — and, lo, as I write, the carefully prepared “outline” goes out the window. The plot, that is to say the chapter sequence, holds essentially to plan. But as they begin to walk and talk and see and think, the central character and key cast members assert themselves in ways I haven’t foreseen. This, of course, is a good sign, since the story is losing its “wooden” sound and taking on a life of its own.

For instance, the outline entry for Chapter 12 ordains that Sam, second in command under Rudolf, the corrupt, mean-spirited boss at the buggy-whip factory, persuades Rudolf to sign a tricky lease agreement with Schwartz, Inc. When the scene has been written, I suddenly spot the perfect place to reveal that Sam himself is no paragon. I append a couple of paragraphs that show Sam on his car cell phone, talking with Lulu, Rudolf’s wanton wife who works as executive secretary at Schwartz. “He fell for it,” Sam tells Lulu. She says, “You’re a darling, Sam. That’ll put him out of town Saturday night. See you then?” Sam grins. “You gotta ask?” So here, in a brief, unplanned departure from the outline, we establish that Manly, our novel’s hero, will be on thin ice when he puts his trust in Sam.

So looking at your own novel through all such sample prisms, you’re finally on your way, and the more you write the better the results.

Enjoy!

Jack

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