© 1999 by Matthew Strebe
HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL
Many people have asked me how to finish a large work of fiction. I suppose they ask because I've actually finished one, but it's only just one and I have not yet tried to publish it, so I don't count myself among experts on the topic. I have however written several voluminous technical books (700+ pages each) and that experience has helped me to realize that haphazardly writing from the beginning to the end is as likely to produce a masterpiece as picking up a hammer and nails is to produce a beautiful home. As with most endeavors, a good measure of planning, along with a willingness to deviate from the plan when developments overwhelm it, seem to be the keys to success.
This strategy will help you if you've experienced "writer's block" (a loss of inspiration that's actually caused by the subconscious feeling that the work isn't turning out the way you wanted it to), if you feel like you're lost in details, if your characters are clichés, if your writing is too hurried and not detailed enough; if you have problems with wandering perspective or shifts in tense; or experiencing other common writing ailments.
This strategy assumes that you either know, or can look, up the meanings of the technical terms it uses, and it does not approach syntactical elements like spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage. Those are all well covered in other references, and are prerequisites to writing for anyone seriously considering the trade. This strategy also does not attempt to explain fiction concepts like plot, characterization, setting, or pacing. These too are also well covered by other works.
A) The Strategy
This strategy consists of a number of "steps" to take to plan a piece of lengthy fiction. Writers often rush to the keyboard to bang out a few chapters whenever they feel inspired by a new idea. This is good--don't let discipline squelch your enthusiasm. Adopt this strategy when the typing stops and reality intrudes. This method can be just as appropriately applied to works already in progress as it can to new works. In fact, you may find that deconstructing your work to fit it into this structure will help you with some niggling details that you've been worried about. By all means, let the muses grip you for as long as they will--you can always come back to the plan when your mind slows down.
Feel free to adapt this strategy any way you'd like. It's not a firm set of rigid methods, it's merely a collection of things that have worked for me. It got me over the hump, and hopefully it'll help you, too.
Explain the plot of the story in one sentence, referencing only the main characters and expressing it from the perspective of the protagonist. Refine your plot until you can do this.
Write a brief summary of the storya "back-page" if you will. This summary should include all the subplots and main charactersinclude the ending! This information and the first few chapters will serve as your query letter later on.
Write a one-sentence description of each scene. Scenes are settings that occur in a single location and include a fixed number of characters. The length of a scene is widely variablefrom as little as a few paragraphs to perhaps the entire book. You will subdivide the book into chapters once its finished. A chapter may contain multiple scenes or a scene may compose multiple chapters.
Define each character at the beginning of the outline--or at least at the beginning of a scene before they appear. Treat each character as if the story was about them, no matter how minor their role in the story is.
Include the character's motivations. This will prevent you from letting melodramatic prop characters slip into your writing.
Describe the relationship to other characters and how this character feels about the other characters.
Flesh out the outline using a compact style like third person past tense omniscientjust describe what has to happen in each sceneno dialog. Ask yourself why the scene exists and what it accomplishes.
Pass the outline around among people you trust to tell you the truth. Ask them if they like the plot, if they think they would purchase a book about this topic. You arent looking for detailed commentsjust a general feel for whether or not you should bother proceeding with the project. This is importantit will keep you from wasting a lot of time.
For each scene, make a scene description to include each of the five senses and the mood of each character. Describe what can be seen, smelled, heard, felt, and (perhaps) tasted. Doing this before you write will encourage you to include this information when you write.
Choose mechanical styles like narration and perspective. Ask yourself why youre choosing this style of narration and what it will bring to the story. Ask yourself what your tense and perspective choices add to the story. Few books have been successful with more than one narrator.
Avoid the temptation to think that you know better than publishers, editor, and most importantly reader how you want to package your story. Issues of narration, voice, and perspective are relatively minor. Most authors who "fall in love" with a particular style or who adamantly defend their unusual choices are usually just defending the only way they know how to do things. Experiment with all these styles before you decide you know better than people who have.
1) The Author
This is generally reserved for opinion pieces. It is out of fashion for fiction as it tends to be preachy and heavy handed. Beware: Writer's often accidentally slip into author narration when their own opinion slips out in an other-wise effaced narration. Consider the following example:
Bob brushed his sweater off before he entered the bar. He knew Janice would not be able to resist him. Like most men, he cared little for her feelings.
It's subtle, but the statement "like most men" is an intrusive opinion about a specific group by the author. With an effaced narrator, this is erroneous. If, however, the narrator were a divorced woman it would be entirely appropriate.
2) A non-character narrator
This is someone common among "homey" works and eclectic fiction. A non-character narrator is an involved narrator with opinions who never shows up in the story. Sometimes the narrator is introduced as a character in a "frame" of first and last chapters that go around the real story to provide details the author otherwise would not be able to express using the chosen perspective. This is often the case with historical pieces--James Cameron's Titanic or "A Prayer for Owen Meany" are examples of framing using a non-character narrator. (Actually, in both these cases the non-character narrator is the "older" version of the young person who the story is about. It may seem strange, but "Old Rose" is a separate character from "Young Rose".
3) A character
The story is presented from the point of view of one of the characters. Usually, its an involved character other than the protagonist, but it can be the protagonist if you want an especially narcissistic or moody feel to the piece.
4) Effaced narrator
An effaced narrator is essentially a non-narrator. No opinions or observations are expressed about events as they unfold--scenes are described but who is describing them is never known. This is an especially popular form because it's easy and it makes shifting perspective easier.
Tense describes when the story is taking place relative to now and determines which verb forms you'll use throughout the book.
1) Past tense (Worked)
The story happened earlier than the time it's being told. 90% of all published fiction is past tense. Past tense fits the traditional campfire story tradition that the fiction trade evolved from.
2) Present (Works)
Present tense has recently become popular for action/thriller stories because of the immediacy that it endows. Before the advent of motion pictures, present tense was not a serious consideration and all stories were written in past tense with the exception of a few ultraliterary experiments. Because present tense corresponds well to screenplays, it's showing up with increasing regularity. Some readers are strongly biased against present tense, however, so be advised that you may lose some market if you choose to use it.
3) Future (Work)
Future tense is experimental and no novel to my knowledge has ever been published in the future tense. It is useful for short passages where a character describes what will or might happen in the future, however.
Determine whether the book will be written from the perspective of just one character or will shift between multiple characters. Indicate the proper perspective at the beginning of each scene.
1) First Person (I)
This is the natural perspective of story telling ( "I did not have sex with that woman!"), but it's a rather limiting form. When you use first person, you generally must have a character narrator and you cannot show what happens in the minds of other characters.
2) Second Person (You)
Second person ("You can click the right mouse button to open the options panel") is rare, and generally not appropriate for fiction, with the minor exception of experimental "choose your own ending" works that occasionally crop up in the juvenile fiction markets.
3) Third person. (They)
Third person is the most common perspective for fiction because it allows the author to show the activities of all of the characters at once ("Bill went to the store while Fred walked along the tracks.") This flexibility makes it easy to show anything you want.
Try to write an entire scene in each session. For each scene, perform the following:
Reread your scene information to refresh your mind with the sensory information and the scene summary.
Put yourself in the character of the narrator as you write the scene, whoever that narrator is.
Describe only scenerynever describe the motivations of characters, their thoughts, or anything else that cant be sensed (seen, smelled, felt, heard, etc.). This will keep you from tellingyoull have to show whats going on through character interaction and dialog. Many published writers do express the thoughts of characters as if the thoughts were unquoted dialog, but you should avoid this in your writing because it's easy to fall into the telling trap when you express a character's thoughts. Construct activities that make their motivations clear without interior monologue whenever you can.
If you think you have to do a "data dump" (pumping lots of information into a reader in a short time) ask yourself how your character would have found out this information and present that scene. It may be from watching the news, talking with another character, or investigating a strange occurrence.
Learn to write efficiently. Say what you mean, get to the point, and don't pad your story to make it longer than it naturally is. Consider the following:
Janice had thought about going down to the store for a while but wound up waffling and staying home anyway because she couldn't muster the energy.
Lethargy prevented Janice from going to the store.
They both say the same thing, but the second sentence has more meaning density. This makes your story more active, energetic, and rich. People will have a hard time putting down clearly written text.
This doesn't mean you should any content from your story to make it smaller, just that you should eliminate useless wordiness.
Write as well as you possibly can, with the idea that every sentence you write is in its final form. You should have already finished your plotting and characterization before this point, so theres no point in editing ad infinitum. You may write inside your outline or in another document as you please, but if you write inside youre outline youll have to pull the meta-information out before you submit it to anyone.
Pass your finished first draft around to people you trust to tell you the truth. Have them read with a red felt marker and write any questions or comments they have on the draft.
Complete your first draft by creating a final draft based on the comments of your peers.
F) Steps to building an outline of the opening scene:
1) Plot Line
© 1999 by Matthew Strebe
Narration does seem to be a bit confusing for a lot of people and it goes hand in hand with perspective (sometimes called Point Of View) so perhaps a bit more on that is in order.
The narrator is the person telling the story.
Think about that concept for a moment. Now, technically the person telling the story is the author, and for millennia the human story telling experience included only the author / poet as the possible narrator. Even as late as the great Greek epics the author was quite obviously the narrator. Imagine if you will the blind Greek poet Homer sitting on a rock in the middle of a makeshift amphitheater telling stories about the Trojan war and you'll get the idea of the author narrator. Author narrators can say whatever they want about the characters and events, including expressing opinions, and they presumably know everything that happened--in other words, an author narrator is "omniscient" or all knowing. Author narration is now completely out of fashion because it was so horribly overused in the 19th century for morality and opinion novels that it's now considered preachy and moralistic.
During the renaissance the idea of writing about a different narrative style came into vogue--a character in the story that was actually telling the story. Character narration is one step removed from reality--the author is writing about someone who is telling a story. These works are still done from the third person perspective--e.g. The narrator is a he or she in the story. The problem with character narration is that there's only one narrator per story, so if you choose a character narrator, you can't see everything that's going on with the other characters.
During the industrial revolution, authors began putting themselves directly into character and writing narratives from the "I" perspective of a character--In other words, it's as if the author were narrating the story directly except that the author is one of the characters. This narrative style includes any piece written from the first person perspective. This narrative style suffers from the same problem as the above third person character narration style--Only one character's thoughts can be represented. On the flip side, you can get deeply into one character's head in this style. The character can think freely without tagging the thoughts because the readers know who's telling the story so they know who's thinking. Use this style when you need a moody edge to a complex character piece.
Finally the modern "effaced omniscient narrator" is basically a return to the author narrator style, but without the opinions or thoughts. The effaced, or faceless, narrator is a non-entity--neither the character nor the author--just some invisible being that explains in dry terms what's going on in the story. The idea behind the effaced narrator is that there is no specific narrator--not the author, and not a character. The words just come from themselves, you might say. Obviously there's no room for opinion or commentary on the activities of the characters when you use effaced omniscient narration. This is the style most preferred in the majority of fiction works today because it has no "baggage"--you can do whatever you want in terms of expressing the thoughts of multiple characters, so it's easy to work within. Technically, whenever you express an opinion, you have to tag that opinion to one of the other characters or you slip into the less preferred author narration style. Effaced omniscient narration is actually a product of cinema--the camera is an effaced omniscient narrator. When you want to write in this style, imagine that you are watching a movie of your work and only write what you can sense. You can include the thoughts of other characters if you'd like, but treat thoughts as quote-less dialog, as in: Matt is a pretentious bastard, she thought.
Problems with perspective and narration come from the fact that writers often have no clear idea who is telling the story as they write. Before you write a scene, decide who's telling the story. It'll make your writing a lot more crisp and readable and will cause you to automatically avoid making all sorts of perspective and narration mistakes that while invisible to the writer wind up confusing the readers--because they still automatically expect a single story teller.
You can switch narrators if you'd like during the course of a story, but you'd better do it only on chapter boundaries to prevent confusing the readers. And make it quite clear who the narrator is early on in the chapter if you do switch narrators.
© 1999 by Matthew Strebe
This treatise grew out of a request and reply within the group.
* * *
Dear Matt & Members,
I'm currently reading a hardcover British novel called Ariadne's Children, which has a really peculiar use of tense. It's about three generations of a family who do archaeology on the island of Crete, from before WWI up to the present day.
The chapters that are set in the past use "ordinary" past and present tenses. However, the set-in-the-present chapters are done entirely in a detached, present (and even future!) tense and style.
Example: It is January 1990, the day when policemen are blown over in the Strand and lifeboat crews are lost at sea, as Dan will learn in the evening from the television news.
Later on that same page: He's bound to catch a cold. Dan catches cold easily. He is of an age to fret about such things.
Okay, folks, what you you make of this? I'm sure Matt and some others of you know the name of this style, but I'm stumped. -PC
* * *
From your example, It looks like future-perfect tense, which is a very
strange tense indeed. The normal choice would be to use future-progressive
tense. Progressive tenses almost look passive, because they use
state-of-being verbs to indicate that activity is continuing to occur
(<--see, just did it) in the time frame. This is different than the perfect
tenses, which indicate that the activity has been completed (perfected).
Past-perfect tense: John went to the store
Past-progressive tense: John was going to the store
Present-perfect tense: John goes to the store
Present-progressive tense: John is going to the store
Future-perfect tense: John will go to the store
Future-progressive tense: John will be going to the store
See the difference?
What I'm seeing in the example you show is future-perfect: In other words,
the activity happens in the future but is somehow already complete. This
explains the "sense of detachment" you picked up on--because the verb is not
shown in it's progressive tense, you don't feel as if it's going on, you
feel as if it's already complete and you're reading about it after the fact.
The inherent paradox in casting the future as already complete is why you
don't see the future perfect tense often. Case in point:
<<lifeboat crews are lost at sea, as Dan will learn in the evening>>
The activity here, Dan's learning, is presented as if it's a foregone
conclusion, as if he's destined to learn it and his destiny is immuteable.
Normally, the sentance would be cast in the future progressive, as in:
<<lifeboat crews are lost at sea, as Dan will be learning in the evening.>>
This provides more of a "glimpse into the future" as the future happens,
rather than a statement of destiny. It looks like the story might have been
written in the future-progressive tense and then modified to future-perfect
by someone (author or editor) who had a knee-jerk reaction to state-of-being
verbs and eliminated them all.
Anyway, it certainly is unusual.