On Writing Novels, Part 2

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I have 3 steps I’ve developed for writing novels. It may come as a surprise that I’m advocating a formula in writing fiction. But this is one that’s come from my own process in changing my focus from “becoming a novelist” to writing fiction. It was an important shift for me and certainly every writer has to go through it at some point. You have to take the focus off of you and shift it to writing the book. Sounds obvious, but it can be deceptive. And it isn’t a simple matter of deciding to forget your own ego once and for all. Like anything that’s hard, it requires practice and daily reminders. Bird by bird.

But once it really sunk in for me, I realized writing only requires one thing: masochistic devotion. I don’t know if it’s healthy, but I’ve started to love my novel. Really love it. Like a child I’m raising to send out into the world. I started out thinking, Don’t get too attached. You’re going to have to eventually edit this thing. I’ve always told myself the stories were just mine for a season—and that made it easier to find the stopping point. I protected myself from the reality that my precious art would have to be freeze-dried, shipped, and sold into the cruel world. But resisting that deeper devotion only crippled their ability to survive the publishing process. And that’s why the books were weak. I didn’t truly love them.

You have to deeply love your book. Normal people can save themselves for their families and maybe a couple of expensive hobbies. But novelists are too stubborn and prideful to be normal, so I’ve found it helpful to get comfortable with 1 Corinthians 13 because that’s the kind of love writing fiction requires. We may start out thinking it’s about expressing ourselves, telling our stories or getting our names on a book. But by the time that happens, you’ll probably be thinking very differently. I’m not even there yet, but I’ve seen it happening. I’m not writing for the same reasons anymore. Now I’m writing for the book.

So to love your book with the love Paul talks of, it will hurt. It requires you to become a better person in order to love better, to dismantle yourself in order to serve it better. Love is what carries me through the writing now—and it’s definitely a love-hate relationship more often than not. But love is a choice—or so I tell I myself every day. And practically, this choice has required 3 steps. The steps are:

1. Give yourself over to internalizing the writing rules. Commit to employ these rules daily for 30 days. If you do, it’ll be easier to love your novel. Establish this choice and do not cross back over (that old you is dead, remember?). The rules (there are 8): (1) Consider that you’re asking total strangers to give you their time and attention, but (2) always write to a particular person. (3) In every sentence, reveal character, advance the plot, *or deepen the context.* (4) Start as near the end as possible, and (5) reveal as much as possible as quickly as possible. (6) Provide at least one character to root for, and (7) give every character something, anything, to desire. (8) Then attack them to show what they’re made of. (Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules, Bagombo Snuff Box www.troubling.info/vonnegut.html ) Note: Vonnegut doesn’t include deepening the context as a goal of sentences. I include it because description and atmosphere are still essential, but only as they serve characters and plot.

2. Sacrifice your world for that of the novel. For me, this meant knowing why I was writing—that’s where I found my resolve. It became my foundation for devotion. And I needed that to win the daily battle to protect its world. Your reasons for writing may be different than mine, but that first draft must come from total immersion without thought to the world.

3. Disappear entirely. Editing requires objectivity. I’ve improved with practice, but just starting out I had to hear it read aloud among others (others who knew the rules). Serve your story by helping it serve the reader better. Practically, this means substituting weak chapters, paragraphs, sentences and words for strong ones (in that order). Use the unique over the familiar, the revealing action over explanation, and the descriptive verb over adjectives.

So this is my formula for developing a love for my book. It’s a choice, but I’m betting that if I can follow these steps every time, eventually I’ll be a published novelist. Want to see if it works?

Check out C.J.’s series for aspiring novelists here.

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10 thoughts on “On Writing Novels, Part 2”

  1. I love my story, I’ve told a few writer friends and asked if that was wrong.
    I don’t love it in the way that I want to drive it around like a new car, showing everyone I have a car, isn’t it beautiful, yes, it still has the temporary tags and the nubs on the tires. Loving that way makes people not like you pretty quick. Especially if you’re asking them six months later if they want to ride in the new car.
    I love it in a way that makes me uneasy sometimes. I’m finding it difficult to do the analogy this time. People sometimes (as you did) use the child analogy, but I don’t feel like that’s the same on my end because a child is born of me and I raise it, I can see why it would fit, but I feel a more mature love for this book. More of a relational love, I guess? I was enamored at first; awestruck. That moved to a plateau where there was a lot of anger and conflict, but then ‘we’ finally moved on to a deeper level of understanding. The story has a will of its own–more stubborn than mine considering I bowed out of the fight. And because I love it, I don’t try to control it, I allow it to live its life. Then it becomes less defensive and starts to give back.
    I know I must sound absolutely nuts. (okay, what else is new?)
    It feels very much like a relationship to me, I have learned so much. And I’m only halfway finished.

  2. Thanks. I lost all my writing last year a week after a publishing house requested one of my full novels. I have rewritten most of it short fifteen pages. At first I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to write something else. But I loved my story. I didn’t want it to die. But, boy do I thank you for your list. I agree, but need to be reminded. If I work on that book every day I am applying devotion. Love that. :)

  3. Mick, this is WAY good advice. Especially the admonition to love-it-or-leave-it.
    Now I’m off to do some Vonnegothian internalizing.

  4. Wow, I really love my book. And yes, we have to edit it and I look at that as getting my child through the teen years! Not easy. Painful. Harder to love when that childish innocence fades and it starts sassing back. But one day, a mature and pleasant adult will emerge, in faith believing, and a savvy editor will recognize it!

  5. I wasn’t going to write fiction, at first, because I thought it was more heroic to write non-fiction, more sacrificial and self-debasing. I was afraid to love what I was writing, to be so immersed in it that I would repeatedly be like a time traveler going back and forth between two worlds. But since I’ve recently decided to take the plunge into the waters of fiction for the sheer delight of it- and knowing that I may never come back the same- I am intrigued that I can give myself permission to love radically and wholly, and even more so, love with Scriptural endorsement.

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