A Novel Idea
I have taken the first steps in an epic journey: my first novel. Unlike previously bungled attempts, this time I will not turn back. I will not stall. I will not put this off any longer. I have a story that is dying to be told and my head may very well abruptly burst like a piñata pounded by a child’s stick, spraying a confetti of thoughts like buckshot into a field if I do not get it out.
Because of past attempts that went nowhere, I was reluctant to state publicly I was embarking on writing my first novel. The following thoughts ran through my head:
You shouldn’t write about trying to write a novel. If you write about it, then you are inviting unwanted expectations — from yourself, from others. (Really — from others? Like who? Don’t fool yourself. No one cares whether you write a novel. Only you really care and you’re your worst critique. You are the voice you always hear saying, ‘No, not good enough.’ ‘Maybe you don’t have what it takes to be an actual novelist.’ ‘Sure, you can write some magazine features but a 300-page novel? Come on.’) And don’t you remember what those unwanted expectations did before? They scared you. They made you stall. They made you second guess your story, yourself, your skill level, and your ability to tell the story you set out to tell.
I’m also reluctant to state that to motivate myself into actually succeeding in doing this, I’m reading, what I guess you would consider, a how-to book on writing your first novel. I’ve always poo-pooed (that’s a literary term) the idea of reading a book about writing a book. (Sort of like how I have always poo-pooed the idea of writing about writing) Recently I had a change of heart. Had I formally accepted my invitation into the MFA Creative Writing Program where I applied and was accepted, my professors would have taught me some of the very same techniques and writing exercises I am now reading in this book (with a very heavy monetary debt to boot).
Far am I from being alone in thinking this way, that there is something inherently wrong in a how-to book on writing.
“You either have it or you don’t” is the moniker.
I’ve come to believe this is baloney. Yes, in order to be a better writer you have to, plainly stated, sit down and start writing; but blindly? With hardly any instruction? This is an excellent way to easily pick up some very bad habits that are hard to shake.
Think how-to’s are stupid? Think of it another way: This past week I put together, for my soon-to-be-one-year-old daughter, the Little Tikes Grillin’ Grand Kitchen. (Trust me when I say this kitchen trumps our actual kitchen) In total, there are 43 steps. Inside the box are various plastic parts, big and small, and a bag full of bolts and screws, as well as corresponding decals like a stove top burner.
Could I have looked at the picture of the final product on the giant box and figured out how to put it together? Yes, but it would have taken me much longer than it did had I not followed the directions one step at a time. At multiple steps, I may have accidentally drilled in the 1/2″ screw instead of the 3/4″ screw or the 3/4″ screw instead of the 1″ screw; and, not until later, would I have realized that. Because of this, I would have needed to take it apart piece by piece until I corrected my mistake(s). How much time is that wasted? How much frustration does that add?
How is writing a novel any different?
The book I’m reading doesn’t give you a magic formula to write the next great American novel. Nor does it promise you’ll receive the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, snag an agent, and outsell the Harry Potter series. What it does offer are simple exercises (prompts, stream of consciousness exercises, plot points to think about) that help you tap into the heart of your story and the souls of your characters that make it all happen, that bring the story together, that takes a skeleton and turns it into flesh and blood, breathing.
Truth is, the questions the author asks in this how-to have made me think about my story in a way I had never thought of before and that had previously made me write the story in a way I have ultimately disliked and cringed at as a result. I was writing a story, when, what I should have been doing, what most novelists do and what most novelists have figured out, is let the story write itself.
In other words, just get it on the paper.
Something else: it’s been said that there is no magic formula in writing a novel or a screenplay, etc. I do believe that. But I believe, too, that there are steps, just like there were in putting together my daughter’s Grillin’ Grand Kitchen, that strip away all of the unnecessary and ultimately frustrating dilemmas that writers sometimes find themselves struggling to get past, that have them going back and pulling it all apart to find out where it all–the narrative, the plot, the characters–went wrong and why.
Why wait until you’re 130 pages in to figure that out?
And let’s face it, there are plot points you have to hit. Whether it’s a film or a novel or a memoir, your story has to have this to keep the reader or viewer interested. You need an event that takes your story in a specific direction, that propels it forward, that makes it worth someone’s invested time. Otherwise, you’re probably going to bore your reader to death. Do you want your reader to shut your book before the last page? Hardly. What writer would say yes?
Remember it was Aristotle in Poetics that said, “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.”
Later the structure of the drama would be built on, dividing it into five acts ; otherwise known as Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid, the dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
That right there, if anything, is a how-to. Whether someone wants to consider it a formula is up to them. But it damn sure provides an instructional skeleton.
Ben Loory, author of the collection Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011) calls this “the eyeball.” And what an apt name for it considering the almond shape: narrow to wider to narrow again. Your story builds, climaxes, then resolves in some way, shape, or form.
Recently, when I set out to begin writing my novel, I had to choose between one of three ideas I had swirling around in my head. My original idea, the one I had clung to for the past half decade, was to flesh out the 88 pg. novella I had written as a fourth-year at the University of Virginia for the seminar The Road in American Literature.
This story and some of its characters had been with me for years. I had always planned to transition this story from a novella into an actual novel one day. Years ago, when trying to build on what was already there, I realized it was falling flat on its face. Like Kerouac’s On the Road or perhaps The Dharma Bums, the story was essentially a meditation on life. It had no real plot. I wasn’t pleased with what I was writing so I decided to throw in some twists and build on an underlying theme in the story which would, in turn, bring out a more dramatic response in the characters and narrative.
As I was writing this version of the story, I found myself writing a narrative I didn’t enjoy. I was turning dynamic characters into paper mache cutouts of their former selves and creating an environment in which the only resolution was death, either physical or spiritual. I felt the narrative was far too bleak in concern to humanity. Not to mention, it didn’t have an ounce of humor in it.
Unable to resolve this problem, I placed this story in a desk drawer and closed it, thinking back on it from time to time and if I would ever resurrect it from the dead and how it would look and what it would turn into if I did.
At this point, I had two other ideas for longer pieces of fiction. Both were totally comic in nature, complete social satires.
When I sat down to begin writing my novel recently, I chose one of the social satires and decided this would be it. Problem was, this wasn’t the story I had to tell. It was a story I wanted to tell but not the story I had to tell. The story I had to get out of me was the one I had placed in my desk drawer years ago.
It got me thinking: if I was going to write a novel, I first had to answer the question of what drew me into reading? I was a literary late-bloomer. Hypothetical question: Let’s say I write a best-seller in the year 2014 (I said hypothetical, remember?) and the New Yorker asks to interview me and the interviewer asks me what my favorite book was growing up, what book really did it for me, what book made me realize I wanted to be a writer when I grew up?
If I gave an answer to this question, I would be a bold-faced liar. It would be a lie because I never read growing up. Ever. I played basketball from sun up to sun down. Everyday. I never read a single book from cover to cover until I was 19-years-old and working full-time in construction while all of my friends were nestled away at college somewhere. And what was the book I read that transformed me into a bookworm? That book, not even a novel: A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present by Howard Zinn.
Sounds like a real page turner, huh?
For me, it was. I loved it.
It was about the common man’s struggles. Something, at the time, I could totally relate to as a laborer in construction 40+ hours per week.
I became a total Zinnite, gobbling up everything the man wrote. (For anyone not familiar with Zinn and who couldn’t tell by the title of the above mentioned work, Zinn writes history.) I brought my books along with me in the carpool. I sat my books down on the cut table and read while I was waiting on a measurement — and for the record, I am not exaggerating. Through Zinn’s books, I learned of other books, such as Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck — a book I had been assigned in high school but had never actually read. I devoured it. I learned of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
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