Finally getting that first novel(la) down
As I mentioned in last week’s post, ‘An Odd Sort of a Job’, I write fiction as part of my work as an educational writer. It’s mostly basic stuff: little stories and dialogues, as a vehicle for teaching English or German.
It follows that I’m not inhibited about sharing my creative writing or getting short imaginative pieces published. Still, writing a novel, a novella or even a substantial short story is, as they say, a different kettle of fish.
Over the years, I’ve had a few goes at writing a novel, and I don’t think any of them have got past a single chapter. Probably just as well: they would have been desperately dull.
You see, I was following the standard advice about planning a novel. You’ve read the kind of thing:
First, decide what story you want to tell. Next, envisage your reader … Write a short synopsis / cover blurb … List your major and minor characters … Do background research … Structure your story … Write a chapter plan … etc etc etc
That might work for some writers, but it sure as hell wasn’t working for me.
Here’s my alternative recipe. It seems to be working out (early days!) – maybe you’ll find it helpful too?
Write what I know.
For example, I know about playing in an amateur band. I don’t need to do a whole lot of research before I even start writing about that.
Start with an event, an experience or a situation that’s familiar.
I started with a conversation we had about naming the band. Not exactly high drama, but I don’t think it has to be.
Then give it a twist: what if … ?
The band members in the story are rather different people to my friends. After all, this is supposed to be fiction, not autobiography. And I don’t want to get sued.
Place is important to me, so start with a place that I know well.
Simples! Set the story right here on the Bellarine Peninsula, where I live.
Let the plot grow organically.
Once I have my place, my people and some key events, my imagination is fired up. I find that plot strands or story arcs shoot out like tendrils. Working out what anchor points the tendrils cling on to and where the arcs end up, how the strands interweave – that will all become clear as I write.
I’m writing because I’m a born storyteller with a rich inner life. I enjoy seeing where my imagination will take me. So the last thing I should do is shut it down with plans and schedules. Sheesh, I have enough of those in my day job.
So I’m letting my mind off the leash. I don’t know in advance where things will end up.
I also like to illustrate my stories. So I do. I’m just an amateur artist, not a professional book illustrator, but hey – who cares? I doubt any of my scribbles will make the grade if the book is published, but that’s not something I need to worry about right now.
Get feedback and support early on.
I do this by trialling the story chapter-by-chapter on Medium. Feedback there is pretty gentle: nobody’s going to tell me that I’m writing crap. What I get is a little companionship and encouragement on a journey which could otherwise be very lonely. I even get paid a few $ a month while I’m writing.
Importantly, all rights to the material belong to me. Sure, someone could still steal my story. Why would they, though? It’s unlikely.
Exercise portion control.
Just because it’s a long story, that doesn’t mean that it has to be hard to ‘digest’. I give my readers episodes which they can read in a few minutes.
Again, trialling on Medium is good here. The platform displays an estimated reading time for every piece. I know from experience that a piece longer than 5–6 minutes won’t be read.
Go back and revise, revise, revise.
That’s easy to do while my work is online, in convenient-sized portions. I need to bear in mind, though, that the work is destined (hopefully) for another format, another context, another readership.
Trialling a novel or novella on Medium is good, but it has some inherent disadvantages for a newbie novelist:
Nobody will read a novel on Medium, if you upload it in one great swathe of text. (Hell, would you read it? I certainly wouldn’t!) So you divide it up, as described above.
It’s difficult for the reader to keep track of a multi-part story, because of inherent weaknesses in the platform. They will probably start reading the first episode they come across (even if you number them), which will probably be the latest one.
Medium is ideal for poetry and blogs. For novels and novellas … not so much. With this in mind, don’t read too much into low numbers of visits and reads. Also, as you well know, dear fellow blogger, getting read is a skill in itself.
Writing in short episodes imposes a structure which works well online, or in a newspaper, but has shortcomings for publication in a book.
I can see where this leads with Alexander McCall Smith. I enjoy his writing, but many of his novels work best on the episode level. That’s how some of them came about: as serialised stories for The Scotsman. Consequently, they tend to be collections of episodes, and if you had to say what a specific novel was about, you’d have to say ‘Nothing much’.
That’s not quite what I want to do. Although it has worked pretty darn well for him, I have to say.
I need to go back and tighten the structure. See where characters and events need fleshing out. Go beyond that six-minute limit occasionally. Think about culling episodes which were fun to write, but don’t really add much to the story as a whole.
Maybe recognise that I wrote that cool image or that cute turn of phrase to earn a highlight from my Medium readers, and that it’s just a distraction from the flow of the text. Yes, sometimes you really do have to ‘kill your darlings’.
So far, so good
That’s where I’m at right now with my first novella, Down on Corio Bay. If you’re interested, you can take a look, here on this site. I look on it as an ‘apprentice piece’: I have no idea whether it will ever be published, but I do know it has been lot of fun to write.
And that, dear fellow writer, is what it’s about, isn’t it? If you just want to earn money, there are many easier ways to do it.