As an undergraduate I attended a writer’s talk, sponsored by an undergraduate writing group, titled How to Write a Novel. I went with a friend who also aspired to write a novel or more. We hoped to learn how that evening. Unfortunately, the author, who went on to direct multiple Creative Writing programs, did not appear to be aware of the announced title of his presentation. Instead of any explanation or analysis or even sheer speculation about how to write a novel, he talked generally about his life and career in relationship to his multiple books – the contextual whens and wheres and whats of his novels, volumes of poetry, and memoirs. No mention of how. Not much mention even of novel.
Over the years, as I attended numerous creative writing classes, listened to many writers talk and earned a degree in fiction writing, it occasionally struck me as surprising and too bad that I never again came across a talk titled How to Write a Novel.
So, how to do it?
First, whether age 16 or 26 or 56 or 86, if you experience life as broadly and deeply as you might well do, you will be able to draw on experience to create the art and the experience that is any story, or novel.
Second, if you educate yourself about people and the world in ways both wide and profound, such knowledge will feed and infuse the experience you bring to a novel.
Third, if you read many novels with great care and eagerness or disdain, and if you learn about their authors and why, when, and how they wrote the works they did, such experience and knowledge will help you to understand what you might do yourself, and how it might take off from what has been previously experienced and known.
And this is where many get stuck. If you write toward some inspiration, whether it be some fascination with specific place, or event, or type of person, or some vital moral or beautiful ideal, then you will find movement and motivation for your work. What inspires you? What do you live for? What do you read for? What would you valuing seeing more of in print? What can you contribute toward those ends? What makes your heart leap, your mind quicken, your blood boil? What is your purpose in writing? Write to that. Get the content down that moves and motivates you and your world.
Fifth, understand what you have written, to understand what you might yet write. Periodically, reread carefully, the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, and overview the whole thing to see again or for the first time what is going on, and how the story lives or dies, what makes it move or falter, where it might have gone and might yet go.
Novels have a lot of stuff in them, a lot of common and some uncommon facts of life, a lot of experience, a lot of feeling of one kind or another for people, for character and characters, for places and social relations, for groupings and cultural situations, for events and times, full of atmosphere and exploration, of explanation both explicit and implied, a lot of showing and telling about who did what to whom under which circumstances and why. Novels tell a large story either to some vital purpose or out of some needful birth of expression, or both.
So consider, reconsider, and decide as best you can what are you doing and why are you doing it and how well is it going, and whether or not that can be seen by a wide readership in the first sentence or two, in the first paragraph, in the first page? Does a story unfold throughout? Does it catch readers up and sweep them through? If not, why not? Address the weaknesses. Sometimes that means starting over. Or coming back to the work later.
You may find yourself repeatedly coming back to the question, Why do I write? Or who do I write for? Only you can answer such questions, though as with so much of life it can only be answered in consideration of and often in discussion with others, because whether or not you think you write for anyone, you always write among others. It’s a shared world. At its best, novel writing is not for the uncurious, nor for the fearful. Some novelists take nonfiction forms as their models for writing, such as biographies, autobiographies, travelogues, histories, journals and logs, interviews, letter exchanges…also diaries, in which case it might seem that such novelists are only interested in writing about themselves. Not so. The most interesting and valuable diaries are those written by writers, however private, who have a deep interest in the surrounding large world and the people within it. Sometimes that large world has been thrust upon them, and they turn to diary to help make sense of it, to cope. That they write for themselves does not mean they write strictly about themselves but greatly about the world and the people in it.
Sixth, once you have some sense of what you are doing in a story, or what you have accomplished in a short section, then how do you continue? How does one write at length? Significant length presumes a significant experience, often in liveliness, power, and accumulated meaning.
Take a look with a keen eye at the first section or so that you write. First, is it engaging, lively in many ways, in any way? Second, is it powerful at all? If so, great. If not, why not, and what can you do about it? Does it hold together well? Does it fly apart to any purpose. What holds together, what meaningfully coheres, has been accomplished, at least for the time being. What flies apart, what leads and lifts off in various directions, provides grounds for further exploration.
To write at length, the work does well to be more or less powerful and compelling. Lively or somehow engaging. And the story needs to be that again and again, only different and moreso, that is, in growing new relation to what came before. That’s how one writes at length. Every novel grows from the page or pages that come before it, though sometimes in very tangential ways. For a novel to become a novel, to grow from a short section, the short section must be accomplished as noted, and then the novel must change. Something must be different. Something must be added or subtracted, multiplied or divided – whether in character, place, event, or other focus. The imagination keeps going by incorporating these significant differences, expanding from the original section or abandoning it – transcending by continuous creation – sometimes substituting the original section with a new beginning that might lead to a greater or more fitting and effective end. (Not that new beginnings and endings can save a novel that fails to live throughout.) A lot changes in a novel. We tend to think of novels as a thing, a great tale, all of piece, but novels are a series of changes, brought together with some overall co-ordination or intent in the telling. Novels are verbs. Novels are in the verbs, in new actions, new thoughts, and new impulses that both illuminate and transcend old actions and modes of being.
Have we covered it, How to Write a Novel? In one way, at least. “Once upon a time…” “Once upon a land…” “Once upon a person…” “Once upon an occasion…” “Once upon a moment…” Something valuable occured worth illuminating, approaching, exploring.
Novels tell of the time a creator wishes to explore – when and where and with whom and what began, and how it all came to its engaging and compelling end. Write toward what compels, with purpose and passion.