So you’re writing or thinking about writing a novel.
To put it mildly, you are not alone. The questions I’m asked most in the course of meeting hundreds of people promoting the Sanibel Sunset Detective mysteries have to do with the novel that appears to be bubbling in just about everyone.
Amazing. I would not have thought there were that many readers, let alone writers.
A great deal of this interest has to do with the revolution in technology and the new attitude it has produced. What used to be a highly restricted and difficult process has been democratized and opened up to everyone. Now you don’t have to interest a publisher in order to have your novel published. You can do it yourself—and hundreds, if not thousands, are doing just that, including large numbers of professional writers tired of banging their heads against the wall of traditional publishing.
The rise of Amazon has certainly helped. The scourge of traditional publishers, Amazon is the best thing that ever happened to authors. Now there exists a platform where everyone can sell their books to a worldwide audience. You get the same Amazon page to showcase your work as Stephen King or Nora Roberts. All you have to do is figure out how to sell your masterpiece, and Amazon will even help you do that.
What follows over the course of the next weeks and months is an attempt to address the questions and concerns I’ve heard expressed by fledgling authors. I should emphasize from the outset that these observations and suggestions are merely one writer’s point of view, drawn from sometimes painful personal publishing experiences.
I have been writing professionally since I was fifteen. Almost every day for the past five decades I have sat down to write something. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines. I’ve written scripts for television and movies. I’ve written nonfiction books and I’ve written novels.
Often I have been poorly paid, occasionally I have been extraordinarily well paid, and once in a while I haven’t been paid at all. None of it matters. Whatever the circumstances, I’ve just kept writing. It is what I do. It’s about the only thing I can do with any facility.
All along the fight has been to do it better, to keep learning, to keep trying to figure it out, not just by writing but also by talking to other writers, endeavoring (without great success I might add) to unlock their secrets. The writers include Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, Peter Maas, Theodore H. White, Margaret Lawrence, Pierre Berton, David Halberstam, Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Irving Wallace, Jerzy Kosinski, Leon Uris, William Goldman. To name a few.
I don’t profess to know more than anyone else, and certainly I have experienced as much failure as success. But I have learned a few lessons along the way that might be helpful to someone starting out. The great thing about the creative process is that there really are no rules; if you can make it work, then it works. The mysteries of creation resist discovery with a handy set of instructions.
So, with all that said, let’s get started.
I’m often asked how you write a novel and the answer is dauntingly simple:
You write it.
There is no way of getting around that reality. At some point you must sit down and start writing.
“Writing is work,” says Margaret Atwood. “It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
The good news is that it has never been easier to get your words, if not on paper, onto a computer screen. When I started, back in the dark ages, I thumped away on my trusty manual typewriter. If you made a mistake or decided you had headed down the wrong path, then you had to start over again, an arduous, often frustrating process not helped much by deciding to write in long hand, the only option of great writers from Tolstoy to Dickens.
There is controversy over whether the personal computer helps or hinders the writing process—John le Carré, for example, still writes his novels in long hand—but for the novice faced with the task of composing thousands of words and afraid those words might not be the right ones, technology is a godsend. You can make mistakes to your heart’s content and then correct them again and again with the click of a mouse.
Make yourself write at least page a day. At the end of a year you will have 365 pages—a novel!
Once you have completed your word dump, you can see what you have and then edit and rewrite at your leisure, armed with the satisfaction that at least you have produced something.
Whether to outline a novel first is the subject of much discussion. In the days before computers, I would have said yes, by all means; the outline saved a lot of aggravation and hair pulling when working on a typewriter. But nowadays your first draft dumped into the computer can serve as an outline.
However, I do write a few general notes more or less laying out the beginnings of a plot so that there is some indication as to the plot and where I plan to move it.
Having done that, I take the journey as first reader, creating characters and plot twists as I go along. The writing becomes an adventure, an expedition deep into the unknown—cushioned by the failsafe of understanding that whatever you write not only can be changed but probably will be.
When I finish that journey, i.e. completer the novel, and look back, I realize only one thing: that everything I started out with, I ended up changing.
When you understand this, you are on your way to becoming a writer.
Ron Base talks about writing a novel at Milton Public Library, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m.
Admission is free.