Learning the Craft: Writing a Novel

by Trish

in Learning the Craft, writing

They say writing a novel is easier than writing a short story. The reason is that to write fiction you must create such a real alternate world that in a short story you only have a limited time to do that and every word counts. In a novel, you have more of an expansive space in which to create your world (every word still counts, but you’re forgiven if you go off on a tangent, which you will).

So how does a person begin to write a story in novel form?

Everyone I talk to says there’s an inciting incident that is left in their mind. Especially for a short story. A book I’m reading right now, The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett talks about this. I really do liken short stories to fictional essays and novels to giant puzzles.

Thus, for a novel, you’ll need an inciting incident and then have to keep finding those incidents as you write. Remember, a novel is 70,000 to 100,000 words long. A short story usually runs around 3,000 to 5,000 words (stories can run much short and much longer, but just for comparison’s sake) and has probably less than five characters, if not just two or even just one character. A novel can have that many, but you have to engage the reader over a much longer terrain.

1. Start with an incident. Say a mother lost her daughter in a crowd. Or a father is driven to stealing money to buy food. Or a daughter sneaks out on a date and gets drunk and then must come home. This incident can be either the first turn or can be one of the growing challenges later in the book. You won’t know at first, so just find something that catches your interest.

2. Round out the characters in the incident. What’s this mother like? What’s her daughter like? Why did the mother take her eyes off her child? Was she stressed, fighting with someone, listening to her phone messages, or daydreaming? What’s the father going to do when he tries to steal the money? Point a gun? Threaten with a bomb? Why does he resort to this to get food? Why does the daughter sneak out? What are her parents like? How does she start to drink? Who brings her home or how does she get home?

3. Don’t try to sketch out the entire book at once. Remember it’s like pieces of a puzzle. You may know the ending or you may not. You may know that the situation resolves into another incident. Great. Just write. A novel can’t be dashed out in 30 days and be ready to publish (sometimes it happens, I know, but realistically, no). You’ll be able to get down a draft in 30 days, but then you must revise. I prefer to quickly sketch out 150-200 pages in advance, but I don’t know how it connects to the middle piece or the ending, heck I don’t even usually know how it ends half the time.

Remember to give yourself time. I’m writing my current first draft nice and easy. I have 18 months (until August 2010) to finish a first draft, which is about 1.5 to 2 chapters a month. A nice pace for me (who has a whole lot of other stuff going on around her fiction writing) and I feel quite comfortable with that. It took me awhile. I had grander plans earlier this year about my fiction, but I’ve settled into a nice routine and really trust this process. It has worked very well for my first two chapters. Going to stick to it.

If anyone has further questions on novel writing, check back here each week for more insights and tips. Or comment and I’ll try to answer the question in the next post.

Jonã Machado May 4, 2009 at 6:26 pm

At first sorry for my delay to reply the post you have done just for me. I have been a little busy on these days but thanks a lot, it really helped me and I’m reading also others blogs and books about the theme I still have a lot of questions and I neither have a good idea but I’m working on it. Do you know the most prolific writer? Hes on guinnes with lots of best sellers, if you don’t you should take a look. Serious! http://www.ryoki.com.br/index_en.htm (its in englih)

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