Writing Life: How Novel!

Until fairly recently, it was standard practice for a new science fiction or fantasy writer to rack up a few sales in Asimov’s or Weird Tales before even attempting a novel.  Very few writers would be taken seriously until they had established a track record of published stories.  These days, speculative fiction writers (particularly in fantasy) are often launching straight into careers as novelists with nothing to recommend them but their life experiences and an exceptional manuscript.

What does that mean for a new writer?  It means that a) you need an exceptional manuscript and b) if you don’t like writing short stories, you don’t have to.  (Even if you aren’t a fan of short fiction, however, a properly-placed short story can be an excellent marketing tool, so it may be worth learning the basics.)

Writing the Novel

There are many books on novel-writing, even some which specifically address science fiction and fantasy.  Unfortunately, there are as many different ways to complete a novel as there are writers, which means that a nifty trick that may save one career could very well serve as a frustrating obstacle to the next.  Try not to focus on the mysterious gimmicks of “process;” instead, focus on what every novel needs to have at its heart.

The closest you’ll find to universal advice is this: it’s a very good idea to know the shape of your story before you begin.  Though you may be impatient to get right to the wordsmithing, remember that planning/outlining saves more time than it takes away.  It’s faster and easier to look at an index card or a tiny summary paragraph and say, “Oh wait, this scene would work much better in Chapter 10” than it is to lift the fleshed scene out, tie off any bleeding arteries, and try to find a way to hook its connective tissue into to an already living, breathing manuscript.  The longer the work you’re attempting, the more important it is to have a simplified “aerial view” of the story so you don’t lose the forest for the trees.

Outline-phobic?  Afraid that a plan will stifle your creativity?  It shouldn’t, if you know where to stop.  There are many shades of gray between sitting down to write “Once upon a time” without even knowing who your main character is and having a box full of neatly filed index cards that outline each and every scene in order.  Find whatever level of planning it takes to stabilize you but still give you room to breathe, and keep in mind that at minimum you need the answers to the following questions:

Who is my main character?  What does she want that she cannot easily have?  What is her general plan to attain it?  What stands in her way?  How do we know when the story is over?

These questions are general enough that they can be applied to virtually any novel (or any other story form, for that matter).  In more literary works, the character’s goals tend to be more nebulous and internal, but they still form the “spine” of the story’s tension, and the goal’s resolution/failure tells us when the book is finished.  You can always start a novel without the answers to these questions, but you will need to find them eventually, and if you find them midway through a draft you will almost certainly be starting over.  Answering them beforehand can save you unnecessary rewrites.

Once you have those basic answers, the next questions to ask yourself are, “What can go wrong to keep my main character from her goal?  How many different ways can I blow holes in her plan and force her to regroup and start again?”  This is what truly separates the novel from the short story – the length at which you can keep your main character and her heart’s desire apart without boring your audience to tears.

Rewriting the Novel

First-time novelists invariably underestimate the time between first finished draft and submission.  In addition to the fact that exponentially more things can go wrong in a novel than in a short story, keep in mind that the same people who have been more than willing to critique your 5,000-word short stories may mysteriously fall ill, go on vacations to the Amazon, and/or stop answering their telephones once you proudly announce the birth of a 150,000-word novel.  You may end up doing much of the critiquing yourself, and this is best done after the manuscript has gathered a few months’ worth of dust in a drawer while you write (and read!) other things.

It can be helpful, in critiquing, to go through a novel looking for only one thing at a time on each “pass.”  If you try to fix everything at once, you can easily miss things.  It’s a similar psychological effect to wandering into your kitchen looking for “lunch” versus sequentially looking for “a can of soup,” “a loaf of bread,” and “cheese slices.”  Some things you may focus on in a particular read:

Character.  Does each character behave with internal consistency?  Is a character cynical on page 13 but strangely gullible on page 209 when it’s important to  the plot?  Are your characters distinct enough from each other?  Is there any trait they all seem to share?  Is it by any chance a trait that is often associated with you in real life?

Plot. Is there a setup for every payoff?  A payoff for every setup?  Is every scene in the novel either the cause or the effect of something else in the narrative (preferably both)?  Is your character succeeding too often to keep the reader in a sense of anxious expectation?  Too seldom to give the reader hope?

Language. Is your tone consistent?  Are the words period-appropriate?  Are you using too many adverbs and adjectives?  Could you possibly find a synonym for that very striking word you’ve used eight times in one chapter?  Have you tried reading this chapter out loud yet?

Setting.  Is there a strong feeling of location in each scene?  Are at least three different senses evoked?  Could more research give a feeling of authenticity to the backdrop?  Are your setting details woven skillfully into action and dialogue rather than sitting in static expository lumps?  In cases where a paragraph of description is unavoidable, have you found a way to infuse tension into it?

Selling the Novel

One good way to spend time while you’re waiting for a draft to “cool” is to research your market.  Assuming you know the basics of where to find lists of agents and publishers, we’ll move on to some specific techniques that can help focus your submission strategy.  Recently, someone berated me for researching agents at all.  “Just fire out as many query letters as you can,” they said.  “If your book isn’t right for them they’ll just say no, and it hardly takes any more time to send fifty query letters than to send one, especially if it’s via email.”

I beg your pardon?  Unless the laws of mathematics have altered significantly since last I checked, the time 50 people waste reading and rejecting your submission is significantly greater than the time one person would waste doing the same.  Oh, I see.  You meant that it wouldn’t take any more of your time.  Well.  What can we say to that, except to remind you that people in this business do talk to each other, and one of the major questions any agent or publisher will ask himself before committing to a writer is, “Is this the kind of person I really want to be stuck working with indefinitely?”

That said, here are a few things that will help target your submissions properly if you should choose to take that path.  Where I say “agent,” please read “agent or publisher.”

Official web presence. Find out which authors an agent represents.  Does your name make any sense at all in that list?  If the agent has online submission guidelines, engrave them into your left forearm (or right forearm, if you’re left-handed) so that you can refer to them repeatedly as you prepare your submission.  Can’t find an official web presence?  Ask yourself why.  None of the answers to that question suggest that this agent would be the best place for your query.

Unofficial web presence. Find articles, interviews, blogs, and other mentions of the agent’s name online.  Read them, and note their dates.  Has this agent stopped promoting himself recently?  If so, you may want to shuffle him to the bottom of your submission list, as he’s either happy with the clients he has, or he may no longer be in business.  If the agent has recently given interviews or done some blogging, what is he saying (and not saying)?

QUICK phone call. This is not for the faint of heart, but can be very helpful once you’ve done all the research you can online.  Call the agency and politely say to the assistant, “I’m a new author of [your subgenre here].  Would [agent name] be the appropriate person for my query letter, or is there someone else at your agency who might be more interested?”  This can be an incredibly educational phone call.  Despite what web sites may say, you’ll get quite a few, “Uh, yeah, don’t bother sending it here.”  Trust the assistant; he knows.  You may also get a name, and it may not be the one you thought.  Verify spelling, thank the assistant, hang up, and send your query without delay.

Obviously, this is the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to writing and selling a first novel, but it should at least get your wheels turning.  Feel free to offer your own suggestions or take exception to my advice in the comments section.


2 thoughts on “Writing Life: How Novel!

  1. Lovely summary of the process.

    Especially liked your comments on outlines. [If you remember the process], I think too many people get stuck on the “a-1, a-2″s rather than having a basic structure set up for your story. Outlines help you know approximately where to stop introducing your characters and where the big complication/turning point of your should happen putting your characters up to their necks in boiling water.

  2. Well presented information valuable to ALL new writers, not just sci-fi or fantasy. Thank you!

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