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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How to Write a Novel in Four Simple Steps

by Bruce Bethke

Have you always wanted to write a novel but had trouble getting your story off the ground? Follow these four simple steps and you can't go wrong!

Step 1. Begin.

Just, begin. Anywhere. It doesn't matter where. But start writing. Today. Don't talk to your friends about the novel you intend to write, chase after editors and agents like a love-struck groupie and beg them to tell you what to write, bury yourself in arcane research, or spend years agonizing over the backstory of the world in which the novel is set and the personal prehistories of the characters in your cast. Just, start telling your story. Now.

One of the best bits of advice on beginnings I ever ran across came from screenwriter Richard Curtis, best known for Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. His advice was aimed at television series writers in particular, but has wider application. Paraphrasing now:
If you feel you must write a pilot script that explains the history of the setting, the personal histories of the characters, and their relationships to each other, by all means, do so. And then lock it in a desk drawer and never look at it again.
Readers are actually quite intelligent. By and large they dislike prologues, forwards, sermons, and history lessons that must be digested before the story proper begins. If there is anything important that they need to know about the world in which the story is set or the personal histories of the characters, they will pick it up from context as the story moves along, or fill in the deficiencies from their own imaginations. If there is anything important that they need to know about the characters' relationships with each other, they'd darn well better be able to see it in the words you put in the characters' mouths and the actions you command them to take.

What readers most want to do at the beginning of a story is to meet an interesting character—not necessarily a likable one, but one whose fate they can care about—who is in an interesting situation or doing some interesting thing.

For all other concerns, please internalize this mantra:

"I can fix that in the rewrite."

Step 2. Continue.

Having begun your story, one of the hardest things to do is to keep it moving. Forward. That way. Having been introduced to an interesting character who is in an interesting situation or doing an interesting thing, the question your readers most strongly want answered is: What happens next?

It is your job to answer that question.

One of the worst possible things you can do is to launch a story with an interesting beginning and then leap immediately into a flashback. As we've all learned from watching Star Wars Episodes I through III, nothing sucks like a prequel, and what else is a flashback but a small, embedded, prequel?

So, don't do it. Keep your story moving forward. Keep things happening. In saying this I do not mean that you should keep the physical action popping; more often than not a character's intellectual, emotional, or moral activity is far more important than his or her physical actions, and even the most overtly physical of characters needs to take a breather, once in a while.

But if you've gone a thousand words without something happening: make something happen.

What if you are unable to think of anything that you can make happen at this point in the story? Then it is perfectly acceptable to write something like,

[insert big chase scene here]

and soothe yourself with these consoling words:

"I can fix that in the rewrite."

Then pick some new starting point, somewhere further down some character's personal time-stream—or introduce an entirely new character, that works, too—and begin afresh.

Another common obstacle to continuing is The Irresistibly Clever Idea, which invariably pops up midway through the story and demands that you rewrite the entire blasted thing up to this point in order to accommodate your new stroke of brilliance. Resist the IRCI, for all you are worth. Giving in to it is a surefire way to make certain that you spend the rest of eternity in Rewrite Hell and never ascend to Step 3.

Personally, the IRCI is one reason why I like to do my first drafts on paper. When an IRCI hits, I write it down, throw it into a shoebox, and don't look at it again until I've reached Step 4. At which time, nine times out of ten, my IRCI doesn't seem all that C after all.

Step 3. End.

When you reach the end of your story, end it. Decisively.

One of the most pernicious pieces of common advice that gets tossed around in writers' circles is, "It's the first five pages that sells the book." That may be true when showing your manuscript to agents and editors, but it causes writers to spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing over the beginnings of their books, when it's the ending of the story that gets readers to buy your next book.

No reader ever says, "Wow, what a great beginning! It's a shame the book meandered around meaninglessly in the middle and totally crapped out at the end, but boy, what a great beginning! I can't wait to see how he begins his next book!"

By the time a reader has reached the end of your book, he or she has invested a lot of time and energy into reading your story. Reward the readers for that loyalty. Give them an ending that leaves them feeling their time was well-spent.

And if the first ending you write doesn't feel as if it's all it should be, remember:

"I can fix that in the rewrite."

Step 4. Rewrite without mercy.

Once you've reached "The End," put your manuscript aside for a few days—or for however long it takes for your creative ardor to cool—and then go at it with an axe. Cut, edit, and rewrite mercilessly. Put everything in your story on the chopping block. Nothing should be considered protected from being cut or rewritten. Jettison anything that does not contribute to moving your story forward, in the general direction of the end.

For example, once you know where your story ends, you should have a much better sense of where it properly begins. That ten-thousand-word preamble that took you three months to write, in which your lead character flounders around the countryside trying to find the beginning of the plot? Cut it!

That comic relief subplot that in the final analysis wasn't really all that funny? Cut it!

That romantic interest who actually turned out to be a load of needy and whiny baggage? Throw her off a cliff, and have your hero find a new love!

That plot development that makes no sense now, because, while it was fully formed in your mind at the time, you skipped committing half the pertinent details to paper? Rewrite it, and expand it as much as is necessary.

And then put your manuscript aside for another cooling-off period, and do it all over again. There, that is how you write a novel, in four simple steps.

I said they were simple. I never claimed they were easy.

Bruce Bethke works, writes, and when time permits, lives, in beautiful, mosquito-infested Minnesota. In some circles he is known for his 1980 short story, "Cyberpunk." In others, he is better known for his Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash. Hereabouts, he is best known as the founder of The Friday Challenge and the publisher of Stupefying Stories, in which capacities he is regarded with usual combination of love, adoration, cynicism, sycophantism and contempt that writers typically express for editors and publishers.

Mr. Bethke can be contacted. But why would you want to?
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