How To Write a Novel

Ever wanted to write a novel? I always did. Know what people told me when I told them that I wanted to write a novel? Nothing. Really. Nothing. Well, my dad did say that he understood Barbara Cartland made a lot of money. Now, Barbara Cartland was a well-known romance writer for Harlequin Books in the 70's, and I had no ambition to follow in her shoes. No, I decided. Making money would not, could not be my prime objective. Sorry, Dad.

I wanted to write meaningful novels about things and people I knew. The problem was, I didn’t think I knew enough about things or people. So I set off to find out about them.

The first rule of novel writing: By the time you decide you want to write a novel, you have already experienced enough and met enough people. You just haven’t discovered how interesting and varied they all are until you sit down to write about them.

I actually started writing a couple of things. There was the one about my adventures in the civil rights movement in Chicago that I called, Letters From a Blue-Eyed Soul Sister. I dropped that one when I realized I was writing about me instead of the people in the movement and that I didn’t really know them well enough to write about them. Then there was a dystopian lesbian fantasy novel set in a frozen world. Not that I knew anything about lesbians. I wanted to write an idealistic novel about an egalitarian, cooperative society run by non-violent women. I did know about snow, but once I’d described the world I wanted them to live in, I found all the ideas I had for action inevitably fell back on violence and bad guys. Kind of Little House on the Prairie meets Road Warrior. Which, looking back, could have been awesome, but sadly I wasn’t the one to write it.

Then one morning sometime in the early 80’s, I wrote, The crows were flying low over the rooftops, perching on the eaves and rising again to circle over the city, cruising down streets and alleyways, in anticipation of carrion to come.

It was the first sentence of my first novel, The Year of the Crow.

Yes, I did finally begin a novel that I finished, but I got only a few chapters under my belt before life interfered once more. I finally self-published it in 2012. The thing that kept me going back to it was that one phrase, “anticipation of carrion to come,” which I liked so well I just couldn’t abandon it (didn’t kill it, didn’t put it in a drawer).

The second rule of novel writing: Don’t kill your darlings. If they don’t work in your WIP (work in progress) the way you want them to, cut them out and put them in a drawer. Or a separate file labelled, “To Be Used When Appropriate.” Because the time will come when they will be appropriate. Just ask Tolkien.

The third rule of novel writing: Don’t let life get in the way. You don't have to finish the dishes.

I don’t know if a novel I might have finished in the 80’s would have been better than the one I published in 2012, but now I’ll never know. I wrote a lot of good stuff that I put in a drawer. I’m pulling some of that out now. Here’s an important thing I discovered. The dishes will never be done. But, at the end of the day, the real end of a real day, as I’m going to sleep, if I have written something, even just a satisfying paragraph, then I know that the important work has been done. There will always be dishes. But that paragraph? It’s done. And it’s good.

The fourth rule of novel writing: Join a writers’ group. These are the people who can point out that the character who had brown eyes on page 13 somehow has blue eyes on page 173.

Some things to watch for in a writers’ group:

  • Comfort. Do you feel comfortable in the group? Welcome. Are people glad to see you and eager to listen to/read what you’ve written? Are their negative comments presented in such a manner that does not belittle but seeks to be helpful?
  • Compatibility. Do they understand the genre (mystery, scifi, fantasy, litfic) in which you are writing and can they make helpful suggestions?
  • Diversified. For many of us, this means equal numbers of men and women, although in some areas, this could include racial composition. In other words, does it contain people likely to comprehend your point of view? I was a woman in what, depending on attendance, was sometimes an all-male group (there were several women who attended regularly, but not always), and sometimes they had little understanding of the motivations of my heroine which the women members understood more readily. Not that the men were always wrong, but it is useful to take all points of view into consideration.
  • Professionalism: By this I mean a basic understanding of grammar (can point out mistakes), careful readers (will tell you if your text seems to contradict itself), and genuinely appreciative of good writing along with ideas of how to make something better. They can challenge you to defend a run-on sentence, infodumps, and as-you-know-Bob’s. They can teach you a lot about the art of writing. They can teach you how to stand up for yourself when you disagree with them. But those are the very best ones, and I was lucky to have found one on my first try. Good luck!

Which is how The Year of the Crow got written. Why Ghosts of the Heart started as a travelogue before becoming infested with ghosts. And even how A Dream of Houses was finally built around a history of discarded futures.

The fifth rule of novel writing: populate your books with people you care about.

I was sitting on the floor of an old Victorian we called the Green House. It was where everybody went to buy drugs or get high. Mostly we bought pot or hash, LSD if we were lucky, maybe cocaine if we could afford it, and it was said you could score heroin, if you knew who to ask. The Green House sat right behind the cop shop, which was a little detail we delighted in. We went there to get pot when we could afford it. So did most of the others we met there. A few of them were usually together, sitting on the floor against the wall. I don’t remember any of their names now, but I can still see them, sitting there, stoned to the bone, eyes fixed on what appeared to be nothing. But I was high as well, and I knew it wasn’t nothing. Because my eyes were fixed on them. They were smiling.

They were mostly little guys, as in short. Bearded. Shabby. The only other place I saw them was at local music venues, sitting along a wall, stoned to the bone. Smiling. If you talked to them, they had little to say. Incoherent hippy talk. “Heyy, sister. How you be?” “Right on!”

Anyway, back at the Green House. I remember sitting there, looking at them, and wishing that I had a magic camera that could capture what they were seeing on the ceiling, the wall, the floor, whatever had captured an individual attention. I had been staring at the ceiling, myself, before I noticed them. It was, as I said, an old house and the light fixture, broken now, had one of those figured plaster medallions surrounding it. That medallion had become a hundred different designs before I tore my eyes away to watch the guys. I wondered then what dreamworld they envisioned whether on the ceiling or in the music, but I never doubted that it was something they found wonderful. Dead dreams from the springtime of their youth come alive once more? I didn’t know, but I felt all too familiar with my own dead dreams for comfort.

No one will ever write about these guys, I thought then. They will never be the heroes of anybody’s story. Except their own. Maybe I should write about them. They can be heroes in my stories.

That might or might not have been the night I went home and wrote about the carrion crows. And I never knew one of them well enough to write his story, even in fiction. But I put them in my stories whenever I could. They were friendly figures in bars and at concerts, bikers and small-time dealers. A little shifty when they had to be, kind when they were able.

You will know your people when you see them, when you get a picture of them in your head and just have to put it down on paper. They are laughing or crying. Maybe just smiling at nothing in particular. And when you finish your description, what they look like to you, where they are when you visualize them, and what they are doing, you will have to explain the laughter, the tears, the smile. There is always a story there.

That’s when you begin to write a novel.