As a wannabe writer one of my very favourite pre-occupations is to lose hours and hours reading books and blog posts on the most interesting topic in the world – how to write a novel. I’ve been reading books about how to write for years, but making the jump from general writing ‘how to’ suggestions to the positively overly ambitious dream of penning a novel (who do I think I am?)has required something of a leap of faith. In fact it has taken huge courage to commit to this enterprise, not least in the battle against my ‘inner critic’ who doesn’t believe I can do it.
Interestingly, since I announced to myself and to my family that I was going to write, I have managed to write consistently every day for hours at a time. Funny thing is, before I verbalized my intention there never seemed to be any time available at all for my pursuits, writing or otherwise (I also enjoy spinning, dyeing, knitting and tapestry weaving), but since saying the words “I’m a writer”, my life seems to have opened up and unrolled itself at my feet, gifting me with pockets of bliss-filled hours with just me, myself and I, and my lap top.
Still it’s not all plain sailing. There have been days when I have lifted my precious writing instruction books down from the shelf and wondered how on earth I was supposed to turn their advice into a novel. To begin with, they are not a homogenous collection of books. Some refer specifically to creative non-fiction, others to writing short stories, while only a few recent purchases focus on novel writing as such.
So there I was having made my grand gesture of declaring to the universe (oh alright, my family and the cats!) that I was going to write a novel, but with no idea what to do next. So I did what any sane book lover would do. I picked a novel, Eden’s Garden by Juliet Greenwood, which represented the type of novel I myself would like to write and read it with an eye to how the author structured it and how she handled thorny elements like dialogue, plot, setting, themes, etc. [I also wrote a review of the book here.] Juliet’s book and blog led me in turn to other authors who write in a similar vein.
After setting the book down I decided that my best approach was to write into the mist. And so I began. And I loved writing that first chapter. It was sheer joy to sit and follow where my protagonist wanted to take me. But then I stalled. I had absolutely no idea what to do next. Very quickly I began to consider myself a total failure. Obviously I wasn’t a writer if I couldn’t come up with a plot. What I had yet to discover was that in order to generate a plot I needed to sit down and allow myself the time and space for the contours of said plot to emerge and slip out through the cracks of questions like Why? Who? Where? When? How?
Most of all I needed to learn how to ‘moodle’:
“So you see, imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”
As I began to answer these questions I realized that the characters and the plot bounced off one another. And then when I looked even closer, it seemed that the settings generated particular kinds of actions and reactions. I’ve a long way to go, and a lot to learn. But at least now I feel that I have some sort of grip on what novel writing involves. And for me at least (though many novelists work a different way) I prefer to plot and plan, to have some sort of road map of where I think I might be going. Though having said that, it is always the greatest fun to disappear down some un-trodden side track. Sometimes the greatest treasury of ideas can be found in a rabbit hole!
So, if anyone is interested in listening to how I have begun my foray into the weird and wonderful writing world, and the steps I have taken to get from there to here (which is nowhere in the grand scheme of things!), here they are:
1) Read, read, read. Focus on the type of novel you most enjoy. Consider to yourself that YOU are going to write exactly the book you most want to read. Then read lots and lots of examples from this genre. Read them as a writer. Analyse all the elements. Keep reading them, even while you are writing your own. [Again, lots of writers disagree with this approach as they feel that reading others words affects them adversely and interferes with their own writer’s voice. It’s up to you. Just read, either before you start writing, or alongside your writing.]
2) Find your characters, or at least begin with your main character. I was lucky in that my principle protagonist has been inhabiting my mind and life for a number of years and the sooner I free her voice the better we shall both be!
3) In my humble opinion the characters generate the plot and the setting, especially once you identify their motivations and the conflict their desires set up. [Without a major conflict there is no story arc.]
4) Research the back story. This calls for more reading, and not all of it is non-fiction. One of my secret little pleasures is reading other novels as part of my research. At this point in time I have 8 books on request in my local library, all of them related in one way or another to Paris, both as it is today and as it was in the 1930’s, and when these books arrive for collection I shall have the exquisite pleasure and satisfaction of spending at least an entire week of doing absolutely nothing else apart from reading. I mean, how much better can life get than this?!
In conclusion I am listing all the books which I have on my shelf and which I find to be extremely helpful in my forays into novel writing. I recommend each and everyone of them to any wannabe writer. It remains to be seen just how far they will take me……….
One final point – I recently joined a few online forums and writing groups who together offer an amazingly tantalizing array of online classes in all facets of writing. Even more than the books listed here, I would suggest that they might be the real key to learning to write successfully. Watch this space…….
BOOKS ON NOVEL WRITING:
90 Days to Your Novelby Sarah Domet
The Weekend Novelistby Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris
Your First Novelby Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb
SPECIFIC TITLES ON ROMANCE NOVEL WRITING:
On Writing Romanceby Leigh Michaels
12 Point Guide to Writing Romanceby Kate Walker
Love Writingby Sue Moorcroft
Writing Romantic Fictionby Daphne Clair and Robyn Donald
WRITING SHORT STORIES:
How to Write and Sell Short Storiesby Della Galton
GENERAL FICTION GUIDELINES:
The Writer’s Portable Mentorby Priscilla Long
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifeby Anne Lamott
Writing Fiction, a Gide to Narrative Craftby Janet Burroway
Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craftby Janet Borroway
Writing Fiction, Gothan Writers’ Workshop, edited by Alexander Steele
Make a Sceneby Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Word paintingby Rebecca McClanahan
Growing Great Characters From the Ground Upby Martha Engber
Wannabe a Writer?By Jane Wenhan-Jones
[Adapt to your particular writing needs and genre.]
Writing for Your Lifeby Deena Metzger
Writing Down the Bonesby Natalie Goldberg
Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Lifeby Natalie Goldberg
A Writer’s Book of Daysby Judy Reeves
Walking on AlligatorsSusan Shaugnessy
What If?By Anne Bernays and Pamela Paintner
Room to Writeby Bonnie Goldberg
Fruitfleshby Gayle Brandeis
Needless to say I have more, many more. But these are enough for anyone to get started on and are probably the titles I own which best pertain to novel writing as such. They are also the ones I refer to the most.
Which books do you turn to when you need writing guidance?