Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Key To A Completed Novel Is Completion

There's a catchy meme circulating on the internet.

Done Beats Perfect.

As soon as I read it, I thought about several writers I know who have been working on their novel for a long time.

A loooooooooonnnng time.

It is good, of course, to make your novel a quality piece of work. In fact, it could probably be said that most writers decide too early that their novel is done, and they put out a volume that could still use significant editing and rewriting.

But there are those perfectionists - you know who you are - who believe that they can continue to improve their novel, and they want to get it just right before they launch it.

The flip side of their desire for perfection is the fear that if it isn't perfect, they will find embarrassing mistakes after their book is published.

Well, let me corroborate your fears right now. No matter how perfect you make your book, it will almost certainly have mistakes. Because as you rewrite and fix every last mistake in the book, that very "fixing" process will create more mistakes. So know going in that your book will have at least a few glitches. And also know that if you've done a good job, they will be few, and your readers will forgive you.

Better that than having your novel be a work-in-progress forever.

You've probably read Winston Churchill's famous quote about a book starting out as an amusement, then becoming a mistress, then a master, then a tyrant, and that you must eventually kill the monster and fling him to the public. What he said is appropriate. At some point you simply have to make the decision that the book is done and move on to the next one.

There is actually evidence that suggests that switching your focus from perfection to production leads to greater perfection.

In their perennial bestseller Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, the authors discuss an experiment one of them did in a ceramics class he taught. He divided the class into two groups.

The assignment for members of the first group was to create a single perfect pot. They could take the entire semester to produce this pot, and their grade would be determined by how perfect the pot was.

The assignment for members of the second group was to produce as many pots as possible over the course of the semester. Their grade would be based only on the final number of pots, regardless of quality. They were told to ignore quality.

What happened?

The group that focused exclusively on quantity ended up making the highest quality pots.

The group that focused exclusively on quality ended up making inferior pots.

The benefits of practice are clear in every field. If you want to be a better skier, spend more time skiing. If you want to write a better book, write more books.

If you are one of those perfectionists still trying to make your first novel better, now is the best time to decide it is done, or at least set a hard deadline for when it will be done.

With a few notable exceptions, the best writers tend to be the ones who've written several books at the minimum.

Speaking for myself, I utilized some skills in my most recent book that I'd never even thought of at the time I finished my first. I won't claim any particular level of quality, although my most recent book is getting great reviews. But I do know that writing more leads to writing better.

So go ahead. Take the leap. Finish your first novel.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Smart Writing That Really Isn't

We writers all do it. We write something especially smart or clever. When we reread it, we feel a self-congratulatory smugness. Look how insightful we are.

A few days later, if we're observant, we become aware that we're still noticing our words, oozing with perspicacity. Wait. Is that what we really want? Words that emanate intelligence?

No, we want our writing to be intelligent to the point of getting our story across in the best way. But if the reader is distracted by writing that seems so intelligent, then the writing is failing at transporting the reader to the place the writer wants to get them. Unless, of course, the writer primarily wants the reader to think that they are really smart. Which almost guarantees that the writer will have very few readers.

Mark Twain said, "Never use a quarter word when a nickel word will do the job."

Clever writing tends to dog entertainment writers who are uncomfortable with merely telling an entertaining story. So they spruce up their writing to make it appear, well, smarter.

It also happens to literary writers who are a little too taken with the idea that they are producing great art. So they write sentences that are puffed up and pretentious. Precious is a word that writers use to describe such writing.

All writers do this, writing fancy words and sentences that call attention to themselves and distract from the story. Our job is to go back and find those sentences or phrases or words, and edit them out.

The late great Elmore Leonard was famous not just for his novels and short stories, but for his Ten Rules Of Writing. He followed those with an eleventh rule that summed up all ten and said, "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it."

All writers, entertainment and literary, do best when they follow Leonard's last rule.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Speed Writing For A Tortoise

Last night, I finished a two day marathon writing session where I did nothing from when I woke up until I went to bed but work on my new book. I looked at the word count and found I'd written 15,900 words. In my current format of approximately 300 words per page, that worked out to 53 pages of new material. For me, that's speed writing.

While I'm usually a slow writer, I'm not like the poet who considers finding and removing an unnecessary comma to be a good day's work. Nor am I remotely close to those prolific writers who expect to produce 20 pages every day and thus complete a rough draft after a mere three weeks work (the term "work" being uncomfortable for me considering that a farmer or a logger or even a computer code writer would not consider making up stories remotely close to real work).

Never mind that. I wondered what it was that contributed to such - for me - prodigious production. Thinking back, it was movement. Plot. Action. Those things tend to get down on the page fast. Had I been writing "character," I'd have produced a fraction of the words. I'm not talking of writing about "a" character, but simply "character." Writing "character" is getting down the words and phrases that reveal something subtle and telling about the characters. Writing "character" is slow. Writing plot is fast.

Years ago, when I had completed only four novels, books that are unpublished and entombed in a drawer, there to stay, like a diploma, as an iconic reminder that writers need an education like everyone else, I thought that plot was easy and character was hard. (How's that for a run-on sentence?) But once I came to understand how character worked, I realized that character was relatively easy and plot is relatively hard.

This is ironic. Although I came to develop skills that made creating character fairly easy, it writes slow. In contrast, while creating plot is hard, it writes fast.

I have a poet friend who says he can't plot his way out of a paper bag. I used to think it was because he hadn't tried much. Now I think it's because it's hard to plot your way through even the simplest scenario if you want to surprise the reader, get your characters wrestling with interesting dilemmas, work toward a rising conflict that makes the story interesting, and, hopefully, also include some intelligence and intrigue in your opus. Even more difficult is the plot of a mystery, where the puzzle aspect of the story is critical.

But once you figure out the plot, putting it into words often involves scenes where it unfolds in your mind much faster than you can type, and the typing becomes a rushed torrent, words tumbling over each other as you get it down.

Once you've developed the skills, creating a character is relatively easy. You imagine a specific individual with hopes and dreams and worries and fears. You figure out what makes that person unique, one of a kind, unlike any other person you've ever met, read about, or watched on the screen. You give that person a name. You dream up what they look like and what they wear and how they talk and how they walk. You give them a past. The creation of character comes pretty fast.

But once you figure out a character, putting that person into words is a slow process because you don't just tell everything up front when you first introduce the character. That would be a long, painful exposition and would bore the reader to sleep. Instead, you reveal bits and pieces of your character as they cope with the dilemmas imposed by the plot. Writing these "telling" details, these revealing phrases and sentences that build your character and set them up for a surprising and satisfying transformation, takes a great deal of time and head scratching and walking in the woods.

The next time I get enough of a break from the business of writing to begin another writing marathon, I might be focusing on character. In that case, two days of morning-to-night work might produce a page or two.

Writing slowly is still writing.

Will all 53 pages of my marathon end up in the next book? No. For most of us writers, future editing will cut the chaff from our first drafts, and we'll end up with half or less. But we have to get the first draft down before we can begin the rest of the process.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Novelist's Law Of Trouble

Can you be successful with a first novel? Yes, and the key is found with The Law Of Trouble which states: First Novels Should Have Life-Or-Death Trouble In The First Few Sentences.

My first novel did (as did #s 2, 3, & 4), and it was one of the smartest (luckiest!) things I've done.

I've talked about this before. But it bears repeating. And repeating...

Multiple times in the past, I've checked the bestseller lists looking for first novels, there to peruse the first few sentences and see how they run. Because bestselling first novels are very rare, it seems especially instructive to see how they grab potential readers and pull them into a story successfully enough that a browsing reader decides to purchase the book.

Here's what I found. Nearly always, the first few sentences of bestselling first novels either had a character in life-or-death trouble, or the narrative intimated that a character was soon to be in life-or-death trouble. Note that I'm not talking about Big Trouble or Serious Trouble or Really Bad Trouble. I'm talking about LIFE-OR-DEATH Trouble. Note, also, that I'm not talking about the first few pages. I'm talking about the first few sentences. Often, the life-or-death trouble shows up in the first sentence.

(I've previously pointed out that the Law Of Trouble doesn't apply to established writers because their readers will buy their books based on other books by the author or the author's reputation, a luxury new authors don't have.)

Last week, I once again checked in with the bestseller lists. The most complete one, with the 100 bestselling books of all kinds, updated every minute or so, is Amazon's. Another one, less complete but equally popular, is The New York Times. As in the past, I was looking for first novels. If I noticed anything different in this last check, it is that there were even fewer first novels than ever before. There were only four first novels on Amazon's Top 100 bestseller list!

Of the four first novels on the current lists, novels that were recently written, the highest ranked on the Kindle list was The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner, #1 on Amazon's Kindle list as I write this. How does the book open? The first words are, "I'm drowning." By the second paragraph, we realize that the person drowning is trying to save another person who's also drowning. A few lines later, we find out the drownings that are about to happen are murder. Life-or-death trouble.

The next first novel on the lists is The Martian by Andy Weir. As many of you know, the novel has been a monster success (at #2 on Kindle as of this writing) and has been turned into a soon-to-be-released movie starring Matt Damon. What were in its first sentences? Trouble from the first four words. Trouble that, by the end of the first eight lines, reveals itself as life-or-death trouble. Trouble that continues to build and get worse.

The next first novel breaks the pattern and belies my law. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins (#3) on the list does not open with life-or-death trouble. Does that suggest that my law is no good? I looked closely at the first few lines. What about this book is compelling from the beginning? I decided that it is voyeurism. And of course voyeurism pretty much always leads to trouble. So perhaps that is its reason for success.

Even so, it still doesn't fit my Law Of Trouble. Is there anything else about it? Well, it should probably be pointed out that it isn't really a first novel. According to the New York Times, Paula Hawkins published five other novels under the pen name Amy Silver before she wrote Girl On The Train. She also wrote a financial advice book. Did her previous writing successes make a difference? No doubt. You expect a or 6th or 7th book to be pretty sophisticated. But of course many or most of Hawkins' readers were drawn into the book thinking it was her first novel, so they didn't know beforehand that they could count on Hawkins to tell a good story. But her publisher knew that she'd written multiple other books, and that no doubt affected their marketing approach.

So I'll call Girl On A Train a qualified exception to my law, a "first novel" that doesn't begin with life-or-death trouble, but it isn't really a first novel either.

The fourth first novel on the bestseller lists is In A Dark Dark World by Ruth Ware. It opens with someone in a panicked run. The words are rushed, and the tension is significant. By the end of the first page, we've gotten to Life-Or-Death trouble.

In sum, of the four "first" novels among the top 100 bestselling books, three demonstrate my Law Of Trouble, and the fourth isn't really a first novel.

What about those experienced novelists on the list who already have an audience for anything they write? They don't have to put life-or-death trouble in their first sentences. But do they do it anyway?

To check, I looked up other novels on the list. The first one I came to was Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See (#21) on Amazon. If any writer need not put trouble up front, it is Doerr. Yet All The Light begins with trouble, which, by the 5th line, seems life or death. By the 9th line, it appears that mass casualties are imminent.

What to take away? The lesson seems clear. Why not emulate those writers who write bestsellers, whether they are first novelists or experienced novelists. If you want to find an audience with your first novel, move some life-or-death trouble up to the very front of your story.