The first draft of my first novel, an apocalyptic horror tale called THE HOLE, is almost done. Writing has weirdly slowed as I approach the end, not because I don’t know how to finish it (I have the conclusion worked out in some detail) but because, I think, I’m nervous about having the entire thing out there for the world to see.
By way of procrastination, then, I’m going to set out some of the things I’ve learned along the way, especially those lessons I wish I’d known before I started writing. There’s nothing formal about them and they’re not meant as “Aaron Ross Powell’s Big Guide to Novel Writing.” No, they’re just thoughts I’m having as I stare at the blank word processor pages that’ll contain the final few thousand words of THE HOLE.
1) Don’t plan too much. This one obviously depends on the kind of story you’re writing. If your novel is a tight thriller or a complicated mystery, doing a good deal of planning up front is crucial. But too much planning can kill spontaneity, too, and it’s that spontaneity that makes coming back to the empty page everyday so enticing. I’ve tried outlining heavily in the past and the result was always stalled writing. The process of penning a novel is, first and foremost, storytelling and, because of the lonely nature of the craft, that means telling yourself a story. If you already know how every step is going to unfold, then writing the novel is much the same as reading a book after you’ve gone through the Cliff Notes. There’s still a process of discovery, because you’re experiencing the material with a new richness, but it’s just not the same as coming at it fresh. I had a general idea of where I wanted THE HOLE to go, but I didn’t have it planned in detail by any stretch of the imagination. And that kept me enthusiastic about writing. I wanted to know how it played out just as much as my audience did.
2) Characters really do define themselves. Just as it’s possible to over plan the plot and structure, you can do the same with characters. I remember checking out books from the library on character traits. They were these fat volumes filled with lists of everything that might make a person interesting. My intention was the give my main characters, Elliot Bishop and Evajean Rhodes, detailed personas before I expressed them on the page. That way they’d be deep–and character depth is that oh-so-important criteria of good writing, as this English major learned during his undergraduate years. The trouble was, every time I’d make a list of traits, they felt artificial. Eventually I gave up and just began writing. This leave it alone system wasn’t perfect. Elliot, for instance, is a very different person in the first ten or twenty pages than he is in the remaining three-hundred, and that’s something I’ll have to fix in the second draft. But Elliot and Evajean did quickly become their own people during writing. I still can’t set down exactly what makes them so. I can’t tell you Elliot has such and such traits, while Evajean possesses alternate ones. But the two charactersfeel different to me and, while I’m writing them, I can sense them telling me what they want to do in different ways. It’s a cliche of writing (”Characters will guide themselves.”), yet it’s still startling to experience.
3) Don’t plan too little. In his excellent memoir, On Writing, Stephen King talks about his plotting method. It boils down to “Just Wing It.” That may work when you have a ton of experience, but I don’t recommend it. Several times during the course of writing THE HOLE, I either bumped against problems I’d created for myself (I’d walked my characters into a corner I didn’t know how to get them out of) or I wrote scenes I didn’t know how to work into the larger plot. I managed to deal with all this, I think, but it wasn’t easy. Having a slightly better idea of what was going to happen next, as well as a more defined back story, would have gone a long way to smoothing the writing process.
4) Other people can’t teach you to write. The number of how-to books in the writing section of big chain book store can be discouraging. If that much needs to be said about how to do this thing, then how can I possibly expect to get it right? I read a ton of these tomes and ended up using nothing I’d learned. I think the key to telling a story is to just go out and tell a story. At some level, we all know how to do it and, thus, the only way to get better is to simply practice.
5) Your audience will be more impressed than you are. This is a lesson I’m still learning and, obviously, it’s not going to be true for everyone. If your writing is terrible, nobody’s going to like it–and I suppose it’s possible to convince yourself it’s good when it really isn’t. My writing isn’t the best there is, but it’s decent. People enjoy it, at least enough to stick with a serialized novel for over a year. The thing is, much of the time I’m not happy with it at all. I can’t stand reading my own work. I cringe when I come across what sounds like awkward wording or heavy dialog. I notice errors constantly. But when other people read it, they tend to see a lot less of that. I’m much more critical of my work than my audience is. I’m sure this is the case for any creative endeavor. The creator is involved in every tiny detail. He witnesses the process. The reader, on the other hand, consumes it in a gulp. Errors go down easier that way. Not that the writer should take this as an excuse to do shoddy work, but he should be aware that the whole is often of higher quality than the parts.