After several years of working on my craft but poor showings with my short stories, I decided it was about time to try my had at writing a novel.
The funny thing is, for such a mundane and commonplace object, the novel is fairly poorly defined. It’s one thing to stroll through a library or a bookstore, running your hand along spines, and say “these are novels”. It’s quite another to sit down in front of a computer, fire up a word processor, and start to type.
The most idiotic and basic of questions will stun you at this stage. How long is a novel? 300 pages, sure, but how many typed pages is it? How do I start? How do I end? Do I describe everything my characters do or just the basics? If I summarize everything, well, I’ll be done in about 10 pages. Isn’t that just a short story? Why should I even bother?
Even after you get past these initial deal-breakers, other harrowing thoughts occur to you as you roll along: I just wrote Chapter One, but it opens thirty years before my novel opens…is this a prologue? Aren’t prologues bad? I’m completely done with the story, but the whole thing is only 150 pages long…how much filler can I get away with? Oh, hell, I killed off the most interesting character on page 18…now what?
The answers are all out there, but it seems like anything worthwhile in life, the answers are ones that you put together yourself. It’s like building a canoe for the first time (or what I imagine it must be like). Someone can tell you what to do, but you sure as hell aren’t going out on the water with your first try. Maybe they didn’t tell you everything you needed to know. Maybe you didn’t do it right. Maybe you feel like you’ve got a better way, but you just need to work at it for a little bit.
The sad fact is that your first canoe, and maybe several more, will sink. Not right away. Depending on the time and effort spent on them, they’ll float a little out onto the lake. But you’ll know when they’re sinking. Some patchwork might get the job done, but recognize when that canoe is useful for one thing only: scraps to build the next one.
Before, during, and after the effort of writing, you should be learning. The best way to learn is through the act of writing itself, of course, but there are people–smart people–who have gone before. Listen to what they’ve had to say and use what you can to help yourself. I’ve listed a few in another blog post, but continue the hunt yourself.