10 Ways to Write A Novel
Supposedly, we all have one in us – but how do you go about writing your big book? Novelist Alex Quick makes it easier than you might think
Zadie Smith once said that 'in a novel you're never wrong'. And I think it's true: novels do not make incontrovertible statements about the world in the same way that chemistry primers do. If a novel fails to ignite, it's not going to end up causing nationwide power shortages.
However, it would be a mistake to think that writing a novel is one big free-for-all. I think it's possible to set out some definite guidelines for good novelistic conduct: 102, in fact. Here 1a re 10 of them: Think about your motives before you start
1 Why do you want to write a novel?
To show that you can do it? To score off your old English teacher? To earn money? To be invited on to Desert Island Discs? To attract literary groupies? To tell a particular story? To move people? Because you have to? The last is probably the best reason. You will need a lot of stamina to write a novel. If you absolutely must write one, then it might actually get written.
The other reasons are not bad, either. The important thing is to be honest with yourself about why you are writing. If your motives are ignoble, examine them and see whether you can live with them.
Buried shame is not a good companion at the beginning of a writing project.
2 Find a theme
Theme is present in a novel simply because the author has taken the time to ask themselves: 'what is my book saying?' Examples of oft-encountered themes are: the love of money is the root of all evil; there's no fool like an old fool; the pen is mightier than the sword; love is a dangerous game; blood is thicker than water. The theme is the thing that you feel deeply about and want to demonstrate. It doesn't matter if your choice is unoriginal. To say that love is a dangerous game is no news to anyone. It is your particular take on the theme that will make the words jump off the page.
3 Draft a 'character CV'
Before you start writing, it's useful to know as much as possible about each of your main characters. You can tabulate this information in the form of a 'character CV' for each one.
You probably won't use all the information you gather, but it will help you nevertheless. Once you've made it your business to find out everything you can, you'll find that your characters will only act in certain ways. They will resist being asked to behave 'out of character'. This is the fabled moment when the characters take over – but it's a product of hard work, and not of magic.
4 Use photos to help you create your character
If your character works as a nurse, have a look for photos of nurses. When you have found a likely-looking photo, print or clip it out and put it with your 'character CV'. Refer to it as you interrogate your character. Ask her: 'What are your secret fears? Who are your parents? What sort of music do you like?' You will see the answers in her eyes.
5 Make your characters want something
Kurt Vonnegut said: 'A character should always want something, even if it is only a glass of water.' When we know what characters want, their actions take on a completely new meaning.
If we know that someone is stealing a bicycle to get a job to save his family from penury (as in the film Bicycle Thieves), we are more sympathetic to them than if we would be towards a casual thief who later dumps the bike in a canal.
If you know what your characters want you can also put obstacles in their path, and so create drama.
6 Create conflict
Call to mind any successful novel and there will be conflict in abundance. Moby Dick presents the conflict between Ahab and the whale; Chocolat by Joanne Harris presents the conflict between Vianne Rocher and Francis Reynaud; Alice's Adventures In Wonderland presents the conflict between Alice and the phantasms of her dream world. Imagine these novels with no conflict: if Ahab caught and killed the whale on page five, if Vianne and M Reynaud got along famously, or if everyone and everything Alice met was nice and perfectly reasonable.
Without conflict it's impossible to generate suspense, to bring about change in characters, to reveal their hidden depths, or to get readers emotionally involved.
7 Introduce some action
I don't mean the kind of action you get in thrillers. I mean it in a more technical sense. If the heroine is fighting a tiger in a damaged helicopter, that is certainly action, but it is also action if the hero allows his fingers to trail languidly over a tigerskin rug. What counts is that the character (or an inanimate object such as a machine or a landscape) does something: an active verb is involved.
Action is the one mode of narrative that best follows the 'show, don't tell' rule. There is a lot of difference between 'Clarence was an ambitious man' and 'Clarence strode into the reception area, slammed his CV on the desk, and said: "Call me".'
8 Control the emotional content of your novel
Think about the last novel you enjoyed. What effect did it have on you? It almost certainly moved you in some way. When you put the book down after reading the last page, you were probably still vibrating from the way it elicited emotions of horror, pity, pathos, amazement, sadness, or wonder.
It might be said that the novelist's job is to bring about these emotions in the breasts of their readers. Guy de Maupassant said: 'The public is composed of numerous groups who cry to us: "Console me; amuse me; make me sad; make me sympathetic; make me dream; make me laugh; make me shudder; make me weep; make me think."'
9 Give your novel a sense of place
Does an evocation of place do anything more than provide colour in a novel? Indeed it does. Place can have a key relationship to plot. The countryhouse- murder plot is impossible without the country-house setting, because the house is an island, cut off by the tide – no-one can arrive or depart without notice.
Place can also have a key relationship to characters. In a city of rank alleyways, certain characters breed. But perhaps not quite the ones you expect. A slum may engender order and harmony as opposed to chaos and crime.
10 Cut, cut, cut
Finally, at a late stage of your novel, you must revise. This often means cutting. Cut exposition (the dreaded 'information dump' in which you regale your reader with your research), pointless dialogue, anything deliberately obscure, or overwritten sections that are there to demonstrate your mastery of the medium. But don't throw away the material you cut. Something that is cut from one place may belong in another. Put your cuttings in a scrap file.
These are just 10 personal guidelines, and each novelist will, in the course of their travails, discover their own. Happy discovering!
102 Ways To Write A Novel by Alex Quick, is published by Old Street Publishing, priced £7.99.
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