Monday, November 23, 2020

How (and Why) I Wrote a Novel

 I haven't posted anything here for a long while, and that's because I've been busy writing my first novel. It's not published (yet), but I finished it, and it's in the hands of some readers who will give me feedback. I may change things when it comes back. But my original goal... simply writing a story of novel length... is done. Now that I've set the pen down (for the moment) I thought I might jot down some of my thoughts about the motivation, the process, and the mechanics of it.

The Motivations

There are several:

  1. Very simply put, I hadn't written one before. I've been a professional painter, a software developer, a songwriter, a game designer, an actor, a short story writer... but I've never written a novel. I wanted to see if I had one in me. 
  2. A friend of mine, of similar background, wrote a novel. I participated in the process as a beta reader, and even wrote a song depicting a scene of the book. The song was written into a later draft. And now my name is used as a character in his next book. It looked like fun. In fact, the bit about including the song was so much fun that I wrote one of my songs into my own book. I think it an interesting idea that books can have signature songs, just like movies. If I write more novels I'll try to make it a habit.
  3. For a couple of years now I've been hanging out in a writers forum. These are published authors, many of them successful, and quite frankly I don't know how I was invited. But having been there without a book to my name, I developed some built-up guilt.
  4. I had a story. This was more important than the guilt or anything else. You can want to write a novel all day long, but if you don't have a story, you don't have a book. Over several years I've had characters, I've had situations, I've built worlds, but I didn't have a story that could use any of that. One day I woke up with a narrative that didn't use any of the things I'd been working on before. None of that was necessary. The only thing that's really important is the tale. 
The Process

I've heard so much advice about how to write that I can only conclude it's a personal experience for which there's no 'correct' process. Some people outline and plan meticulously, and some people just jump in. I can't tell you how to do it. I can only tell you how I did it.

Message and Audience

I started with a specific message. It wasn't a full outline of what would happen. In fact, if I had tried it that way, I'd have never gotten started. I started by just having something to say about a specific thing for a specific audience. The message is about relationships between men and women. The audience is my children. I have three boys, all of adult age, out of school, but recently so. 

Now that's a weird demographic. It's not technically Young Adult, and it's definitely not for children; but it is an audience to whom I'm passing on a message. Technically, it's called New Adult. In this case, a Contemporary Romance aimed at young men. A book for this audience might not even be marketable. I don't really care. If all three of my sons read it, then I've hit my target.

The message was simple: a relationship CANNOT be 50/50. That's doomed to failure. Each partner must give 100% over to the other. So in this book I set out to depict a family in which that's the case. My male protagonist ("Danny") comes from that background (because that's the one I know). The female protagonist ("Melody") comes from a family where that hasn't been the case. My goal was to get Danny and Melody to a point where they can not only coexist, but embrace that philosophy.

Genre

At first, I was going to write this as a Sweet Romance. However, I'd never read one. I'd need to research the genre. So I asked some folds for good examples, and I read some. I also read "How to Write a Swoon-Worthy Sweet Romance Novel" by Victorine E. Lieske (which I highly recommend). But as a result of all this reading and research, I decided that that's not exactly what I could write. Neither could I write a "salty" romance. I was aiming squarely between them.  This is because in writing a book for my sons, I chose to use my mother's voice for the narrator.

I had the kind of mother who would share risque jokes with me. But they were never "dirty". She used innuendo and implication, but never foul or coarse language. Nevertheless, they were jokes about things that must be avoided in Sweet Romance. Salty Romance requires a bit less tact. 

I'll give you a paraphrased example from my book that illustrates the tone I went for. Danny, being a healthy young man with healthy young urges, is having some "difficulty" when around attractive young women. His mother advises him behave as if he were always accompanied by an "unruly dog" that must be kept on a tight leash. That becomes a running gag in the book. When Danny's thoughts chant "unruly dog. unruly dog" then he needs a cold shower, if you know what I mean. Later in the book he complains that the mantra doesn't always work, and is told, "sometimes you just have to pet the dog." It's funny, but it's not sweet or salty romance. In a Sweet Romance, you'd never mention masturbation. In a Salty Romance, you'd do it justice. I was looking for the wink and a smile.

I knew that there must be stuff out there in-between, but ferreting it out and reading examples just so I could conform to somebody else's classification started to feel like procrastination. So I decided to say "to hell with genre" and write what I wanted to. As a movie, this is maybe PG, maybe R, depending on how it's shot. Maybe I could fix it in the edit. But maybe somebody else wants to read that kind of book. In any case, that's the voice I wanted to hear, so it was enough to motivate me to move forward.

Getting Started

I started with a scene. It's a scene (as it turned out) in the middle of the book. I didn't know how I was going to get there. I didn't know what would happen after. All I knew was that the scene had to be in the book. Then I had another scene, and the situation was similar. It had to be in the book, but I didn't know how. 

I just wrote the scenes. Since I knew I'd be jostling these things around, I didn't use a word processor. Instead I used note-taking software with an outline. I started with KeepNote, but later in the process moved it to Manuskript, which I highly recommend.

Just getting something down -- putting it on the screen -- helped me understand the characters "in their native habitat" as it were. I didn't know everything about them. I'd learn that as I wrote more. And if that affected what I'd already written, then so what? I'm writing on a computer, not a granite slab. I could not have written detailed character descriptions and backgrounds for them at the start, because I didn't know what happened to them until I wrote it.

Eventually I understood where they came from and had a pretty good outline for the beginning of the story. There were a few chapters where I knew something had to happen, but didn't know how to express it. I didn't let that stop me. I just created a note for the chapter that described what had to happen in the scene, and moved on. Something like "Melody throws a party and it gets out of hand", or "Danny gets in a fight". Then I moved on to the things I could write.

Doing it that way, I never got stuck. There were a few months where I didn't write because I was mourning the death of a close friend, but I was never stuck because of the story itself. 

The other thing that kept me from getting stuck is writing crappy scenes. No fooling. If I knew the scene was crappy, I wrote it anyway. Then I went back later and fixed it. Sometimes I scrapped it. I kept a folder called "Cutting Room Floor", and would drag entire scenes into it when they just didn't work. Sometimes they didn't work because I got mired in detail, or deviated from using my Mother's voice, or because I didn't think they'd fit in the outline. I didn't delete them entirely, though. Many of those scenes came back from the Cutting Room as I found better ways to express them, or found a place in the plot for them.

In this way... scenes that suggested plot lines that suggested more scenes... I got through the process. The last two chapters to be written were one near the front of the book (Chapter 2) and one near the end (Chapter 16). The final epilogue was written long before I knew how the story would end.

Dealing With Change

Part of the way through this process I realized that the story wasn't working. I was getting my message down on the page, but I realized that it wasn't enough to convey that message to the readers. It has to be conveyed to the proper characters, so they can react to it and grow. And there were places where the characters were simply at the wrong place, and in the wrong company. The wrong characters were getting the message. So I stopped, took a deep breath, and decided to do what was necessary and start heavily revising. A lot of stuff went on the Cutting Room Floor. But once I decided how to resolve the issue a lot of that stuff came back out... sometimes with almost no revisions. And this solution is how my Contemporary Romance turned into a Fantasy Romance that doesn't quite fit into the Paranormal Romance genre.

The point here is, shit  happened. I hit a spot where things just weren't working, and it wasn't because of the plot I'd already worked out. I think I fixed it, but only because I didn't make the mistake of falling in love with what I had originally planned. The story had other ideas. I decided to listen to the story. Since it came from me, it meant I was the one who had other ideas.

By the time I got to those last two difficult chapters (at the beginning and the end, remember) I knew exactly how they should pan out.

Reading it

Having written it, I read it as a reader would, end-to-end. I found places (especially in the beginning) where I rushed into the story, forgetting that an author must "show, not tell". So I cut exposition and replaced it with new scenes interspersed where appropriate. I found where I'd violated the principle of Chekhov's Gun and failed to deliver on a promise. I edited and delivered. For instance, I implied that there would be a duet. I wrote the song. Now that I'm not writing, I'll be arranging and recording it, too. As I said, I think books should have theme songs. Especially one with "Melody" in the title. It's only now that I think it's done. Mostly done. My son and I are working on designing a cover.

Final Thoughts

Having gotten through the process, I've put it in the hands of some beta-readers, who will hopefully give me unrestrained yet well-argued criticism. I will either act upon or ignore individual points of critique once I've given them a fair listen. If it's fairly well received, I'll publish it. But I'm not going to look for a publisher for this one. These days you can go direct to the public with Kindle, and that's what I'll probably do. I'm not looking to quit my day job.

This is my first novel. It could be crap. I can't tell you it's not. For that matter, no artist is qualified to evaluate their own work. The purpose of art, no matter the medium -- be it drama, dance, painting, sculpture, song, poetry or prose -- is to deliberately communicate specific emotions to another human being through the chosen medium. Even with the greatest of intentions, if the audience ain't feeling it, it ain't art. At least not in their eyes. The best thing we can do is express ourselves and hope that someone else out there gets it. Not everyone will. And that's OK. There's plenty of other stuff out there for those folks.