How To Write A Novel: A Simple Procedure to Follow by Paul Saevig


I’m reminded of something former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier once said around 1973, as he and a non-boxing friend watched a match, directly after the friend exclaimed about how easy it looked to fight in the ring. “It’s harder than it looks,” Joe said, with commendable understatement.

The same is true of writing a novel. Most of the novels we read in school are so well-crafted and brilliantly successful that they deceivingly look easy to write. Consider any Graham Greene novel, for instance – invariably smooth, economical with words, subtle with its images and metaphors, realistic characters more or less like actual people we know, and with a fairly clear plot that starts here and ends there. Simple, no? Hemingway seems even simpler, doesn’t he? Someone like John Irving, extremely simple?

Yet grace and artistry are never easy to achieve. The so-called “seamless” texture of great novels is created only by tremendously gifted artists who have perfected their craft or art over a long period, having gone beyond their mistakes and lesser achievements. Some writing teachers claim mediocre or poor novels are much better for unpublished writers to study, because these novels contain weaknesses and mistakes that be seen clearly – poorly-drawn characters, for instance, or unbelievable plots, or clumsy writing, or unconvincing dialogue.

In fact, it’s easy to be discouraged, and most would-be novelists do in fact give up and find other hobbies, because writing is just too hard. Maybe they don’t want to invest the time good writing takes, or they sense they’ll never rise above mediocrity. They might conclude they “have nothing to say”, which usually means they lack a story to tell, and often they can think of no compelling or even somewhat original ideas. Of course, established writers love to see neophytes quit, but that’s another discussion.

I personally believe a writer should achieve some mastery with the short story before undertaking a novel. It’s not that I think a novel is simply a big story, because the two forms are different in ways beyond that. They do share common elements, though, such as characterization and plot and dialogue, so it seems advisable to practice with on a limited playing field before you trot onto the field at Wembley Stadium. A novelist also needs more confidence and, obviously, stamina, as compared to a short story writer. A novel requires weeks of work at the very minimum, and more probably many months (and in some cases, more than a year), while a good short story can be created in a few days.

It’s not a crime to start a novel without experience writing stories, and confidence and stamina, but it’s not a good idea, unless you don’t mind abandoning projects. Suppose, though, you do have the requisites we’ve mentioned. How exactly do you write a novel?

Let’s simplify it a bit, shall we? Here’s what I recommend:

1. Think hard to come up with a good story. It should be substantial, and not simply an account of a chance encounter, or a good day at the racetrack, or a date on the town, or even a week in the life of a fascinating person. (There are exceptions, of course, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place during one day – but Joyce was a supremely gifted novelist, one of the greatest in history, and he’s not a suitable model for a new writer.)

2. See if you can imagine several compelling characters who people like you will want to read about. Can you do it? Are you willing to live with them for a year or so, until you’ve brought them to life and deployed them to tell your story? If your answers are Yes, proceed to the next step.

3. Can you fit your story together with your characters in an attractive setting in an appropriate time, to fashion your novel? “Attractive setting” does not mean only the French Riviera or the Lake District or Hawaii, but simply any place that people like you will want to read about. Dickens used 19th Century London, Greene the British colonies, Somerset Maugham the colonial outposts, and David Lodge the British universities. A skilled writer can make virtually any place attractive. You should be combining elements of a novel such that they cohere. Can you do that? If so, proceed to the next step.

4. Can you write some effective sequences, such as when your protagonist first enters the action, or when the climax occurs, or when two important characters meet for the first time, or when someone dies? As you work at this, you’ll be able to tell how successful your efforts are. You can ask members of your writing group, too. If these efforts are successful, proceed to the next step.

5. You need to create an outline of at least all the main scenes and incidents of this novel you’re planning. Creating an outline is usually difficult, but it’s more difficult to “fly by the seat of your pants” as you’re going along, trusting to your instinct, keeping it readable and appealing, traveling up the main road and not getting mired in side streets or dead ends. Your outline doesn’t have to include every single breath your characters will take, and there should be room left for variation, inspiration, and the new ideas that will come to you – but you should have this blueprint of framework to guide your efforts. Some writers swear they never use outlines, but this is probably a boast only.

6. Armed with your story, characters, setting, and outline, pause for a moment and ask yourself if this novel is truly worth writing. Be honest with yourself. Does your novel have some fresh ideas about human life, or is it simply a tried-and-true story already told many times? Are your characters appealing, or are they too ordinary to attract favorable attention? Can you tell your story well enough to make it good, or will you have to fight your way through to the end desperately? Will you commit yourself to following it out to a resolution, or are your impulses whimsical? If you can tell yourself that your novel will be worth creating by your own standards, then proceed.

7. Start writing at the beginning. True, some writers create novels the way movies are shot, out of order and piece by piece, but that’s doing it the hard way. You need to start at A and continue with B and C and D, until you reach Z. That’s the most reasonable approach. Probably your biggest problem will be keeping track of everything you’ve written – did Sir Oliver die, or can he appear in this new scene? Has the heirloom sword already been introduced? How has Jane Jones been described? Would it be tiresome to write about horses in another scene?

8. Keep writing.

9. Keep writing.

10. Forge onward. Get your story on paper where you can manipulate it. Worry about perfecting it later. Tell your tale. Squeeze your imagination dry. Write something you would like to read. Don’t be surprised if the story you write isn’t what you expected in the outline. Allow your novel to have some living, breathing life of its own.

11. Finish your story in about 200 double-spaced pages. Yes, this is a short novel, but you need to master small tasks before you progress to bigger ones. Many classic novels — The Red Badge of Courage, The Stranger, and To Kill A Mockingbird – are also short.

12. After you’ve finished your first draft, take a little time off. Go down by the ocean, or spend an afternoon in the mountains, or have a few beers. Let your mind go fallow, a friend of mine liked to say. Let yourself rest and seek rejuvenation.

13. Once you’re rested, read your first draft all the way through. Is it moving in the right direction? If not, return to Step 1 or 2. If it’s moving OK, proceed. NOTE: Do not start editing or changing things yet – you’ll get confused and bogged down.

14. Seek out the weak elements – a scene or character that doesn’t work, a motivation that’s not believable, a result that doesn’t follow convincingly, or anything that fails to satisfy you. Make notes of these weak elements until you’ve checked the whole first draft.

15. Develop your own strategy or priorities to work a little on these weak elements. Or you may simply return to the beginning and start rewriting, if you prefer.

16. Rewrite at least three times, editing and modifying as you go, but avoiding confusion or getting stuck. Many good novels have been rewritten fifty or seventy five times.

17. Keep rewriting. Don’t give up. Don’t stop rewriting until your novel is smooth and pleases you.

18. Give a version to reliable and trustworthy associates who have at least some expertise in editing. This will probably not be your spouse, or neighbor, or boss, or lover, or tennis partner, or pastor, or cousin in Belfast or Philadelphia. Sorry to be sharp, but the opinions of these people on writing are worthless, or actually injurious. Find people who know something about writing.

19. Take their comments and use them as you think best. Remember, please yourself. If you believe you should ignore some comments, do so.

20. You may collect more reactions from qualified readers if you wish, but don’t waste too much time. You have more rewriting, editing, and polishing to do.

21. Stop only when you believe no further improvement is possible.

CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve just written a novel, my friend, and you’re to be commended. Nice going! You’ve joined a select fraternity of novelists through history.

Don’t assume what you’ve written is much good, though, I’m sorry to say. It may be horrible, and that’s perfectly OK. You’re still learning. Nobody expects you to be Salman Rushdie or Saul Bellow or Gore Vidal or Joyce Carol Oates at this early stage of your writing career.

If you still want to be a novelist, write some more novels. Each succeeding one will probably get better than its predecessor. You may have to work at this for many years. Remember what Joe Frazier said. The annals of literature are filled with novelists who had to wait for their sixth or seventh novel to be good enough for publication.

When you read about “Michael Chabon’s first novel” or “Iris Murdoch’s first novel”, please don’t fool yourself. These first novels are rarely the first novel the author wrote. Usually they are the third or fourth, at the very least.

If you merely want to write novels for your family and friends, by all means. Enjoy yourself.

If you want to publish your novels, though, you must put in the work. Unfortunately, there’s no other way. The procedure here will get you started, even as skeletal as it is. Devise your own procedure. Do it the way that works best for you. Writing a novel isn’t like playing the classical piano, with only one approved and correct technique. Find your own voice, and enjoy yourself.

Good luck!

Copyright Paul Saevig 2001

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