Writing A Novel

Thoughts about writing a novel from someone who's written three, had one published by a traditional publisher. Tips, techniques & theories. Not a publishing industry watchdog blog, but an introspective look at what it takes to create a manuscript a publisher might actually want to publish. No hard and fast rules, no "definitive" right ways and wrong ways, just a collection of loosely connected entries about what worked for me- and what failed miserably. Join the fun.

Location: Illinois, United States

First novel published by Mundania Press: http://www.mundania.com

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

That bloated first novel

My award-winning published novel:


On Amazon.com:


Okay, from the beginning then.

My first novel topped out at over 250,000 words. That's not an out-of-this-world number, but for an unknown novelist's first book, it's huge. To my knowledge, unless you're already famous, publishers want reasonable for a first book, not borderline gargantuan. The only genre I'm aware of where you can "get away" with anything that lengthy right from the git-go is Romance, particularly Historical Romance. This was not. And, not surprisingly, most of the comments I received- as flattering as they were about the quality of writing- said something like "length is a problem here." Unless you've written a sure-fire blockbuster (or at least, a publisher thinks you have) size does matter.

So that's the lesson I've learned, and I'm passing it on to you.

Now, as to what specifically pumped up the volume on that book. it all began with my own self-doubt that I could ever write something long enough to be officially classified a novel. I didn't want to write a novelette, or a novella- I wanted to write a novel. So with only a vague idea for a beginning, middle and end (which, admittedly, is more than some novelists start with) I took every opportunity that presented itself to pad the book, thinking (falsely) that I could "fix it" later, if length turned out not to be a worry.

Little did I know how difficult it is to cut scenes, sections, and entire chapters when the writing itself is pretty good. Up until then, all I had written were a few short stories, where the cuts were shallow and relatively bloodless. But with this, once I began to rewrite, I fell victim to a paralysis of sorts, a fear that the cuts would travel too deep, that I might accidentally slice into the very soul of the book, sever an artery and leave it for dead. And for the life of me, I just couldn't tell where the blubber stopped and the book's soul began. Nearly every hard-fought word seemed positively essential.

So, my answer to that was; take out only the most superficial. Instead of the liposuction the manuscript needed, all it got was a nip and tuck before I sent it on its merry way. It might have made me feel better, but the patient still had more than a few nagging problems.

Part of it was that lack of confidence that drove me to force-feed the book in the first place. And what an awful diet it was! People and places that were meant to have only brief, supporting roles were described in loving detail. Anything a character said that suggested an interesting digression by another character was followed, a tortuous road that I (somehow) managed to eventually turn back to the story at hand, but only after too many words were spoken. Whole chapters were devoted to the most minor of characters and some new sub-sub-plot they inspired on the fly. If all this had been boring or poorly done, it would have been easy to take an axe to it.

The problem was, I made it all interesting.

The problem is, interesting in itself does not automatically confer a good story.

I know there are writers with the opposite problem, who do write a novelette (or something less) when they wanted a novel. I have a few 50 page "novels" of my own, somewhere around here. What I think the problem is with these "shorties" is that the story isn't hefty enough to carry it far. Like expecting a bantamweight- no matter how good- to go the distance against a heavyweight, it just ain't gonna happen. You can usually sense that around page 40 or 45 or so. The foot speed is gone, the jabs not as crisp, and before you know it, your story's sitting in the corner, eyes glazed and out of breath, and unable to answer the bell for the next round.

It's a pretty lousy feeling, especially after getting your hopes up. And sometimes you just don't know if your story is the champion you thought you had until you start to write it.

At least those shorties don't consume years, like my first novel did.

My bloated novel, on the other hand, had a story that lent itself quite well to novel length. What I did was ruin it by not trusting or believing it. So now- knowing better, and with a few more bouts under my belt- I've tossed the novel into the gym, where I'm whipping it into a contender. Now the demarcation between book soul and mere excess is clearer to me, and the novel's looking more like a champion all the time.

Next time up: my second novel, that perfectly executed writing exercise that had all the elements of a successful novel- minus the success.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Who is this guy?

My award-winning published novel:


On Amazon.com:


Hi. I'm Mark Wakely. My first novel, An Audience for Einstein, was just published by Mundania Press, here: http://www.mundania.com It took over two years to write- part time, of course. Before that, I wrote two others novels that went nowhere, and want to start these entries by discussing those early efforts since more than anything, they make this blog possible.

My first novel- a bloated beast I undertook with great trepidation- still has a heartbeat; I'm in the process of rewriting it to restore it to health. (The reconstructive surgery is going well.) It became bloated because- like many new authors who have never attempted a novel- I wasn't sure I could go the distance. Novels are really, really long, I knew; novels are complex and convoluted; novels quite often defy completion, particularly when written by nervous neophytes like me who wonder if they can even imagine the finish line, much less cross it.

To say I underestimated myself would be an understatement.

What I discovered instead is that- given half a chance, and a writer's over-eagerness- just about any novel can mushroom to unhealthy proportions with too many spontaneous sub-plots, tempting tangents, and minor characters who refuse to relinquish the stage. There were times when I felt like a helpless observer as I wrote, the word count racing upward to nose-bleed heights, the final chapter I had in mind growing more and more dim and distant instead of brighter at the end of the proverbial tunnel. When it finally (mercifully) did come to an end, I felt wrung out, depleted and depressed. Fortunately, because I write with care (even my first drafts,) the rewrites went much faster, although the patient hardly lost any weight since I was still overwhelmed by my towering creation and wasn't sure what to cut exactly, or even where to begin. So, all I could do is stoically bundled it up, and send that not-so-little piggy out to market to see what "they" had to say about it.

To my great surprise, I received some very kind words, if no publication offers.

Honestly, those kind words floored me. I had always assumed I would bravely paper my walls with cold, impersonal rejection slips so I could gaze at them smugly years later when I was an enormous success. What I got instead were mainly typed or handwritten notes telling me no thanks in either the most apologetic way, or the most encouraging, as in the totally unexpected "please send us your next book."

Up to that point, I wasn't sure there would ever be a "next book."

So, I came closer than I thought I would with that one. Why? Because the two main characters I had created were alive. It was their heartbeats I heard then, and still hear, and which makes wading back into that quagmire to rescue them worthwhile.

And then there was a second book.

This time, I thought, I'll be smart. I'll be prepared. I'll have this book in such a tight strangle hold it won't dare expand without my explicit, written permission. I read all kinds of "How To Write" books- good and (mostly) bad- (more about them in future entries) and wrote a detailed plot. (Hell, it was a manifesto, that's what it was.) I even workshopped it- an experience in itself- as I methodically stamped out each measured chapter. After all that planning and preparation, the final manuscript that emerged was almost an afterthought, but I hit my goal almost precisely: 60,000 words. Never mind that the characters were D.O.A., or that the plot skeleton was not only showing, it was all bleached bones; I had set a goal and reached it. I was finally a disciplined writer who would never, ever again be dictated to by his material.

I sent the book out twice, got two printed rejection slips without any kind words (and which I did not put on my wall,) and then filed the manuscript into the deepest, darkest desk corner I could, never to see the light of day again.

But wow, was I disciplined. Or so I thought.

More next time about my first try at being a novelist.