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.

Name:
Location: Illinois, United States

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

Sunday, May 01, 2005

An Audience for Einstein: the early days

My award-winning published novel:

http://www.anaudienceforeinstein.weebly.com

On Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1594260966/

Huffington Post Review:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/26/mockingjay-science-fiction_n_694507.html#s131191title=An_Audience_For

Transformation, metamorphosis, transmutation.

All good words to describe what happened to An Audience for Einstein over the many years I contemplated, outlined, and finally wrote the book.

I had the title first. Not sure where it came from, back when I was all of about eighteen. Oddly enough, the title actually scared me a bit. I mean, really, Einstein? Without giving anything away, Einstein is mentioned several times in the book, but never makes an appearance. But still, just evoking the name of one of the most influential thinkers in the history of science gave me pause, made wonder f I would ever be able to capture the lyrical, almost metaphysical mood that the title suggested.

The answer was no, initially, so I wrote those two other books first. That’s how much the very idea of the book scared me.

Those first two novels weren’t meant to be just learning experiences- I fully expected both to stand up on their own two feet, sprout wings and soar. (The first is being re-engineered, and the second will be stripped down for parts, the same way an auto mechanic makes use of a "parts car"- take what’s good (a turn of a phrase here, a bit of description there) and scrap the rest.) But what I gained by writing those two novels first prepared me to finally wrap my arms around all the myriad elements of An Audience for Einstein.

Like a high-rise, it has many levels, each one with its own interesting characteristics and purpose.

That was a first for me. Those other novels were ranch-style dwellings for my characters; sturdy if not spectacular, serviceable but mundane. Nothing wrong at all with that; many characters in decent novels live in simple story structures. But multi-level living- where your characters not only live literal lives, but represent something larger than themselves- gives characters more headroom, more nooks and crannies to explore.

And An Audience for Einstein has plenty of nooks and crannies.

Actually, it’s when your characters become extended metaphors for something larger than themselves that the roof is raised on your novel to make room for them to exist on a higher plane as they go about their daily business, sort of like having meaningful ghosts in the attic. This kind of dual existence is found in books generally regarded as literature, and is absent in works deemed "popular" or "beach books" or whatever tag given to books meant primarily to entertain. Usually these popular works have some shocking or risqué plot elements that garner great word-of-mouth- that’s what sells them. Serious works, on the other hand, tend to be original not by being spectacular or unusual, but sometimes quite the opposite- by being eye-opening in how "ordinary" they are.

A great novel from a few years back illustrates this point nicely- Ordinary People by Judith Guest. The title- I’m quite sure- was not a fluke; this remarkable book makes a point of keeping the reader grounded (and fully connected) with its characters by making those character seem absolutely flesh-and-blood. Engaging your readers by creating characters they can relate to- that they care deeply about- trumps any out-of-this-world, can-you-believe-it plot, any day of the year- at least as far as creating a lasting and memorable book is concerned. That’s what I mean by "ordinary."

Here’s another example. Back in the 1920-30’s, there was a writer whose novel sold in the millions, at a time when a million sold was really something. In his era he was Steven King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham all rolled into one.

His name? Why, none other than S.S. Van Dine, of course.

Who, you say? Well, my point exactly. In fact, he was once quoted as saying that "the plot’s the thing," so naturally that was his main focus. His novels had all the twists and turns of a first-class rollercoaster, with developments so startling that readers would actually sit up in bed in astonishment over something they never saw coming. Yet for all that clever plotting, his characters were gossamer, ephemeral and ultimately… forgettable, along with his books.

The long-term result of his philosophy of plot over characters? A young writer who emerged at about the same time he did soon eclipsed him, a writer who had a hunch that characters were the main reason for writing a book. That writer’s fist novel, in fact, didn’t have much of a "plot" at all- the characters just sort of wandered around, drinking and fighting among themselves. And in the end, they pretty much ended up right where they had started, with nothing really new or changed. Not much of a plot at all.

The writer? Ernest Hemingway. The novel? The Sun Also Rises.

And oh, he paid close attention to language too, something else S.S. Van Dine didn’t think was all that important.

Obviously the characters in Hemingway’s book represented Gertrude Stein’s lost generation, those young men and women who- after living through the horrors of WW1- found life to be empty, devoid of any meaning. Those were his character’s "ghosts" on a higher plane, what helped Hemingway capture his generation brilliantly. And not only did readers respond, but Hemingway managed to alter the landscape of American literature forever in the process.

Needless to say, with his emphasis strictly on plot, S.S. Van Dine did not.

This attention to characterization is what I was after in An Audience for Einstein. I wanted ordinary characters in the sense that readers would say "I know these people," characters who would suggest plot twists and turns- not sit by meekly and have the plot foisted upon them- characters whose lives spoke to universal themes and issues and concerns.

Writing those first two novels prepared me to achieve that, and gave me the confidence to look at all the notes and false starts I had written over the years to finally sit down and write the book that had eluded me up until then.

Next installment: more about the making of An Audience for Einstein.

30 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark,
Great piece on plot over character... You are right that if your characters are real and memorable, they will carry the plot and the story will unfold. I am new at trying to write q book of ten short stories, and that is why I like the short story format because you have to have memorable characters to carry the story. Every day life is all I know for sure and I choose characters whose frailities people will recognize because what we all have in common is our humanity--flaws and all.

I am so not of the discipline that you have to sit down and plot a book or story with this twist and that hook--for me writing is about letting it flow freely. and I truly believe you don't plot what you write, but you let the people tell your story. If it feels right, then you are on your way. Thanks for an encouraging article. dawn

1:12 PM  
Blogger Lissa said...

I am a writer of "how-to" books and articles. I have recently been commissioned to write for a major publisher.

I was wondering how you found your interaction with your publishing company? I have found it quite challenging, and there is so much involved other than actually writing a book (catalog copy, promotion, outlines upon outlines, etc.) Have you had a similar experience, or is it different where novels are concerned?

Much as I would love to be a novelist, I fear my need for strict organization and planning, that helps me so much in technical writing, would make my characters and plot unbearably dull and predictable.

At one time I had a wonderful imagination, and would start with an idea and let the characters take me where they would, but then I went to college and they "taught me how to write." After 2 unbearable years, I left but the damage had been done and I had lost my creative inspiration. Still, I am very interested in the similarities and differences of our two fields. My book will be published at the end of January 06.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Mark Wakely said...

My experiences with Mundania Press have been nothing but positive. Yes, promotion can be a "headache"-and it takes time away from writing- but it's a minor inconvenience. Besides, I feel I owe it to my publisher for taking a chance on an unknown novelists. My editor- Rie Sheridan, a writer herself- was terrific; for the most part, we saw eye-to-eye. We had some small disagreements about word choices, but there was no restructuring or significant additions or deletions to my manuscript as submitted. (Actually, I suppose if any of that was needed, they probably wouldn't have accepted my novel in the first place.)

As for the "problem" you have with being too organized to write a novel, I think creating a set of believable characters in an interesting locale could help you "loosen up" a bit. As the characters interacted, they will suggest some random (and surprising) plot developments. Several fiction writers use this technique, and it's a good one. Letting your characters suggest some elements of your story (and they will) eliminates the artificiality you see in some novels where the plot leads the characters around, making their dialogue sound stilted and their actions/reactions forced.

Quite a few plot-heavy suspense/thriller/mystery books have that problem, as you're probably aware.

Hope that helps.

Good luck with the release of your book!

12:11 PM  
Blogger Lissa said...

Thanks Mark,

I appreciate your outlook. I will try developing some fiction ideas. I think you're right that it would help me loosen up and explore some new ideas and scenarios. Thanks for the suggestion! I'm glad you have had good experiences with publishers. I am sure mine are a great team, I just haven't learned how to interact with them properly yet. It's such a quick learning curve! Thanks for some great ideas!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Gone Away said...

Interesting. Still reading.

9:24 AM  
Blogger girlaboutlife said...

Hi Mark! Congratulations upon the publication of your novel - I look forward to reading it shortly!

Best regards
N

8:05 AM  
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8:25 PM  
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12:40 PM  
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9:06 PM  
Blogger Ömer Bahri Gördebak said...

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3:27 PM  
Anonymous Doris Booth said...

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Doris Booth
Manager, Authorlink Literary Group
Editor-in-Chief, Authorlink.com

dbooth@authorlink.com
http://www.authorlink.com
(972) 650-1986

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Doris Booth said...

Bestselling Author's Secrets for Writing Scenes

Hi,

Here's the first of 12 tips for fiction writers from bestselling author Bonnie Hearn Hill on how to create, link and focus better scenes. Be sure you've added yourself as a friend to receive Bonnie's next important step.


SCENE CHECKLIST

The Big Twelve


Once you learn to create and link focused scenes, you will be well on your way to writing marketable fiction. Keep this list close to your computer to guide you through the process.


Tip 1. Who is the point-of-view character for this scene?

Note that every scene should be told through a point-of-view character, although you can have more than one POV character in a book (but no more than you need). One reason for this focusing is so that we feel the character struggle with a scene goal. The struggle takes place through action and dialogue with little internalization/exposition.

A scene is a dramatic unit that includes scene goal, conflict (through action and dialogue) and resolution.


Be sure to check out Bonnie's online classes in Authorlink's Virtual Classroom at www.authorlink.com/classroom/classroom.php

Doris Booth

Editor-in-Chief Authorlink.com

Manager, Authorlink Literary Group


dbooth@authorlink.com

(972) 650-1986

www.authorlink.com

http://www.authorlink.blogspot.com

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Doris Booth said...

Bestselling Author's Secrets for Writing Scenes: Tip #2

Hi,



Here’s Secret #2 of 12 tips for fiction writers from bestselling author Bonnie Hearn Hill on how to create, link and focus better scenes. Be sure you’ve added yourself as a friend to receive Bonnie’s next important step! Also, check out Bonnie’s online writing class at www.authorlink.com/classroom/classroom.php



SCENE CHECKLIST

The Big Twelve



Once you learn to create and link focused scenes, you will be well on your way to writing marketable fiction. Keep this list close to your computer to guide you through the process.



Tip 2. What does your protagonist want in the story?

This is what Jack Bickham calls the story question. It is your external plot, and it is as simple as: Will Jane find the killer? It is not something like: Will Jane find true happiness? That is internal conflict and may even be a subplot.



Doris Booth

Editor-in-Chief Authorlink.com

Manager, Authorlink Literary Group

dbooth@authorlink.com

(972) 650-1986

www.authorlink.com

http://www.authorlink.blogspot.com

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Doris Booth said...

Bestselling Author’s Secrets for Writing Scenes: Tip #3

Hi,

Here’s Secret #3 of 12 tips for fiction writers from bestselling author Bonnie Hearn Hill on how to create, link and focus better scenes. Be sure you’ve added yourself as a friend to receive Bonnie’s next important step! Also, check out Bonnie’s online writing class at www.authorlink.com/classroom/classroom.php

SCENE CHECKLIST
The Big Twelve

Once you learn to create and link focused scenes, you will be well on your way to writing marketable fiction. Keep this list close to your computer to guide you through the process.

3. What does your POV character want in this scene; what is his/her scene goal?
Without a clear scene goal, you will not have a scene; you will have an event. “I want to give the reader some insight into my character,” may be the author’s scene goal, but it is certain to lead you to an event, not a scene. This is not about what you want but what your character wants.

Doris Booth
Editor-in-Chief Authorlink.com
Manager, Authorlink Literary Group
dbooth@authorlink.com
(972) 650-1986
www.authorlink.com
http://www.authorlink.blogspot.com

12:57 PM  
Anonymous Doris Booth said...

Bestselling Author’s Secrets for Writing Scenes: Tip #4

Hi,

Here’s Secret #4 of 12 tips for fiction writers from bestselling author Bonnie Hearn Hill on how to create, link and focus better scenes. Be sure you’ve added yourself as a friend to receive Bonnie’s next important step! Also, check out Bonnie’s online writing class at www.authorlink.com/classroom/classroom.php

SCENE CHECKLIST
The Big Twelve

Once you learn to create and link focused scenes, you will be well on your way to writing marketable fiction. Keep this list close to your computer to guide you through the process.

4. What’s at stake? What will happen if the character doesn’t reach the desired scene goal?
A good way to up the tension in a scene is to up the stakes.

Doris Booth
Editor-in-Chief Authorlink.com
Manager, Authorlink Literary Group
dbooth@authorlink.com
(972) 650-1986
www.authorlink.com
http://www.authorlink.blogspot.com

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Doris Booth said...

Bestselling Author’s Secrets for Writing Scenes: Tip #5

Hi,

Here’s Secret #5 of 12 tips for fiction writers from bestselling author Bonnie Hearn Hill on how to create, link and focus better scenes. Be sure you’ve added yourself as a friend to receive Bonnie’s next important step! Also, check out Bonnie’s online writing class at www.authorlink.com/classroom/classroom.php

SCENE CHECKLIST
The Big Twelve

Once you learn to create and link focused scenes, you will be well on your way to writing marketable fiction. Keep this list close to your computer to guide you through the process.

5. Where is the scene taking place?
Scenes on the telephone are weak, although it’s almost impossible to omit them. Scenes in most coffee shops and bars are weak. Take that scene in the bar and put it on a ski slope, a sailboat or in a factory that manufactures frozen enchiladas.

Doris Booth
Editor-in-Chief Authorlink.com
Manager, Authorlink Literary Group
dbooth@authorlink.com
(972) 650-1986
www.authorlink.com
http://www.authorlink.blogspot.com

2:12 PM  
Blogger Michael Ruther said...

It is fair to say that characterization is really important in the creation of a novel, but I have a hard time getting through novels that don't have a roughly equal amount of attention paid to plot. On one hand, plot is really easy to get lost in, and I really appreciate your point about S.S. Van Dine being eclipsed by Ernest Hemingway. Truthfully, I have never heard of S.S. Van Dine, in spite of his success, and I have been studying literature in some form or fashion formally, as a student, for nearly a decade and informally, as a reader, for the bulk of my life, so admissions like that come hard for me. On the other hand, I found to be very difficult to maintain an interest in because, while there were a handful of interesting characters, as you said, not a whole lot actually happens in terms of character growth and change.

I personally believe that, at the end of the day, there should be a balance between plot and character so that there aren’t a bunch of forgettable, cookie-cutter characters generically reacting to the insane occurrences happening around them or a bunch of really precisely-drawn and fully-developed characters stagnating in their own pathos for the length of an entire novel.

I am working on my first novel, so I have been thinking about these sorts of things a lot recently, and I am grateful for the opportunity you have provided to engage in such a discussion.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous maverick said...

I like what you have to say about characters driving the plot but I'd have to say that there is a place for suspense/action/adventure novels that focus on a "cool" idea to drive the plot. It's like going to a movie -sometimes I feel like watching a character-driven Oscar winner but sometimes I just want to be entertained by escapist fun. Personally I think there is a place for both and would be disheartened if we had to make a choice of one or the other. By the way, Jules Verne is an example of an author of a bygone era who depicts plot-driven stories over character but remains a legend today. Lets not forget Arthur C. Clarke. Nor should we forget the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy firmly rooted in the suspense and thriller genre but driven by the extra-ordinary character of Lisbeth Salander. What are your thoughts on these?

4:13 AM  
Blogger Mat Clarke author said...

Hey, I here ya! I'm at the stage of having the NO Thanks, comment come back at me often regarding my first novel. Second one is going to be sent off in late Ausgust. Shall see how that one goes.
I guess it's all a bit of potluck if someone chooses your book to publish!

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Lynn Bissell said...

I stumbled on your blog, just googling writing and novel and blog.

I have one burning in me, kind of like you describe with your Audience for Einstein. I started it when I was pregnant with my fourth child. She's now 3. It sits.

I comfort myself with blogging, try to build the courage to write, to let the things that may fall apart, fall apart if I take up the writing life with a full house of children. My husband is supportive, our kids well-adjusted...it's just the daily stuff that needs doing that keeps me from doing it. God forbid I forget to turn in a permission slip or something.

I'm inspired by your blog. I'll keep reading. I have tears.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Cloistervoices said...

I've been holding my breath for the next installment. Are you still breathing?

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Sean Durham said...

The first book is really the initial learning process I think. Yet, it's very important to believe that it will be something one day - because it could well be.

I agree with the idea that character should dominate the story and with that strong character any form of what could be called plot, will develop through strong character actions.

Narrative voice is the way you tell it, and that alone has it's strength to hold the attention of readers. A voice that a reader enjoys ´listening to´ will be captivating enough to get them interested in characters and their actions.

Thanks for such interesting writing about writing. Sean

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Beth Dzebre said...

You've got some great stuff posted. I just discovered recently that I could write something more that 30,000 words... I'm still learning. I would really love if you could give your comments... and some tips maybe...
My blog address is:

http//guidikka@blog.com

ps: I just started so things are a bit...you know...not quite perfect.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some great info about writing and birthing a novel and terrific interviews with authors, including today's with Eowyn Ivey, check out:
www.birthofanovel.wordpress.com

7:08 PM  
Anonymous how to write a book said...

i got your point and i absolutely agreed with you that we should not disregard the plot of the story..it is as well as important as the characters.
and it inspires me when you waited until the two novels were published before you decided to publish the "An Audience for Einstein" because in doing so it prepared you to achieve that.
thanks for the post..

4:54 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Heath said...

Hmm, interesting argument. Stories have many elements, plots and characterization being two of them. I've never considered one being inherently more important than the other. Maybe early successful writers focused more on plot because that's what their readers wanted. Maybe the whole "character based" novels were not something the masses had a taste for yet. I like both, and it does seem that emphasis on one does yield at least some sacrifice of the other. Still, I have to confess I'm a BIG fan of fascinating plots with the roller coaster twists and turns you referenced. Interesting post. Gives me something to think about.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Tina brian said...

Thanx for sharing such useful post keep it up :)
Cereb

5:04 AM  
Blogger Christie Powell said...

Thanks for the tips, I found it very interesting. I've noticed that it's painfully obvious when books are entirely plot based. I'm trying to find the right balance so a book can have an interesting plot, but still have real characters. I guess the balance comes when the character's development is intertwined with the plot.

2:02 PM  
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11:40 PM  
Anonymous amazon said...

nice

1:32 AM  

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