Saturday, September 7, 2013

How I Learned to Write Novels

How do you learn to write a novel? This was my adventure.

I began writing in college. I was awarded a big, clear F+ on my first paper. Yes, my friends, I was a terrible writer. Talent? I definitely proved that I had no special talent. In order to rectify this, I took each paper, looked it over for errors and comments that the teacher made, and took those lessons to heart. My goal was no never repeat errors. By the time that I got out of college, I could churn out an A paper reliably. If anything, my papers earned A's merely by the quality of my writing.

After college, I did quite a few different projects. I wrote several user manuals for software. I wrote for LARPS, such as Tales From the Floating Vagabond and Murder Mystery Weekend. I also coined the word microLARP for my short LARP Bus Stop. To day, Bus Stop has been my most successful project, being played countless times, translated in multiple languages, and even used as a conversational English exercise in Singapore.

For a while, I wrote round-robin style stories with my friends. Someone started a story, then the storyteller kept changing. That is a sub-optimal way to tell a story, I admit, but quite fun and definitely good and developing my adaptability.

Around 2000, I decided to write a novel. I was finally going to do it. I gave it the working title of "My First Bad Novel." These days, I refer to it as Four Characters Searching For a Plot. I wrote out a draft by longhand, then typed that draft in and began making changes. I never did finish it. It has issues that I will never resolve. Yet, it represents my first novel. When I look back on it, my style was there, but I still lacked tools for dealing with an 80k word story.

Years went by, and after the birth of my daughter, I decided that I would write a novel and see it through. I chose to base it in my Endhaven RPG setting. I would squeeze in writing time as I could. I started a first draft, but I got stuck on what the characters were going to do after the introductory adventure. I did a thorough rewrite, threw out many characters, rewrote the villains, and rewrote the villain. I had improved the story, but the work simply did not pass professional muster, so I went in a third time and rewrote the story again. I changed more things around.

For the fourth draft, I looked hard at my novel and saw that I still wasn't up to professional standards. I rushed through too many scenes, barely bringing my reader along with me. My characters were not interacting properly. Some characters had already had three or four revisions on their personalities. Determined to see this project through, I was now writing at 6am and writing for 30 minutes. I can't emphasise that enough. I was DETERMINED to see this novel though to the end. If you learn nothing else, learn that. Writing happens because you choose to make it happen. The muses may help, but when they fail you, determination sees you through.

On the fourth draft, I made a fateful decision. I determined that an ensemble work did not work for me. I would focus on one character. Most books are written with one or two leads for just that reason. Ensemble books blossom into behemoths, and I was not prepared to write a behemoth.

"I'll take my character through Jura City," I said to myself. I thought that she would visit the city, but then move onto the real adventure. The city surprised me. Jura City, the place on my map with almost no words to its name, became a real place. That town grabbed a hold on my novel so fierce that the two follow-on novels could not break its grip.

Even as I wrestled with this city, a new realization hit me: my primary characters were not at all interested in fighting. What does a fantasy novel with little or no fighting look like? I had no idea, but that's the direction that the book too, and I followed along, having no idea where it was going.

I also made a choice to make the novel more character based than plot based. I listened to many criticisms of my writing, but I notices that nobody, even when pushed, had anything bad to say about my characters. Knowing this, I decided to make the book a heavier character work.

At the end of the fourth draft, I had the beginnings of a real novel. From then on, it was write, change, and rewrite. I yanked out whole sections without knowing how I would replace them. By the end, which required three more drafts, I piled up 130k words in removed and rewritten prose. My cutting room floor had more words than the novel had. I did not let that deter me. I pushed on.

At the end of three and a half years, and a total of seven revisions, I had my first novel, Weeds Among Stone. I followed that up eighteen months later with Standing Between Earth and Heaven, then this year with A Touch of Genius, each work an improvement on the last while requiring less time to produce.

If there's one technique that I want to leave you with, it's this: hold your work up against a professional's work. Your determination to meet that standard is what takes your writing to a professional level. Your goal, with each additional work, is to improve upon your quality every time.