Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Write a Novel

So many of you have been asking how I go about writing my novels... NOT!

I reckon I have started over thirty novels over the last thirty years... never finished a one, although one is at 100 pages. But in the process I figure I've learned a thing or two about writing novels, not to mention the fact that my doctoral dissertation was on the story substructure of Hebrews.

My novel starting-but-not-finishing bible has long been How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. So here is how I would go about writing a novel if I were to finish one.

Viki King looks at a movie from the standpoint of the pivots. Here's my novelized version:

1. You have to start in a way that grabs attention. That means in medias res--start in the middle or at least in the middle of some action. This is especially the case with a first novel because you have to sell it to an agent or publisher.

By the way, the days of sending things to publishers are mostly over. You have to have an agent to get anywhere. It's a little better in the Christian world, but even that is closing up for open submissions. Best bet is to go to a writer's conference and pitch directly to someone there.

Basically, keep your day job at Starbucks.

2. I pulled some of my family's favorite novels off the shelf (not mine, of course). The later novels always seem to get longer so I'm just going with the first in the series. Hunger Games is 374 pages, Twilight 498. The first Harry Potter was 309. So 300 pages on your normal Microsoft Word format is reasonable.

Of course the publishing world thinks in terms of words rather than pages. I figure the first Harry Potter is about 85,000 words. No sweat. My dissertation was 104,000 (don't tell Durham... there was a 100,000 word limit). So let's aim for 100,000 words for the novel.

3. So, converting from Viki King's movie template to word count, here's how it might play out:
  • Act I - the first fourth of the book, 25,000 words.
  • Act II - the middle half, words 25,000 to 75,000.
  • Act III - the final fourth, words 75,000 to 100,000.
Here's the way she lays out these acts:
  • In this scenario, Act I sets up the story. Frankly, it might be less than a fourth of the story for a novel. King is only thinking of a two hour movie and a 30 minute set up.
  • Act II then involves the protagonist overcoming obstacles that stand in the way of the plot reaching its appointed goal.
  • Act III is then the resolution of the story, the achievement of the goal (comedy) or not (tragedy).
In the structuralist model of analyzing a story, a plot basically begins with an unfulfilled goal and ends with the achievement of that goal (or not). To achieve the goal, the hero of the story needs to overcome obstacles in the way. This three act model corresponds well to this model.

4. Within Act I King suggests several key phases to the set up. Here is my novelized version with some of my additions:
  • Beginning: The first couple pages need to grab the reader's attention somehow. I prefer short first chapters to hold attention. 
  • Keep reading: A key moment is at the end of the first chapter. Will the reader start the second chapter or not? You need to compel them to the second chapter. Each chapter at the beginning has to get them to the next. So it's best to leave something unresolved at the end of each of the beginning chapters.
  • Direction: In the first 20 pages, the reader should have some sense of direction. Is this story going anywhere? They should at least feel like it's moving somewhere and they want to know more.
  • Problem: By 10,000 words (35 pages), the reader should have a good sense of the problem that the story is trying to resolve... or they should at least think they do.
  • Pivot 1: At 25,000 words (80 pages), the first major turning point should happen. A change of setting. The hero is majorly set back in some way. A secondary quest opens up that the hero or someone has to pursue to get back the main task.
5. Act II involves overcoming the obstacle(s) that arose at the end of Act I.
  • Pivot 2: There might be some minor change around 38,000 words (130 pages). Perhaps the hero begins to grow in some way that opens up the possibility of forward movement, a change of heart, a change of mind, a new set of skills.
  • Pivot 3: Around 50,000 words (170 pages), the hero is in trouble. Will he, she, or it be able to achieve the goal of the plot? But s/he emerges from the struggle successful and with resolve. 
  • Major Crisis Pivot 4: At the end of Act II, around 75,000 words (240 pages), it looks like all is lost. Then, as King says, "something happens that changes everything" (43).
6. Act III then takes us down the final slide to the end, the resolution of the plot. The hero prevails (or not) and we all cry or shout.

7. So here's a process:
  • Get a novel idea, a basic concept that you could describe in a few paragraphs.
  • What is the problem and the solution, the beginning and the end? What's wrong at the beginning that drives the plot? What is the final conflict at the end that resolves the story?
  • How does it start? What grabs the initial attention and keeps them going for the first 20 pages until they're into it and have a general sense of its direction?
  • What is the end of Act I? What happens a fourth of the way through the novel that completely changes the setting and sets up the long haul of the story, trying to get back on track?
  • What is the end of Act 2, the point when it looks like all is lost? What happens to resolve the middle section and enable the slide to the end?
  • Early in Act 2, what change happens in the key characters' mindset or skill set that allows them to move forward with new force?
  • Late in Act 2, what major crisis does the protagonist face that gives him or her the resolve to finish the main task of the story?
  • Fill in the details.

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