Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Marilyn Morris - Writing the novel

A daunting task. Some people get discouraged just thinking of the time involved. I wonder if anyone ever asks an artist how long it takes to paint a landscape? A vase of flowers? Well, you don’t do it all at one sitting. It takes as long as it takes. My first novel, Sabbath’s Gift, took me oh, about twenty years. From concept to publishing. Life intrudes. But you keep working on it.

Okay, you have an idea for a novel. But you ask, “How do I get started?” You’re faced with whether to outline or fly by the seat of your pants, or Free Fall. I vote for Free Fall. I believe outlines should be outlawed. Choose which one works for you.

The dreaded Page One, Chapter One: Relax. This can and will change a thousand times. Do something different. Write your last chapter first. Really. You'll know where you're headed, and you can even use that chapter as your first chapter and use flashbacks, if you're good with them. Just throw words on the computer screen. Just get started;you can rearrange it into some form of cohesiveness later. My first novel was done on an old-fashioned typewriter, so my drafts were literally cut and pasted, then retyped. When I got my computer, I was able to put it all onscreen, and it was so much easier. The important thing is, just get it on screen. On a disk. Out of your head.

Describe your characters. Cut out pictures from magazines. If it’s a period setting, get old magazines and cut out the characters, or use the Internet. There are many sites devoted to period pieces. Describe your hero, heroine, villain, and peripheral characters. Give them quirks. (Tugging on an ear lobe; putting hands in pockets; biting her nails.) Give each character a complete background, from birth to present time, where they went to school, favorite colors, siblings, their hobbies, etc. Even if you don't use them, you'll know them well, and that will sift into your story: For instance, the villain is a volunteer at the animal sanctuary. Names are important. I heard a well-known writer at a convention once say: “Name your hero something you would call your dog. One syllable. Never, ever name your hero "Hank". It should be something like "Brock". Think of Cruella De Ville or Snidely Whiplash. You get the idea.

Your setting: When? Where? All the senses should be involved: Sights, sounds, smells. Be sure you know what you're talking about! Don't have a person talking on a telephone when it hadn't been invented yet.

Point of View: First person/Third Person/Omniscient? Generally, novelists use use Third Person. He or She. I have read novels where the main character is the first person throughout, and some novelists do it very well. But you have to be very, very good at that.

Tenses: Always use the past tense. Keep the tenses in synch with each other. Don't do: "He said," and "She answers."

Try to write as we speak. We don't say, "Do not," we say, "don't." There are exceptions, of course, if your character is using English as a second language and is unfamiliar with contractions, etc. A huge mistake some people make is giving the villain a stilted form of speech, with no ordinary contractions. “I will kill you” vs. “I’ll kill you.”

Dialogue and dialect can get tricky. Be very careful, especially if you don’t know the area lingo. Take NY vs. the Old South. Dialogue not done well can lead to some real howlers: “How y’all doing?” for instance, is incorrect when addressing only one person. It’s meant to include more than one person. Please avoid this mistake in dialogue: "Hi, John.” “Hi, George.” “How are you, John?” “Fine, George, how are you?" If there are only two people speaking, the reader can easily figure out who is speaking. Avoid too many dialogue tags: John said, “It’s over.” Jim said, “Are you sure?” John answered, “Yes, I’m sure.”

Show, don't tell. “His face turned red and he struggled to control himself as he stalked through the room." We don’t tell the reader the man was angry. Same with other emotions: She was confused. It’s better to write: Her brow wrinkled as she heard the words. Don’t tell the reader she is confused; show it.

Flashbacks: Be very careful that the reader knows they're flashbacks. Use italics, or spaces, or something to break the current action. One of the flaws of "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” in my opinion, was that I couldn't follow who was doing what, when.

Watch your language! Spelling & grammar. Don’t rely on spell check. It doesn’t differentiate between there, their and they’re, and other grammar dilemmas. Edit carefully, watching for those errors. Good writing is good re-writing. Then let someone else edit your work.

Don't let anyone else see your first, or even second draft. They are usually awful, and make sense to no one but yourself. However, when you finally turn it over to an editor, don't take criticism personally. What they will say is something like: “Chapter One needs to be tightened up a bit.” What you hear is: "Your baby is ugly and shouldn't be allowed outside in the daytime."

Are you ready? Now, do a one page synopsis (in present tense) and send it to a publisher or… Send to an agent. Be very careful if you go this route. If your only goal is to break into a major NY publishing house, go ahead. But there are plenty of great Print-On-Demand publishers out there, and I happened to find a great one, the second time around. Join a Yahoo group dedicated to writing and publishing and find out from other writers who they chose as their publisher.

Wait. And Wait. And wait some more. While you are haunting your email InBox, work on your next project. You do have one, don't you?

At last! You're going to be published! You do the Happy Dance. But wait! There’s more!

Writing is fun. Re-Writing is hell. Especially when someone disagrees with the way you wrote a certain passage. Editors are a sorry lot. After they lower themselves to accept your work, they send it back. They don't like your punctuation, your grammar, your ANYTHING. It's not personal. Do what they suggest, up to pitching the whole thing and starting over.

It's Published! You have your work in your hands. You like the cover. You like the binding. It almost has that "new car smell." You like everything, except it looks different from the manuscript page.

Doubts set in. You're positive nobody will read it. And those who do read it wont like it. Your mother calls. Your friends call. They tell you they like it. (They have to.) Those in the business criticize your work.

You begin to wonder: Why did I ever start this? Remember: Criticism isn’t a bullet through the heart. Just think: You've done what other people only dream of doing. Who only talk of doing. Your "someday" has become a reality. You're a writer.

Marilyn Celeste Morris, Author/Editor

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Lindsay Townsend said...

Welcome, Marilyn, to Lindsay's Romantics! Thank you for a superb article on novel writing - I'm going to tell all my writing students to read it!

Good luck with your novels!

StephB said...

Marilyn, thanks for popping in! Wow, that's a big list but one thing off your list which really stands out to me is your comments on characters. I've got to really "nail" this if I want to kick off the novel. I cast my character, do up a mini bio, really make them firm in my mind and then I everything else falls in around them.


Anne K. Albert said...

Hi Marilyn, LOVED your blog. Informative. Crisp. To the point. Well done!

Savanna Kougar said...

Hi Marilyn, a lot of good points. However, I'm glad my main publisher works with me on edits. NO! I DO NOT FOLLOW *EVERY* RECOMMENDATION AN EDITOR MAKES!!!

For example, I don't use 'said' as a dialogue tag.

Vila said...

Oh Marilyn, I love your attitude about outlines. They're a terrible waste of time. The characters will just laugh at the outline and bully the author into writing the story as THEY want it!

Celia Yeary said...

Hi, Marilyn--I like your thoroughness on how to write a novel. It's not easy, is it? Still thousands upon thousands of people undertake the journey, hoping and praying to get that contract, sell that book.I wonder how many give it a go but never, ever get a book published? Hoardes, I suspect, maybe more than actually do.
I totally agree on one point--do not make an outline. Remember when editors wanted a detailed outline? I never did one--just pulled myself away from that publisher.
Congratulations on a book that sounds incredible. Celia

JL Walters said...

Interesting blig,. Though I write romance I never cut out pictures of heroes or heroines. But them I'm a word person, not a picture person. I love revising and re-writing but then maybe I'm an odd person. I write in drafts from start to finish and rewrite a lot of what I've written

Evie Balos said...

Very interesting blog, Marilyn and so true. I've never typed a story on an old-fashioned typewriter but thank God computers exist! I would NEVER be able to finish my stories otherwise.