Ten Things Every Novel Needs
Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music.
ASK THE AUTHOR: Bill Giovanenetti via Facebook: How far into writing were you when you felt you were hitting your stride? when you felt you could actually do this gig?
AARON: Excellent question. I think I’m still waiting to “hit my stride.” All kidding aside, my moment came at BRMCWC when I attended as a conferee. I took a class with Wilson McNair where he encouraged us to stop thinking of ourselves as “aspiring” writers and simply to think of ourselves as writers. He made the point that, if someone on a plane asks us what we do, we tell them we’re writers. It doesn’t matter if we’re getting paid, or if we teach to make ends meet. But so long as we think of ourselves as teachers first, it gives us license to not succeed. From that time on, I’ve considered myself a writer first, and dedicated myself to learning the craft and bettering my artistic talents. Professionally, I think it really sank in with the publication of my second novel, and then each subsequent novel after that. Now I’m not just a one-hit wonder. I’ve got a track record of success, and that inspires me to keep working hard, because I know what will happen if I stop working. Hard to publish a novel that hasn’t been written.
POPS: I wish I could tell you that after a certain number of pages or books you will wake up one morning and feel like you’re a writer. I’ve had moments like that. Many of them. I’ve also had moments wondering if I can still do the work. Many writers have days when the work is tough and seems beyond them, only take a walk, a nap, or a day or two off and return to the work feeling capable and invincible. Writing is an up and down affair but the best writers have learned to keep at regardless of how they feel. After you’ve been in the biz for awhile you can comfort yourself with past successes and your network of connections, but you will still have times where you wonder if it has all been a sham and that the latest book will prove you’re no writer at all. Still, you keep writing, and writing.
MJ: I was over half done with NOLA when I realized how much I’d written, and how the characters were living in my head. That was my “Oh my gosh, I can really do this!” moment. As far as keeping my stride . . . I’ll let you know when it happens.
Firsts in Fiction
What Every Novel Must Have
But first, in memory of Dennis Johnson, here are his “three rules for writing:”
- Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
- Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
- Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.
Now onto our regularly schedule program.
- Larger than life characters.
- Characters must be original and unique. This doesn’t mean they have to be “over-the-top,” but they should be complex and compelling. See our previous episodes on character to get a better understanding of how to do this, but here are some quick tips: Can I just say how happy I am that Aaron set up a search bar on his website? Now it’s so much easier to search for past episodes. And fun, too.
- You can begin with an archetype, but find some way to make the character different than every other “mentor” or “loyal retainer” or “hero.”
- Think Monk: the OCD detective. Quirks and fears can make a character compelling.
- Give them a unique way of viewing the world. What is more compelling than seeing something familiar through unfamiliar eyes? It makes the mundane exciting and fresh and unexpected and familiar.
- An interesting setting or a setting made interesting.
- In the same way that character is important, so, too, is setting. Remember, a love story in New York is not a love story in Texas is not a love story in Alrujah is not a love story in NOLA is not a love story in outer space.
- Remember, setting should be experienced with all five senses. What does it look like, sound like, feel like, taste like, smell like? Rich detail will make your setting come alive.
- Pressing Conflict.
- Without conflict, there is no fiction. To have a story, we must have conflict. Think Popeye and Bluto. Conflict arises from character motivation. Once you know what your character wants, you will know your conflict. The theory is simple: know what your character wants, and then do something to keep him or her from getting it.
- The key to a “pressing” conflict is finding something that is VERY important to your character. Maybe it’s saving the world, but if they don’t much care about the world, then there is no real conflict. But what if they REALLY want that job promotion, but in a comedy of errors, everything goes wrong one day, and instead of getting a promotion, he or she is dismissed from the company. Or perhaps your elderly character simply wants to be able to thread a needle on her own, because it would show that she was capable of taking care of herself, but try as she might, she can’t keep her hands from shaking.
- Unambiguous Point Of View.
- We’ve talked about POV before (see our previous casts for a deeper look into the topic). Use our handy-dandy search bar to do so! The point here is this: if the point of view is unclear, the reader is lost. We should know who’s head we’re in from the opening line, and it should be clear throughout the novel. Nothing kills a novel faster than numerous POV errors. It’d be well worth your time to invest in really learning how to handle POV.
- A reason for the reader to care.
- This goes back to conflict. If the character cares about something, and we care about the character, we’ll go along with any number of silly scenarios (like waking up as a cockroach, say). No matter how unsavory your character, there should be something endearing about him or her for us to relate to.
- We talk about “upping the stakes.” It simply means make the conflict matter more. If a millionaire loses a business deal and ends up going bankrupt, that’s a big deal. If, by contrast, a cashier simply shortchanges him or her, there’s not a significant loss. The stakes have to be high for the reader to care.
- There’s a very subtle difference between conflict and tension. Generally speaking, conflict is something going wrong. Tension is the POSSIBILITY that something can go wrong. A bomb blows up? Conflict. A bomb ticking down? Tension. Divorce? Conflict. A cold-war style conversation between a couple on the verge of divorce? Tension. A gunshot? Conflict. A gun hanging over the mantle? Tension. Give us a reason to believe something horrible may occur in the next few pages, and we’ll flip through those pages with wild abandon.
- For the love of all things good, make something happen, please? I’ve read 1,000 page novels, 800 of which are people walking and talking and chatting. The last 200 pages are great, because there’s some action. Stuff happens. Here are ways to keep things moving forward:
- Acts of fate
- There are several ways to resolve a conflict. Remember, if you’ve got subplots, those will need resolution, too. Readers are savvy, and they expect you to provide closure whenever and wherever you can.
- Open resolves leave the conflict open, these work best in short works. Still, they hint at a resolution.
- Clear resolutions tie everything up in a neat bow
- Symbolic endings use some sort of image to provide closure.
- Something to say. Justify the ink and paper.
- While we don’t advocate didactic writing (don’t begin a work writing a story to fit a theme), we do recognize that all stories have something to say, even if it’s a simple observation that the loss of a loved one hurts.
- Write your story without a theme in mind.
- Re-read your story to find the “theme” it wants to announce
- Highlight the points your story is making.
- If we don’t feel it, we won’t believe it. The key to the reader’s heart is through her senses. Detail, imagery, figurative language, these are the languages of pathos. Use them wisely so that your novel will be an emotional journey as much as it is a spiritual adventure (or romantic entanglement, etc.).