I worked for about seven years as a freelance journalist and found out this amazing fact: a looming deadline doesn’t care how you feel about writing.
One of the things I’ve found in writing novels is that dialog is an excellent place to explain parts of the plot without being too obvious. The old adage: “show, don’t tell” comes into play here. Of course there are a number of other ways to do that, but dialog is, for me, the quickest. Quite often one of the characters who is new to a situation becomes the foil and asks all the right questions in order to let the other characters articulate or sum up what has happened so far. It’s a delicate balance because if you overuse it it becomes obvious that your characters are merely talking heads filling in the exposition and they have no other purpose. That’s why it’s never a good idea to recap the whole plot in one place but split up the explanations between different scenes. If done right, the reader is not aware of anything jarring about the interchange and does not become mildly homicidal by the time you’ve got to the end of the conversation.
But dialog can tend to be static, since most of the time it occurs in one situation and while the characters are “talking” they can’t be “doing”. Or can they? The first time I wrote dialog I used the he said/she said trope like a game of tennis and the characters just stood there having a conversation. Then I learned that you can indicate who’s talking by either the type of words that they use or by saying things like:
Christopher downed his glass.
“I’ll have another.”
The bartender looked at him askance.
“Not on my watch, you drunken sot!”
Or you can simply omit any indication of who’s talking because it’s obvious from the context.
“What time is it?”
“Are you going to the game?”
But how do you know if you have too much dialog? I’d say there’s too much dialog if it doesn’t serve any purpose in the plot. If two or more characters are just shooting the breeze, then you’d be as well just shooting the characters too.
But the same goes for action. How do you know if there’s too much? If it doesn’t move the plot along.
Elmore Leonard, the only living crime writer who’s never written a dud, says that the reader perks up when there is dialog. He also says that he tries to leave out the parts of the novel that readers will tend to skip. His novels are packed with dialog, but he still manages to get plenty of action in – but by using short bursts rather than long descriptive narrative pieces. Long descriptions are the parts that readers will tend to skip.
I’d also say that there’s too much dialog if you’re no good at it. Writing dialog is skill. If you suck at it, people will skip your dialog too.
So by skipping your narrative descriptions and skipping your dialog that leaves… well, nothing really.
So back to the drawing board, I guess.
They say that if you want to learn to drive a car it is best to learn in a car with manual transmission. The reasoning says that manual is more difficult than automatic and once you’ve learned how to manage a gearshift anything else is plain sailing. Well, I learned to write what passes for humor in one of the toughest places I could think of. I used to have a regular weekly column in a Sunday newspaper. It was in the sports section and the main topic was angling. The remit was: it has to be about angling issues and it has to be entertaining. You might think this is easy, but there are only about three angling issues and making something “entertaining” is the “Holy Grail” of every writers. So I had my work cut out. I was also writing to a deadline and I can think of no more effective wet blanket than the phrase: be funny; you’ve got ten minutes. Nevertheless, they published me for 7+ years before other work commitments took over or did they get fed up with me? Can’t remember.
Robert Carraher over a The Dirty Lowdown blog has done a great review of my book “Muscle for Hire“. He very kindly told me to feel free to publish it on this blog so here it is…
“The Taco Town takings were took from Tori’s Toyota on the way back from Tulip’s” Jimmy nodded. “The Toyota too.”
Originally from Scotland, Sean has traveled about a bit, including living in Ireland, England (twice), Italy and the USA – which is where He lives at the moment. he has worked as a freelance journalist for about seven years and has had poetry, short stories and articles published in a variety of publications. In April 2011 he published four novels as Kindle eBooks on Amazon. They range from the thigh-slappingly funny, to the nail-bitingly tense, but mostly somewhere between the two. Be sure to get them at Amazon or Smashwords.
I read an interesting interview with Mike Faricy over at Robert Carraher’s The Dirty Lowdown blog. In it Mike says that he starts his writing day by editing the stuff he wrote the previous day. It got me thinking about my own process and I do something similar. Revising scenes that I’ve just written is a good habit to get into, but I’m afraid I’m not religious about it. However, I always do it the day after I’ve had a good day’s writing. When I get into the zone and start hammering out 3k and sometimes as much as 4k words in a day (I think my record is 5k) I can tend to accidentally skip a word here and there. So It’s good to proofread, I guess. When I write fastest is when there is a lot of dialog. There’s a kind of rhythm, give-and-take, aspect to dialog that you can get into, and again I can tend to skip the odd word – and some of them are decidedly odd – or even get confused as to who is speaking (although that’s rarer now).
One thing I have noticed is that, as I write a scene, traits emerge in the characters which make me want to change some of the later chapters. So quite often I do. I also become aware when I’m writing that what I thought was enough material for a whole chapter, can turn out to be enough for about ten lines. That happened when I was writing “The Blood Menagerie“. I got near the end and realized that two of the closing chapters just didn’t have enough in them to justify the space, so I ruthlessly – though, not without a pang – chopped them out. Two chapters is a lot to lose from a book and in the finish up the novel was about 65k words long, which is short for me. However, I think it is also tighter and somehow zingier without the extra baggage.
Of course editing as you go along saves work at the end. It’s also easier to see whether the plot is going in a different direction and make the appropriate changes. It’s easier to make adjustments to a synopsis than it is to rewrite an entire book. One of the things that helped me get into the habit of revising stuff I had just written was when I worked as a freelance journalist for a few years and had a regular column in a Sunday newspaper. Okay, so you’re writing to a deadline, but if you start producing work with glaring errors, they can just drop your column. So I went over it all meticulously before I sent it in. That habit remained and it has stood me in good stead.
Excuse me while I go over what I’ve just written…
I spent years hawking my books round publishers and agents and ended up with my fair share of rejection letters. The good ones told me how excellent they thought my writing was but it was “not for us”. The bad ones – well don’t remind me… If it weren’t for indie publishing I’d still be getting frustrated to distraction by the exercise in futility that submitting to traditional publishers has become. Now I have four published novels to my name (see the sidebar to the right) and am tentatively thumbing my nose at the establishment.
Of course, it’s now up to me to sell these books like crazy. But when you think about it, is that so much different from the traditional model. Non-fiction publishers will only publish your book if you can prove that you’re “on the circuit”, i.e. that you already have an eager audience of conference-goers to sell your work to and that your network of contacts will snap up as many copies as they can print. Fiction publishers will spend a minimum on publicity unless you happen to be Jonathan Kellerman or James Patterson; but even then you have to do the round of book signings, talk shows and interviews. It seems that being an author is hard work, but the easy part is the writing.
The growing trend of authors moving over to indie publishing through Amazon Kindle Store, Create Space and Smashwords will leave publishers asking themselves if they have been too discriminating for their own good. Of course, one of the disadvantages of self-publishing is that the public don’t get a gatekeeper – someone to tell them “this guy is a damned good writer”. What they get instead are any Johnny-come-lately shoving his book out there to further dilute the already watery mix of talent. Or do they?
What this doesn’t take into account is the power of social media. People, when faced with a sea of possible purchases, such as the pool of indie publications, don’t just close their eyes and throw a dart. They look for reviews, they see what other people are saying about the books available. These days, indie reviewers are becoming more articulate, more respected and more authoritative. But even if the book-purchaser buys a lemon, is it going to break the bank? Not when really fine novels are being sold for anything between $0.99 and $2.99. They can afford to be a bit adventurous. They can afford to give new and untried authors a go.
The question is, now that indie publishing is accruing to itself all the requisites of a new and vibrant market, how long does traditional publishing have before it simply fades away and dies? And if it wants to somehow cash in on the new publishing model, what does it have to do to survive?
One of the things I’ve always been fascinated with is what process writers go through to churn out a novel. I’ve heard various methods. Some writers, like John Buchan for example, prefer to have the entire story straight in their minds before they set pen to paper. Others start writing without knowing what’s coming next and have the bizarre, but very common, experience of having the characters take over the telling of the story, with the author as spectator. Other authors meticulously chart out the action in detailed synopses and timelines. I think I’ve tried most of these methods. But in the end, I settled on what seems to work for me.
So I think my answer to the question ‘how do you write a novel’ would have to be a rather nebulous and non-committal, ‘it all depends.’