The craft and art of writing a first novel
By Lars Trodson
The quality of a diamond is judged on four things: carat, cut, color and clarity. Your first novel will be judged on the same merits: its substance, the precision of its prose, the depth of the ambiance you create and clarity of your vision and purpose. When you are done writing your novel it should sparkle, provide value, endure and be something its owners cherish.
I've been searching for writing advice that's practical because most of the rules that you read from famous writers aren't useful, even when the advice comes from those writers you admire. I got this idea a few years ago when I read an obituary in The New York Times about a famous diamond cutter. After I read the obit, I realized that every aspect of his exacting craft could be applied to writing. It was useful to think of writing in such a tactile way, rather than in the lofty, ephemeral, and sometimes oh-too-cute writing rules that famous writers sometimes offer. (Margaret Atwood's no. 1 rule: "Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils." Cute, but not much help in the age of laptops and voice recognition programs.)
So picture yourself as a diamond cutter sitting in a chair, looking through a powerful loupe, trying to craft the most beautiful thing imaginable.
One last thing: absolutely, fundamentally and unequivocally ignore any writer, critic, pundit or smartass that says the novel is dead.
Now, in order, carat, cut. color and clarity.
1. "Diamonds were nothing more than carbon, but carbon in a crystal lattice that made it the hardest known mineral in nature. That was the way we all were headed. I was sure of it. We were destined to be diamonds!”
I'm going to be straight up with you. In writing a first novel, or any novel, it is not the "big idea" that you have to worry about. The big idea is not the issue. The question, where did you get the idea for you novel is not only unhelpful it's also misleading because it instills in the would-be writer the concept that all he needs is a central idea to pull off his book. Not so.
The better question for a novelist is: "Where do you get the thousands of great ideas that fill up 350 pages of a book?" You need inspiration on every page. And they all have to fit within the scope of your narrative. Have you ever though of that? You have a great idea for a book? I say, emphatically, so what.
I'll give you a big idea: The hero of my novel is an American soldier who embraces his homosexuality and falls in love with a native Muslim soldier during the Iraq invasion. Good? It's ripe with possibilities and political and social controversy. But do you have the stuff inside you to turn that 26 word synopsis into a full-blown, 100,000-word novel, with subplots, secondary characters, historical references, dialogue and all the rest? That's where the weight of your novel comes in, and its the crucible that you need to overcome.
During this process, don’t worry polishing a masterpiece on your first go-round. This is your first novel. The biggest hurdle you face, by far, is finishing your draft. Inconsistencies don't matter just yet. Can’t remember the name you gave a minor character five chapters back? Don’t worry; keep going. Is the scene you’re working on not really working out? Plow through it. Is your dialogue uninspired? It’s okay — punch it up later. Just keep moving.
This does not mean you should approach your first draft with total abandon. While you're writing the first draft keep your eyes on a few things. Make sure you’re getting all your plot points down. Maintain your internal logic, no matter what your genre. Try to ensure that your dialogue performs the fundamental functions of moving your story forward and delineating character.
But most of all, during draft one, keep going. Gain weight!
I emphasize this because it's almost impossible to overstate how difficult it is to finish your first draft. Most people have novels in various stages of incompleteness because, they find, it’s incredibly hard work. It takes not only a good imagination but also stamina — and stamina is one of the most underrated qualities for a writer to have when it comes to crafting a novel. You have to be prepared to get up in the middle of night when an idea hits you. It's exhausting. You need to be in shape for this.
Helpful hint: People will tell you how exciting it is that you're writing a book, but parts of the process are tedious and frustrating, make no mistake about it. You will read that some writers find the entire endeavor fascinating and exhilarating. Good for them. If you don't feel the same it doesn't mean that you are any less committed to your project. Just keep going even when it feels like work.
When you print out your first draft, when you look at those pages stacked up on top of each other, you will be headed toward your diamond, just as the quote from Alan Bradley said you would be.
2. “Appearance blinds, whereas words reveal.”
By cutting away at the surface of your lump you will begin to articulate its overall design. Your cuts need to be judicious and objective. Each chapter, each facet of you novel, should start to gleam and sparkle as you plane the surface to create its overall design.
Questions to ask as you refine your rough draft: How does your protagonist shape up? Make notes. Are your subplots helping or hindering the thrust of your narrative? Do you need all your minor characters? Or do you have too few? How long is your first draft? (Even though you've put in a lot of work, if your draft ends up at only 150 pages you have a lot more first draft writing to do.) Is your dénouement satisfying? Have you sorted out in your mind exactly what you’re trying to do or say in you book? If your main goal is to entertain, then ask yourself if the story you've written is interesting.
This is the most frustrating part of the process, because you probably thought that when you finished your first draft, as difficult as that was, you were almost home. Writing the first draft is actually the fun part, sorry to say. You're creating, you're flowing, you're excited, you get an idea you can't wait to write down. That part can make you giddy, on the best days.
This part is work. Drudge-like, lonely, and repetitive. And essential if you are to create a thing of beauty.
When you're done with this phase, the overhaul-rewriting phase, your words, as Oscar Wilde says above, should reveal the true scope of the purpose of your book and the strengths and limitations of your talents.
3. “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”
As you nip and tuck and reshape your original draft the narrative should become more colorful, clearer, your purpose more defined. Your rhythms should flow. Details should be exact. Have you made clear the difference between quotidian sadness and true fear? Maybe a line of dialogue that you gave one character will work better for another. You will need to sweat the details of certain scenes so they are exactly right. You have to push some scenes into their final form. The opaque mass that you began with should shine during this phase of your writing.
Details need to be aligned. If a character broke their pinky finger on their left hand in chapter two it should still be the pinky finger of the left hand by chapter 52. You laugh? This sloppiness will kill any chance of your novel being anything other than self-published. Make sure you spell the names of characters the same way throughout the book. Things like that.
Helpful hint: As a diamond cutter continues the process of creating the diamond, he is wary of knots. Hitting a knot can shatter a stone, so be on the lookout for knots in your story — those instances where you've written yourself into a corner. That's the thing that can stop your progress in its tracks or ruin a project completely. While it's not necessary to plot out your book beforehand — some writers do and some don't — getting out of a jam you've put yourself into is the second hardest job for the budding novelist. (The first is finishing your first draft, I mention by way of reminder.) But the prospect of rewriting 100 or more pages, or add dozens of new pages — after you thought you had done all the heavy lifting — is enough to make a grown novelist cry.
This is bad news, I know, but be prepared for it. Cutting a diamond is painstaking, backbreaking work. It takes not just art but craftsmanship. (Now you can see why there are more half-finished novels than complete books.)
Give your energy into every word of your book, and you will end up with lasting beauty, the kind that Kerouac created, in the quote above.
4. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer.
There are thousands and thousands of books available to consumers. There are uncountable numbers of books available in every genre imaginable (look how fast the fantasy/young adult and mommy porn genres literally exploded). So: Does your book sparkle brighter, shine hotter? It has to, if anyone is going to notice. The diamond in the case that everyone wants is the one that is most unique. Look at the manuscript you have created. Is the plot unique? Are your characters unusual? Is the dialogue interesting? Are your insights Does your message have the power you want it to have? On the obverse side, have you written anything that feels lazy or forced or tired? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are not done cutting and polishing.
In fact, you will be cutting and polishing until the day you send your manuscript off to a publisher or agent, that's the nature of the process.
By writing like a diamond cutter you can take a practical application from life and apply it to the tools of writing. Give your story weight, cut it to create clarity and color. You want your book to be clear, bright, unique and valuable.
If you're quite stuck, set your book aside and think about your dilemma. Don't try to solve the problem on your own. Discuss the book with your family, friends — particularly someone who will be objective. A writer tends to think that creating a book is a solitary thing (ego may come into play here, too, if you want people to think you've done everything on your own). But don't try to overcome every challenge yourself. This is not a good idea. Go to the front of any novel and look at the list of people that have been thanked. It's usually long and each one helped the writer in significant ways toward the completion of the published work. And if someone does give you some great advice, at the very least give yourself credit for having the good sense to take it.
One final thing, if you haven't already done so. Do an online search to see if there are other books that have the same title. If there is a book by a prominent author that has used the same or similar title, then change it. That's unnecessary competition. You don't want someone to mistakenly purchase someone else's book.
You will now assess your accomplishment. The answer to every question you may have about your own manuscript should be yes. Did you do your best? Did you create something original? Does your plot make sense? Is your main character compelling? Is your ending satisfying? Is your dialogue interesting? Is there an audience for your book? Will it stand out against the every other manuscript out there?
Answers should be yes yes yes; as clear as the azure sky that Anthony Burgess wrote about above.