10 Tips to Write a Novel (part 3 of 3)
10 Tips to Write a Novel (last page)
6/ Master the “willing suspension of disbelief”
For those who know what this means you can skip this paragraph and the next! For the others, here’s a short reminder: imagine a review of the book “The Lord of the Rings” that would look like “grade: 02/20 Tolkien offers here an utterly ridiculous story blending creatures that simply cannot exist with a ring that can control its bearer… Total nonsense”. Or a review of Harry Potter such as: “Grade: 05/20 No Miss Rowling, 11 years old children do not wave around a piece of wood to make things appear!”. That would be totally ridiculous and the author of such reviews would be accused of not “diving” into the world proposed and to keep referring to the real world. In other words that person would not have “suspended his/her disbelief”.
The willing suspension of disbelief thus designates the almost automatic mechanism (so the word “willing” is debatable) that leads the audience to forget about the real world in order to dive into the fictional universe and embrace its rules. It’s thanks to this that we can live otherwise perfectly unrealistic stories with such intensity.
Now that we are on the same page, why does that matter? Because nothing kills the reader’s emotions and ruins the experience we try to offer more than inconsistencies in that field. For example if this character is a wizard who can control ice, why wouldn’t he use that power to save his friend from that house in flames? You’ll have to provide a good reason if you don’t want the reader to “leave” your universe (= remembering this is all a fiction and thus losing empathy for the characters, his involvement in the scenario, etc.) because it lost its credibility. And this often turns into a kludge. Let’s look at TV series created with a couple of episodes in mind: everything makes sense until the production decides to add a season or two. There starts a festival of surprises, revelations and information on how the fictional world works, brought in with more or less skills depending on the scriptwriter and how the story developed up until that point, with the goal of making space for more episodes while still making sense.
In the case of a book, the difficulty comes from the fact you probably have in mind a couple of very clear scenes (characters involved, context, screenplay, emotions to bring up…) but spread over the entire story. Of course you’ll have to implement them in the world you created while adjusting them as little as possible to still provoke the result you intended. In general when the time comes to add this scene, you realize it no longer makes sense: if a real person found herself in the situation described, she would for example find a solution that is simpler/less tragic/faster, etc. Assume that your readers will notice that, and they’ll want to know why things happen the way they do when there’s obviously a better solution.
Let’s continue with the wizard wielding ice from before: in your mind you knew from the start he had this power, and also that his friend HAD to die in a fire (your story). As long as these two elements are separated, everything is fine. But when the time comes to write the fire scene, problems arise: why in all heaven isn’t the hero using his magic?! And thus you have to identify these inconsistencies as soon as possible so you don’t end up creating last minute explanations (which is a classic flaw of TV series/anime/manga and other lengthy works). You’ll also want to be constantly alert so you don’t let other inconsistencies rise up during the writing process.
In my case this is certainly what proved the most difficult because I understood all this quite late. Without spoiling the story I can for example mention the main character, Glaide, who had to go looking for the master of the Iretane (a school for sword-wielding) on his own; an element of the story I had in mind right from the start. But how could I justify him going alone like that? How could I explain that he absolutely had to meet this specific master and not another one, easier to find? And why is this guy so hard to find anyway? I couldn’t change that part of the tale without modifying the whole atmosphere and the stakes, and so I had to adjust other parts to make the whole thing consistent.
So first, try to identify as soon as possible potential inconsistencies that could draw you reader out of your universe and correct them (erase/change the scene, add explanations to justify the events unfolding…). Second try to read what you’re writing with some distance: considering what we’ve learned so far (rules of the fictional world, personality of the characters…), do what I write make sense? Reading through the whole story one final time while focusing solely on its logic is also a good idea.
7/ Use visual helps
This advice is directly linked with the previous one; it’s about helping you keep your story consistent.
A book, despite all the imagination, energy and emotions it contains, remains a string of words. The good thing is, as you’ll hear from people who were disappointed by the movie version of the books they love, that a text means you can visualize your own version of the story. Any kind of visual work however will necessarily force a certain picture. True enough, but to have pictures of what we’re writing will also make the specific items more real, along with the story as a whole and the universe (which helps keeping the motivation up), and simplify the writing process.
So it’s not about publishing your visual creations but simply having them with you so you can use them and make things easier for yourself. Indeed, to have a drawing (as ugly as it may be) or a picture for example will simplify descriptions (objects, characters, landscapes…). Drawing the schematics of a building with a view from above will help you remain consistent when telling of the events taking place there (for example you won’t write that somebody came in from the window and, two chapters later, insist that this room has no window). If you make a map of the fictional world you can put various places on it and calculate distances, and thus travel durations depending on transportation means. Drawing a chronology of the novel’s universe will allow for accurate and consistent historical references throughout the tale, and so on.
Maybe some people don’t need this, but I know each scene came to me as an image filmed by a camera that I have then described. As such, drawing it on paper helped me a lot. And when it comes to the world map it was vital in order to know how long it took from one city to another and be able to follow the flow of time. I was also lucky enough to have a carpenter make a wooden version of the two main characters’ swords, so that I could see how big they were and how to handle them.
So don’t hesitate to draw and/or create “for real” some elements of your story to give it more body and simplify the work aiming at keeping it logical (descriptions, distance calculations, chronologies, proper use of certain items…).
8/ Follow your inspiration
You will certainly have noticed that so far, I have insisted on the need to be organized and to plan things (preparing folders, the chronology, to think in advance about potential inconsistencies…). Now let’s talk about spontaneity.
If you’re writing the story you want to tell it’s very likely that new ideas will come up during the writing process, while you’re truly immersed in the world you’re creating. You then become at the same time reader and author; you’re discovering what you are writing (it’s a little complicated to explain: better experience it). During these moments where inspiration flows in, and which often are transition parts with nothing in particular happening (otherwise the scene is probably very clear and there is no space for unexpected elements), it can happen that we suddenly write down something spontaneous: a new character pops up, a scene develops in an unexpected way… You think it’s strange? After all as the author aren’t we supposed to master our tale? Of course, and yet…
What matters though is whether to keep these new elements or stick to the plan. In general I would advise keeping them, especially because I believe that when we write a story we truly care about, inspiration (no matter its source) can only enrich the tale. And so it’s not uncommon to discover that this unexpected event gives depth to the story in the end, or that this character you created out of the blue can be used again later on, etc.
That being said, following this piece of advice certainly doesn’t mean not following the previous ones! Especially paying attention to consistency: very seldom will a new element have no impact on what comes next. So sometimes you just need to accept that the idea was plainly bad and only makes things more complicated for no real reason for instance, and thus discard it (even if you understand this at the very end of the adventure, once the book is fully written).
If we look at the “Chronicles of Galadria”, the example that comes to mind is the characters Tyv & Paeh which we meet early in volume 2; I had absolutely never planned them in my story. In a sense they came up of their own accord! But thanks to them I was able in volume 6 to drastically strengthen an atmosphere I had planned early on to create, and it would have been a much more difficult task without them.
So dive into your story when you write, let it guide you when necessary, and in general keep everything that comes out of that relationship. Then apply the previous tips to, mostly, keep the tale consistent, and be honest with yourself and take away what, in the end, doesn’t belong to the story.
9/ Find someone to talk with
Unfortunately not everyone can meet somebody as passionate about the story they’re creating as they are themselves. And yet it’s one of the most important elements to reach the end of the writing process.
Indeed, having that first reader means an added responsibility; someone is waiting for the next chapter, don’t dawdle! It’s also an opportunity to discuss the scenario: to explain (and thus clarify for yourself) your ideas, to ask for an opinion, to show your drawings and all the content the novel is based on… It’s also a chance to place your tale in a bigger world than what the book introduces: you can imagine the characters’ behaviors in situations they’ll never face in your story, discuss the buildings’ architecture, talk about the cause that led to your story and the consequences that will follow it… And it becomes easier to continue writing.
I had a friend with whom I discussed every aspect of the adventure and who was the first to read the new chapters. >e would talk about the coming scenes, picture the behavior of the characters in situations we imagined, etc. It made Galadria more “real” and helped me hold on on the long run, because the world I was creating was bigger than was I was writing. Moreover having an external perspective on some decisions was always a good thing, and on a purely practical level he helped me a lot with boring tasks (such as designing the layout of the book).
So don’t hesitate to talk about your book to people around you when you have a few chapters ready; someone may find that interesting and, if you’re working seriously, may well decide to invest more time and give you a hand…
10/ Forget about motivation and make room for willpower and discipline instead
In my opinion you’ll never complete your book if you base your actions on the presence or absence of motivation. I would even add that one will never complete any major project that way. Why? Because motivation will disappear after a week, a month, a year… When exactly depends on people, but it will disappear. It is then willpower and discipline that must take over.
I will quote here Dan Millman talking about someone who wants to quit smoking, fight a phobia or who finds himself in any other situation that seems already lost (and this truly is the feeling you’ll have when you end up in the middle of your tale and realize you have months and months of writing left…): it actually only boils down to a succession of small choices such as to light up that cigarette or not, to get closer or not to that ledge while suffering from fear of heights, to sit down and write that page or not… And it’s the same little choice that keeps coming back again and again until the day we all of a sudden have stopped smoking/overcame our fear/completed our book.
Writing a whole book may seem discouraging once the initial motivation has vanished, and especially when writing some transition parts that are not really interesting but necessary to link the story. But is it truly that hard to write a page a day? As an author this simple choice will keep coming back: to write or to do something else. And the temptation for the latter will be strong, especially since the consequences of your choice won’t be immediately obvious (“if I don’t write today, what difference does it make?”). But in a lengthy project it is indeed this little choice, repeated countless times, that matters.
You must understand that the previous 9 tips are perfectly useless without this discipline; a book is, after all, a huge pile of text, and the process is long, that’s all. Besides, is there anything of value in this world that does not demand time?
In my case if writing the “Chronicles of Galadria” took 7 years it’s because 4 years passed between the creation of the first 15 chapters (written in only a couple of weeks) and the rest, which itself took 3 years of uninterrupted work, at about 1 page a day. 4 years during which I kept the story and characters in mind, I piled up ideas and found inspiration, but without getting seriously on the writing part. On the other hand it wasn’t such a bad thing since the difference between the writing skills of a 13 years old boy and a 17 years old teenager (who then became a young adult of 20) is huge, and the tale became nicer to read and more mature.
So in short define a minimum number of pages per day, and when the time comes to choose, choose to write, every time; you will reach the end.
I hope this series of articles and advice will hold some value for those intending to start writing a novel, and perhaps also for those who enjoy reading these novels: to understand a little more the process, challenges and emotions behind the final product…
And you dear reader of this article: if you are an author, do you agree with these tips? What are yours? And if you intend to write something, are there elements that are still not clear and for which you would like more explanations?
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