“Brainey” Ways to Write a Novel

I wish one (or more!) of you would tell me how to write a novel. I’m trying to write a new one, and can use all the help I can get.

I have written a novel before (make that several, only one of which has seen the light of day). Probably writing previous novels does help somewhat in writing a new one. Is it like climbing mountains?  If you’ve bagged Mt. Rainier and then Everest, say, you have some idea of what it’s going to take to climb Mount McKinley.  But it’s a whole new mountain.  Every mountain and novel is so different, it’s hard to extrapolate too much from one to another.  You just know eventually you’re going to have to put one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the last one—for a long, long time.

Those of you who have read about my idea for the new novel (you can scan back through my blog posts to “Here at Hambidge, #3,Willie Earle, etc.” if you want more detail) know it is based on a 1947 lynching and trial in my hometown of Greenville, S.C.  I have a wealth of research material, and I’m about 16,000 words into the thing.  Gee, only 84,000 to go….

I’m the type who needs some sort of scaffolding as I start to build a draft.  I like to know as much as possible going in, tanking up, as it were.  Here are some things I know about this novel: it will have four main characters speaking in first person, telling their stories in retrospect around the main events of the lynching and trial, with the resulting emotional, psychological and spiritual effects it had on each of them. I am borrowing this structure from an amazing novel, The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, which has four main characters speaking in first person about a school bus accident that killed a number of children.  I admire this novel so much, and I am greatly drawn to the tone, mood, and style of it.  I’m no Russell Banks, and mine will in the end be nothing like his (not nearly as masterful, that’s for sure) but it has helped me a lot as I start to have this template in mind.

I am also counting words as I write.  This idea I got from John Braine’s book, How to Write a Novel (ever hopeful that someone can actually tell me how to do it).  I don’t really know who John Braine is (was; d. 1986), except from the dust jacket information (most famous book: Room at the Top), and sometimes I feel like batting him over the head, because he comes across as so didactic, authoritarian, and bossy.  I’m warning you upfront.  But you can do as I do, take what you can use and leave the rest.  And there are things that I think are helpful to the struggling novelist in this book.  I’m going to pass along some tips that make sense to me, with no guarantees!  But maybe something will be useful to you.

“What is vital before you’ve written your first novel, and whilst you’re writing it, is to hang on, endure.” Now there’s advice we can’t hear often enough.  Same with climbing a mountain, I assume.

Once embarked on the writing, “you have to live with the novel; there can be no room in your mind for dreams of success.  It’s better to expect nothing, for then you can’t be disappointed [also true in other areas of life, right?  “Expect nothing; live frugally by surprise….”].  You mustn’t even think about acceptance or rejection, but only about writing a novel which will satisfy you yourself.  This is terribly simple; and I don’t use the word terribly lightly.”

Of course simple is not the same as easy.  Often acceptance, success, money (if you’re really naïve), praise, love…are the carrots that dangle in front of the noses of us writer donkeys and keep us going.  But I think this advice about “forget all that” is really good.  Especially in this day of truly difficult publishing possibilities.  It doesn’t mean you can’t and won’t have publishing success, but writing a book that satisfies you is hugely (and I don’t use the word hugely lightly) important.  No, it won’t feel as good as getting published and praised in the NYTBR.  But it will feel as if you’ve done something worthwhile anyway, and you will find not just consolation but gratification in doing something to the best of your ever-evolving ability.

There’s a lot of good stuff in Braine’s book, too much to cover here, but one thing he advises is to draw up a time-table and stick to it.  After that, “It is essential that you record the number of words written each writing session.”  Setting up your own schedule is up to you (he suggests three two-hourly sessions a week) but doing so will really help you control the chaos of a big project and manage your time and actually get the writing done.  I’m trying to write every weekday morning first thing (I’m a bum without a real job) and I am recording my number of words every day (my natural number seems to be around 1,000 a day), which gives me a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction…more than the writing itself, which is awful but I’m trying not to judge in this initial draft. I write the number of words I’ve written on my calendar and feel like I’ve done my job for the day.  “A writer is a person who writes, a writer is a person who counts words.”  So there.

The goal is to finish a first draft, to find out what happens in the novel.  Braine recommends writing a brief synopsis, around five hundred words, of the story in the beginning, to have some idea of where you’re going.  It will undoubtedly change over the course of writing the first draft, but I like this idea of trying to encapsulate the whole story in a synopsis. I think it eases the brain, which is charged with trying to hold too much at once and can get rather anxious about it all. I wrote out a sequence for each of my four characters before I started writing the first character’s actual story in his voice, and I found that relieved that sense that I had just started swimming into a wide-open ocean.

Braine is very forgiving on the first draft.  There are writers who can’t move forward until they get everything right, but for Braine (and me) I’m just trying to get a first draft down so I have something to work on.  I KNOW I will be going back and making it better (I PRAY).  Braine: “You must set yourself a target of at least 60,000 words, you must write the maximum amount of words possible each session, you mustn’t revise, you mustn’t go back, you mustn’t check.  You must never miss a session; if you do, you interrupt the flow….The more quickly you write, the better.  It’s of no consequence if the story doesn’t seem to hang together and, though you should try to fill out the story as much as you can, it’s of no consequence what you leave out.”  He then goes on to give a schema about number of chapter, etc., which I am ignoring.  But I want to tell you about the next part, even though I’m not there yet myself (and don’t know if I’ll ever do it).

After you’ve finished your first draft, basked in a sense of accomplishment and have “begun to uncover the real novel,” Braine recommends…and I love this, because I love conceptualizing stuff…”writing a summary of the novel again and again until you’ve got a credible story.  The sorting-out of your ideas comes with each succeeding draft.”  Imagine telling the story to someone, make the summary no more than 2,000 words, and write it out a half-dozen times or so.  I like this because it helps you hold the whole story in your head to some extent as a gestalt.  It’s a right brain thing, I think, an attempt to grasp the whole, the proverbial forest before you get lost in the trees.

He has a lot more advice and opinions (he’s very big on dividing things into 20 chapters) which you’ll have to read for yourself.  He’s of his time and place (British, b. 1922) so you have to cut him some slack for that (he uses “whilst” a lot).  But for those of you like me, who need a little hand-holding along the novel climb, he offers some support, encouragement, and butt-kicking based on his own experience.

At the very least he’ll get you moving.

See you at the top!

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