“I quite admit that modern novels have many
good points. All I insist on is that, as a class, they quite unreadable.” Oscar
They say that
everyone has a novel inside of them. Could this be the reason for the epidemic
of heartburn that pharmaceutical companies are constantly telling us about? It
may be true that many people think they have an idea for a novel, but there are very few people who actually take the brave step of
going ahead and writing one. If you feel that you have a story that you would
like to write, before you start it is worth bearing in mind the following
obstacles to successfully getting it down in writing.
1. Not having a clear idea of where the
story is going
The first novel
I wrote, Lab Rat
, was created mainly
during lunch breaks. The company I worked for allowed employees an hour for
lunch and during this generous time endowment I would sit at my desk and type
away at the rate of about 500-600 words per day. When I got to around the
fifty-thousand-word mark I stopped to consider what I was doing. Basically I
was busy creating a monster of a novel that had more cast members than Ben Hur
and meandered along its merry way creating problems that were never really
solved by any of the characters. I had no idea where the story was leading and
there was not even the slightest hope of plot resolution even in the distant
future. It was at that point that I decided to draw up an outline and follow it
to conclusion. Well, eventually I finished writing the novel and left it for
several years before I went back and tried to grapple with it again. It was a
mammoth task knocking it into shape, that involved cutting out about thirty
characters, conflating timescales and eradicating from the text passages that seemed pretty good but were irrelevant.
There are a lot
of people who say that to write a novel all you need to do is start writing.
They talk about the author discovering the story as he or she goes along and
allowing the characters to dictate the plot. That is all very well but quite
often what you end up with is a primordial soup of a novel that needs so much
work to rectify its deficiencies that it’s like writing it all over again.
Either that or you end up with a novel that is unreadable and ultimately
unsatisfying for the reader.
against trying out a chapter or two first, without any clear aim in mind, but
what I’ve found is that the sooner you sit down and write out an outline of the
plot the better the book will be and the fewer drastic changes that are needed when
2. Not tying up loose ends
It’s a tricky
exercise writing a novel and it is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of plot
points and forget to bring to completion some part of the action that you
kicked off earlier. That’s another good reason to come up with an outline. With
one novel I wrote, Milano
, about an
art heist, I even went so far as to draw up a chart of each scene. The
succession of events was complicated and the chart helped me to keep track of
everything that was mentioned early in the novel and make sure that it was
brought to a satisfactory solution in the end.
3. Not finishing what you started
There must be
thousands of desk drawers throughout the world containing the manuscripts of
novels that were never finished. This can happen for a number of reasons. Many
people dabble at writing a novel but don’t have enough confidence in their
ability or they are daunted by the apparent immensity of the task before them
and the endeavor slowly fades into nothingness.
One thing I’ve
found that helps is treating
writing as a professional activity rather than a pastime. That way, you can
justify the time you carve out for writing without feeling guilty about it. Conversely,
it also places some responsibility on your shoulders and forces you to write
when you’re supposed to, without shirking.
that helps is if you plan to write a certain amount each day, or each weekend,
or whenever it is that is a good time for you to write. That gives you a target
to aim for and also gives you a sense of achievement when you’ve completed the
It also helps
if you tell other people about your novel-writing project. It gives you some
accountability, since they well might ask you how it’s going. You might even
end up writing because you’re ashamed to face what other people might say if
you give up. Which is all grist to the mill.
4. Including characters who are too similar
This is more to
do with the nuts and bolts of your novel, rather the writing process itself. I
don’t know about you but if I come across characters in a novel who have
similar sounding names I get confused. I get confused even if the names have
the same initial letter. In my own novels what I have tried to do is come up with a
set of names that have different initial letters just to keep it clear in the
mind of the reader whom everybody is.
Of course, that
doesn’t really help much if two characters are very similar in other ways. For
example, you might have two tall, dark, brooding protagonists who have a
similar line in dialogue. That too can confuse the reader.
The same thing
can happen if your novel involves a cast of family members. Sometimes that too
can be difficult to straighten out in the reader’s mind.
The key is to
give each character not just different names, but different characteristics and
make sure that you periodically refer back to those characteristics. It can
also help if you reiterate their relationship to the other characters by
referring to previous incidents that have occurred in the novel that they were
5. Bad punctuation and/or grammar
Ah, this is a
bit of a bugbear, isn’t it. Basically, if you produce a novel that has
defective grammar and/or punctuation, it is never going to get published –
unless you decide to publish it independently yourself. But even then, it will
most likely garner one-star reviews if there are glaring textual defects like
If you are not
very good at grammar and punctuation, it is a good idea to study it. One of the
best grammar and punctuation manuals, I’ve found, is the Chicago Manual of Style
. It goes into detail about every aspect of correct
usage and syntax. A different edition is published every year or so, but you
can purchase previous editions very cheaply from online bookstores.
If you are
still stumped about how to write proper English, don’t despair. You can always
write your novel and then hand it to an editor to correct for you. Yes, it
might cost you a few bucks but you have the satisfaction of knowing that when
you submit it to a publisher at least it’s in decent shape.
So if you have
a novel inside you, don’t just reach for the Zantac. Get it down in writing –
or typing – but remember the above points. They could just save you hours of
heartache and pain.
Labels: Lab Rat, Milano, novel writing, Oscar Wilde, outline, punctuation grammar