I went and did a silly thing. After a pause of more than thirty years, I started writing fiction again. A science fiction novel no less. Nothing if not ambitious.
Let me digress for a moment and point out the cover illustrations gracing this article are examples of books so good, so admired by me, that I wish I had written them. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to write. I’ve been faking it for years. I can’t possibly write anything as terrific as the books shown here. But I’m going to try.
So what led me into this fresh madness? Attempting to come up with a topic for this week’s Amazing column. Sitting in front of my laptop in my den. Staring at the screen. Staring at the keyboard. Staring at the screen again. Staring at nothing in particular. Staring.
And then I said out loud “Ah screw it. Think I’ll write a novel instead.”
Editor Steve Daviidson, please understand. It wasn’t frustration over ‘having’ to write a column for you that caused me to emote, ejaculate, proclaim, declare, or whatever else the thesaurus recommends. Writing for Amazing is a rare and wondrous privilege. No, it was frustration over my writer’s block, my locked imagination, my blank mind, my startling lack of thoughts. Figured a novel would get me going again. Wake me up from the dead.
And, it turns out, provide me with something to write about for this column.
It’s been three days I’ve been aborning me novel. Four thousand words in three days. Not too shabby.
But I had to start with a title. So I came up with one. I’m not going to tell you what it is, cause it’s dumb. But I like it, so I’ll stick with it till I can think of something better. Besides, any publisher worth staying in business will probably suggest something more appropriate. Think of my title as a placeholder title. I could have titled it “Title” and achieved the same placebo effect, since all that was important was to have “something” at the top of the page. There are two somethings at the top of the page, two words in the title. Adds weight that does.
Then I went and typed “Chapter One” underneath the title.
I know. Too traditional for words. Embarrassingly archaic. I thought of typing “Beginning,” but then the next section would have to start with the heading “A little bit after the beginning but nowhere near the end” instead of “Chapter Two.” Cumbersome. Just a tad.
Besides, John Park, now a well-known Canadian writer, back in 1970 termed my first novel manuscript “turgid.”
Mental note: avoid turgidity. Don’t write like you did forty odd years ago. Fortunately I am in luck. I spent nearly fifteen years writing fiction, then gave up. Since then I’ve piled on an extra thirty years of immaturity, surely enough misadventure and foiled goals to add “character” to my musings. I MUST be a different person by now. Then I was shallow and boring. NOW I’m shallow and interesting. Convinced of that I am.
Traditional chapter headings good, because light and sprightly. But what about the other tradition when starting a novel, preparing a synopsis? I used to do that. By the time it was complete all my creativity had been sucked out of my brain and actually writing the novel become a dull roar of a chore, not much fun at all. So screw the synopsis. Make the plot up as you go along.
To jumpstart the action come up with a first sentence, a line so striking in its awesome virility that the reader is hooked right from the get go. A first line so remarkable, so original, so brilliant, that the reader smacks his lips and sets aside the rest of the day to finish the book.
I can assure you I typed a first line. Definitely a first line. No mistaking it. Not a last line. A first line.
Unfortunately the first line is as nonsensical as the title. But it does SEEM like it means something. Progress.
After a while I figured out who uttered the first line, and whom he was talking to. Bang! Right away, two characters! And then I figured out what he was trying to imply. Baboom! Plot point! More than enough to start with. Away I went, my one typing finger frenziedly typing.
Then I stopped dead. My old nemesis. Description. Gotta say something about the protagonist’s room. Gotta set the setting. Give the reader a sense of place. What can I say? I typed:
“He glanced around the room at the bookshelves and stuff.”
Then I went back to composing dialogue. I’d experienced an epiphany. To heck with detailed, atmospheric description offering foreshadowing, character revelations and other goodies. Let that come later in the rewrites. The main thing is to get the plot down, Best way to do that is have the characters talk it out. Let them visualize what’s going on, what’s likely to happen next, and why they hate each other so much. Let your characters write the book for you. All you have to do is fill in the details later.
Yeah, dialogue. That’s the key. That’s what makes a novel. Dialogue. Dialogue first.
Then you sit around daydreaming what the settings look like, focus on useful images, and add them to the text.
Another pause. Names. Characters have to have names. Well, there’s the “Captain John Smith” route to avoid lawsuits. Or the traditional “Captain Qwertyuiop Zxcvbnm” which DEFINITELY avoids lawsuits, but turns off readers in droves.
Let’s see, my novel is placed about six hundred years in the future. Names are bound to have evolved a trifle by then. Take ordinary names and alter them slightly, particularly if it helps delineate character however subliminally. Maybe something like “Captain Jon Smite.” Sounds like a twit. Make him a twit. Perfect.
“…turns off readers in droves.” Ah yes, another habit of mine. Clichés. I think, live, and breathe clichés. Like the one I just wrote. Darn.
On the one hand, clichés can be comfortable, soothing, familiar background notes ideal for making the reader feel at home. But really, that’s something to save for the sequels when the reader is looking for more of the same old same old. Best to have a startlingly original first in the series, though not “too” startling, or “too” original, something odd enough to pique curiosity but not so odd the reader refuses to wade further through the fast-flowing verbiage.
On the other hand, clichés can aid a writer in seeming original. A simple process. Write down the first cliché that springs to mind and just keep going. Don’t let it bog you down. Later, in a rewrite, change it. Example; convert “turns off readers in droves” into “turns off readers in caravans.” Sounds portentous. Can’t ask for better than that.
Be aware dialogue is always open to interpretation. The reader will constantly attempt to guess what each character REALLY means when they open their mouth. What if YOU don’t know what they mean because you haven’t figured out the implications yet? Don’t worry about it. Somewhere along the line you’ll become convinced you’re guilty of clever foreshadowing as the solution to the implication pops off the page. Bound to happen.
Of course, if you reach the end of the book and you’ve not answered any of the questions posed by your characters the reader will feel cheated. But frankly, as long as you keep these assorted conundrums in the back of your mind as you write, I’m convinced your subconscious creativity will come to your rescue. Ghu knows your conscious mind can’t do it (certainly mine can’t), so put your faith in that part of you that you know nothing about but which knows everything there is to know about you. Can’t go wrong.
And then there’s the plot elements. Gotta figure them out relatively early so the reader feels like they’re being drawn in deeper with each passing chapter. YOU have to know where they’re going even if they don’t. Yet how to accomplish this without a synopsis?
I’m only halfway through the second chapter and already, musing over this and that possibility implied by various comments by the characters, two utterly essential themes and the primary “gimmick” behind the protagonist’s life and motivations have made themselves apparent. Off to a good start. I even have a vague idea how the book will end. Consequently I feel the plot is taking care of itself and it need not be my main concern at this point.
What I AM doing is focusing on the chapter currently under construction AND the following chapter which is under active consideration. Already for the next chapter I have jotted down key words in a useful sequence. Namely “Kilt / Mud Bricks / Ceremony / Orgy? / Riot? / War?”
Obviously the first part of the chapter is more concrete in my mind’s eye than its conclusion, but the whole thing will be crystal clear by the time I begin writing it.
It may strike you that the first part of my notes for the third chapter—“kilt / mud bricks / ceremony”—doesn’t appear very exciting. I’ll just say that the first two offer the possibility of revealing more about the dire physical reality of our world in the future, not to mention more character revelations, and that the third item will tell, or rather ‘show’ (very important that—first rule of writing) the reader more about the idiotic power politics of the envisioned era.
I should add, the idiotic power politics of the future as I foresee them are no less credible than the insanity ruling today’s politics so, while somewhat bizarre by contemporary standards, are every bit as repulsively logical and inevitable, and therefore, at the very least, suitable to the premise of the novel.
Not least, use the odd and off-key to render the premise internally consistent. Then your readers will think your premise wonderful.
Is MY premise wonderful? Not telling. A fragile thing, a beginning novel.
If you blurt out your ideas, any of your ideas, especially when they’re still half-baked and not solidly worked out, people are liable to say things like “My God that’s a stupid concept,” or “Nobody is going to want to read garbage like this.” Bit of a downer. It can destroy your enthusiasm.
Especially when YOU say the same things to yourself every morning upon reading what you wrote the evening before. Every writer does this. As Cicero wrote “There’s a huge difference between the light of lamps and the light of the day.” Indeed. A sunrise can spoil everything. Make you feel like a fool.
What you have to do is ignore your doubts. Just write. Let your subconscious pour onto the page. Unleash yourself.
But DON’T write about yourself. I mean, great Galloping Ghu, the role model I emulate is a mutant combination of Perry Como and Bob from the Church of Slack. Who the heck wants to know more about a character like that? Not me, and I’m trying to BE that character.
Write about somebody else. About a whole bunch of somebody elses. Use your imagination. There are NO limitations. Any character you conceive you can give birth to in your manuscript. A world conqueror? An obsessively virgin Casanova? An accountant whose sole motive in life is revenge? I’ve met with people like that. That they haven’t conquered the world or seduced a thousand women or murdered all their friends is purely an accident of constraint in the “real” world. But they would if they could. You know these types. Write about them.
So that someday you too can sit at a small table in a bookstore and smile delightedly up at a fan who leans over you to whisper “But you don’t LOOK like Thorthrup the Craven. Do you even know HOW to handle a Maser sword?”
I’ve told you how to begin a novel. What are you waiting for? Begin. And make it weird.
(Editor’s Note: No umbrage taken. But you did kinda give me a title credit….)