Do you have a novel inside you?
Conventional wisdom and legions of language arts teachers would have you believe that. Certainly, the quality of writing—dreadful by today’s standards—found in much classical literature implies that technical competence has little bearing on whether the novel inside you deserves a public forum. The rags-to-riches anecdotes of such fabulously lucky authors as J. K. Rowling and E. L. James serve as inspiration that we, too, can strike it rich with the stories in our heads.
The formula seems simple: write a story, publish it, get paid. Heed Philipp Keel’s warning: “Simple doesn’t have to mean easy.”
History credits Christopher Hitchens with the famous 1997 witticism that “Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where it should, I think, in most cases, remain.” In 1979, Barry Maybury issued a similar sentiment in his book Writers’ Workshop: Techniques in Creative Writing: “Probably everyone has a novel in them, and no doubt a lot of publishers wish it would stay that way.” In 1973, J. Russel Lynes opined, “Every good journalist has a good novel in him—which is an excellent place for it.” Going back further to 1938, W. Somerset Maugham wrote in his memoir The Summing Up, “There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false.”
Every book begins with an idea. Many new authors begin by thinking that an idea is enough and do not consider the investment of time, skill, and effort required to produce polished, engaging content.
The idea or story premise sparks the creative effort. Once the idea takes hold in the writer’s mind, the writer then sets about developing it. Some writers labor for years on a single idea, investing countless hours of time and focus into an idea they can’t make work because they did not understand the effort and skill involved in the writing process. Other writers ignore the admonition to “write what you know.” They neglect to perform adequate research, resulting in glaring errors that readers identify in scathing reviews.
Ideas are plentiful, easy, and cheap. Developing them is difficult. Without understanding the process of developing a book or the skill required to produce content people will want to and enjoy reading, the unprepared writer dooms the book to ignominious failure.
Writers fall into one of three camps, commonly labeled plotters, pantsers, and puzzlers.
Plotters tend to analyze their ideas, methodically develop a plot outline, and write plot summaries, character descriptions complete with background information, and world-building information about their fictional civilizations. Backed by this detailed information, they then expand upon the outline to fill in the blanks with descriptions, action, and dialogue. Such writers tend to have writing routines and dedicate themselves to producing a certain number of words or pages of content or to writing a certain length of time every day. In short, there’s a scheduled method to their madness.
Pantsers write “by the seats of their pants.” These authors sign on for the creative road trip without knowing the direction or even the destination. Characters, rather than plots, typically drive their stories. These authors let the characters lead. Such writers tend to have more erratic production schedules, finding it difficult to write unless driven by the work in progress.
Puzzlers occupy the range between the two extremes of plotters and pantsers. Compare the process to quilting: developing scenes, adding new insights and ideas as they arise, and then stitching them together. They have a loose outline to guide scenes under development, but they need not proceed in any certain or linear order.
Each type of writer proceeds according to his or her nature, tweaking the process as best suits the individual. Questions to established authors regarding their writing processes fail to yield much useful information, because every writer’s process differs. There’s no one true and righteous way to write a book. Experienced authors invariably advise new writers to write as best suits them.
Many writers practice their story development skills by writing fanfiction. Site such as Wattpad, FanFiction.net, Tumblr, Quotev, and Kindle Worlds offer platforms where writers can post fiction work based on the characters and worlds established by other authors. If you have a yen to write a variation of Pride and Prejudice, a Star Wars movie, or Indiana Jones, then these fall under the category of fanfiction. Ebook Friendly notes that the most popular sections on the FanFiction site include Harry Potter, Naruto (anime/manga), and Twilight.
The legality of fanfiction falls under copyright law as a derivative work. This permits writers the legal opportunity to produce work based on the creative efforts of others, so long as that work does not infringe upon the original creator’s copyright and does not breach the doctrine of fair use. Although many authors find fanfiction flattering, failure to understand the legal limitations of derivative work can get you sued by original content creators. Tread carefully.
Originality poses challenges. Literary authorities have noted the limitation on truly original plots, the most famous list of seven master plots coming from Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch. In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
A quick review of any fiction genre proves that limitation basically true. Consider how many stories rehash Cinderella (rags to riches theme) or Beauty and the Beast (overcoming the monster theme)? Master plots may overlap within a story. The author expresses originality in the treatment of the master plot. That treatment is unique to that writer.
Story development is where the heavy lifting of content creation come in. During this phase, the writer produces the rough draft, reviews it, edits it, and then revises to fill in those discrepancies, correct those inconsistencies, and delete those redundancies.
No writer produces a rough draft worthy of public consumption.
Many writers whip through that first draft, rushing to get down the main plot points, to convey emotion, to record the story before they lose the train of thought. Many writers encounter the dreaded phenomenon of writer’s block during this phase. Creative process and productivity come to a screeching halt. The writer feels as though his mind has gone blank. The idea and, thus, the story falters.
What to do?
Some experts advise continuing to write, forcing the words to trickle forth. This advice alludes to chipping away at a dam until the dam breaks to allow the creativity and productivity to flow once more. In the meantime, the lackluster content forcibly produced may have done its job to push through the blockage, but it seldom survives editing.
A writer suffering from creative constipation might bounce ideas with a group of friends or other writers in a brainstorming session. Such sessions generate ideas ranging from probable to absurd, some appealing to the author more than others. The inexperienced writer’s reluctance to engaging in this exercise rises from an unjustified fear that someone in the group will steal his idea. If you suffer from such a fear, bear in mind the limited master plots and understand that only you can write your story in your way.
Other writers employ less forceful means that can be boiled down to one word: distraction. Distracting the writer’s mind allows the subconscious to work on the problem. When the subconscious finds the solution, that solution bubbles to the foreground and the writer then resumes working on the problematic manuscript. Resumption of work does not necessarily entail picking up where the story stopped, but may require deleting large swaths of content and rewriting to redirect the story. The issue with distraction lies in the possibility that no solution may be found or in the author losing interest in the story.
Amateurs may work on a problematic story for years, investing so much time and energy into the project that they cannot bear to abandon it. That investment must yield results, they believe. Few possess the strength to acknowledge an idea that just won’t work for them and to abandon it. Another aspiring author might use that as a reason to hire a ghostwriter who brings a different perspective and fresh creativity to the project. Regardless, developing a story premise into a book people want to read requires determination, perseverance, flexibility, and skill.