Inside Novelology

Today, the gloves come off.  Today, I’m going to write about the subject of writing, and I’m going to do it with utter ruthless honesty.  I’m going to tell you, fans, aspiring writers, and otherwise curious onlookers, the secret about writing a successful novel.

Nobody really knows how to do it.

Yes, I know this is probably a shock, but it’s true.  There is no magic formula, no secret technique, no binary chant to The Mighty Robot King that can guarantee the creation of a successful novel.  Novelology is an art, and like all art, it has general rules but these rules are broken all the time by successful (and unsuccessful) writers.  Anyone who tells you they KNOW how to write a bestselling novel is lying, and while that doesn’t mean their advice might not be good to follow, it is still just advice.

Now, after saying this, I am going to tell you HOW to write a bestselling novel, though technically, I haven’t written one myself yet.  But I do have nine books out there, and I make a living doing this.  So I must know what I’m doing, right?

Actually, no, but let’s pretend anyway.

I can’t really tell you how to write a bestseller, but I can tell you where to direct your energies if you want to give it your best shot.  It isn’t in obsessing over Point of View, Passive Voice, or Limited Adverbs.  Worrying about these elements, so often discussed among writers, is the equivalent of a new writer’s training wheels.  They’re good at helping you to teach the ropes, but once you’ve gotten your feet under you, you can cast them aside and never think about them again.

Yes, I’m saying that once you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to give two damns about them.  But let’s go ahead and run through these most commonly discussed points:

Point of View is the principle that a scene should be written from a single character’s perspective.  It’s handy for new writers because they tend to narrate from a distance.  They tend to relate what is happening as if it is a story they heard that they are now sharing with their friends.  But good narration usually puts us in the middle of the scene and allows us to experience it as if we’re there.  This is why PoV is a good general rule for a new writer.  It forces you to relate to the scene, not just relate what is happening in the scene.

The problem arises when writers become chained to PoV.  A common fallacy of PoV is that it requires complete commitment.  If something is happening behind your PoV character, you aren’t allowed to narrate it.  And you can’t give anyone else’s thoughts, only the impressions your PoV character might have.  And, my personal favorite, you can’t describe your PoV’s face because they can’t see their face, so it breaks PoV.

Nobody outside of a writer cares about PoV.  If you describe your protagonist’s smile, a reader isn’t going to notice the PoV break.  And if you mention something the PoV character couldn’t possibly know, it isn’t going to destroy the reality.  And here’s the real shocker:

Editors / Agents  don’t care about PoV either.

Yeah, I wrote it.  Never let it be said I’m afraid to take a stand.

Editors / Agents care about good writing.  They care about commercial writing.  And bad writing often has bad PoV, but good writing often has bad PoV too.

Passive Voice is another bugaboo circulating through writer’s critique groups, and it too makes sense to avoid.  It’s usually better to say, “Steve walked across the room”, rather than saying “Steve was walking across the room”.  The former is quicker and more in the moment while the latter lacks energy.  The most obvious sign of Passive Voice is the Dreaded Was, and it’s true that most beginning writers will have the Dreaded Was pop up more often than old pros.  But Was isn’t the problem.  Was is a fine word and has its uses.

“If an editor sees ‘Was’ in your first page, they won’t read the rest of your book.”

Again, this is nonsense, as far as I can tell.  Editors / Agents aren’t robots programmed with an elaborate series of protocols you must navigate.  You can’t convince them you’re a good writer because you avoid the Dreaded Was.  And sometimes, avoiding the Dreaded Was is more trouble than it’s worth.  If your novel is frontloaded with dozens of instances of the Dreaded Was, you’re probably not doing yourself any favors, but it’s not because you broke some sacred rule.  It’s because, odds are good, you probably are writing from a distance.  Not always true, but true enough to be aware of.

Still, if an Editor / Agent reads your entire novel in one fevered sitting, they probably aren’t going to turn you away because you used the Dreaded Was one too many times.

Finally, there are Adjectives / Adverbs.  Like the previous two subjects, this advice comes from a good place.  Adjectives are often the sign of an inexperienced writer trying too hard to be clear.  They’re an often unnecessary way of jazzing up a sentence to give it more energy.  More often than not, they end up dragging the sentence down.  Still, Adjectives / Adverbs have their place, and their appearance doesn’t always mean weak writing.  They’re good to avoid, but they aren’t going to destroy your novel’s appeal.

Truthfully, I can’t tell you what an Editor / Agent will want or how to sell your first novel because Agents / Editors are not a single hive mind intelligence.  They’re a collection of individuals (imagine that) with their own quirks and desires, their own pet peeves and passions.  What might make one editor toss your book aside might fill another with delight.  And that’s important to remember because an aspiring writer isn’t looking for any Editor / Agent.  They’re looking for the one Editor / Agent that is looking for them.

And even after you manage to get your book published, how the audience will respond is anyone’s guess.  Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain seems to be selling pretty darn well (from what I can tell) and even I’m a bit surprised that a story about a space squid supervillain might reach out to the masses.  And I wrote the damn book.

My point is that it’s okay to keep an eye on those general writer bugaboos, but that you can stick to PoV, avoid the Dreaded Was, and never use a single Adverb / Adjective in your book, and it still might stink.  And you could break all the above with regularity, and your book just might end up a bestseller.  Probably not, but hey, what do I know?  I’m the guy who wrote a space squid novel he wasn’t even sure he should write.

The best advice I can give to aspiring writers is to develop your own voice, to find a style that works, and to create stories that are worth telling.  The rest is just persistence, faith, and blind luck.  A whole hell of a lot of blind luck.  And anyone who suggest otherwise is either selling you something or lying to themselves.  Maybe both.

Hang in their, folks.  I’m rooting for you.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post!

    It’s one of my soap boxes, the notion that every word has a purpose, even “was” and all those adverbs we try to avoid. Sometimes, the anathema words are the perfect fit. I’d rather have a direct, clear sentence than one that tries too hard to follow all the rules. On the other hand, passive writing can lend poetry to a line.

    I also tell new writers that words are just tools in the toolbox. Why use a wrench when a hammer will do?

  2. Nolly
    Posted March 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Dreadfully late to the game here — the site wasn’t behaving the day I saw this in my feed, and then it got lost in a tab I’m just now getting back to, but “Steve was walking across the room” isn’t passive voice; it’s “imperfect”, also called “past progressive” or “past imperfective”. “The room was walked across by Steve” is passive voice — the actor is an indirect object, not the subject.

    Imperfect verbs (in this sense) aren’t a sign of bad composition at all.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted March 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment.

      You’re right, of course, but usually, in the field of novelology, any use of the word “was” is labeled passive. Thanks for the more thorough (and accurate) thoughts though.

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