Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

How to Write Your First Novel

(Robison Wells remains ill again this week--so ill, in fact, that he's referring to himself in the third person. Consequently, we're reprinting a Robison Wells Classic®. This article first appeared on, April 2nd, 2004.)

It’s a somewhat daunting task to write an article for a group of writers. I am a relative newcomer to the writing scene, with little real training in the English language. Undoubtedly, readers are bound to notice my lack of basic grammar skills: that I don’t know a participle from a preposition, that I’ve never understood the proper usage of an m-dash, and that I’ve never met a comma I didn’t like.

I had English classes, of course, that taught all sorts of dos and don’ts, but, in high school, where grammar was stressed, I was far too busy swooning over the girl across the room to pay much attention. Grammar passed me by the wayside, as did, incidentally, the girl across the room.

(See? You thought I was joking. That last paragraph had only two sentences—a mere fifty-two words—and I still managed to pack in eight commas).

So, with my lack of English qualifications in mind, and my lack of experience in the writing world, I have chosen to discuss the only topic that I seem to know anything about: beginning.

I hate starting a book. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. Once I get going I don’t have nearly as much trouble, but it takes me a while to get in the groove, and until I achieve that groove, writing is sheer torture.

I can see, given my own troubles, why so many books in the world have gone unwritten. I would imagine that, if starting a book were easy, the world would be full of authors, and we’d all bask in the joy of mountains of wonderful books, right up until the point where we starved to death.

In an effort to ease the pain of budding writers out there, and especially the writers that have yet to even produce a bud, I’ve come up with three basic things that you need to do to become a writer.

Rule number one: Write.
Simple concept, I know, but stay with me.

I never wanted to be a writer. In high school I had no idea whatsoever what I wanted to do (other than not be in high school anymore). On my mission, people used to ask me what I was going to be when I grew up (something I still haven’t quite managed), and I never knew what to tell them. Eventually, since I got sick of saying “I don’t know” and then listen to hours of career advice, I began to say “I want to be an architect.” I said it so much, that I began to believe it. I believed it so much that I signed up for architecture classes when I got home and started studying the difference between Doric and Ionic columns. Soon, however, my interest waned.
So I moved on to something else, and then eventually something else, and then eventually got a degree. Somewhere in there, one afternoon, I was watching a documentary on PBS. It was about the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. The narrator made an off-hand remark that sparked something deep within my brain, and changed my life. He described how the soldiers, for fear of snipers, wouldn’t ever leave the buildings. Instead, they would move from building to building by going down into the basements, and knocking holes in the walls. Soon, there was a network of tunnels all over the city—entire battles fought in basements. I though to myself: “That would be a neat idea for a book.”

A few days later, I was talking to my brother. He was an English/Editing major at BYU, and an aspiring novelist. I told him my idea, and said how I thought it would be a neat idea for a book. He gave me the following advice: “The difference between writers and non-writers,” he said, “is that writers actually write. Everybody has a book in their heads. Everybody says that one day their going to sit down and write the great American novel, but they don’t do it. What sets authors apart, is that authors actually buckle down and put pen to paper. They write.”

And, you know what? It worked.

Of course, that first book was pretty awful, but I wrote it, all ninety-something thousand words of it. Prior to that, I hadn’t written anything longer than five or six pages, and I hadn’t scribed any fiction since grade school. Still, I managed to churn out a book (a weird one—about wars fought in basements) in less than seven months.

Here’s another example: When I was working on On Second Thought, my first published novel, I got stumped. I had the basic story, although it had a lot of big plot holes, and I’d written several key scenes, but I just couldn’t managed to come up with a good beginning. I wanted what every novelist wants: something that sparks the reader’s attention, that foreshadows what’s coming up, and, if possible, grabs the reader by the ears and forces them to read all 240 pages in one sitting.
But I couldn’t come up with anything.

I wrote and wrote and wrote, and got nothing. Nothing good, at least. Then, in the summer my daughter was born, and, as all parents know, a newborn baby is not very tolerant of it’s parent’s hobbies. I stopped writing pretty much the same time I stopped sleeping at night.

Three months later I went back to the manuscript. I desperately wanted to tell the story, but still had no beginning. Even so, I though of my brother’s advice, and I wrote.

I sat down, with no direction whatsoever. I titled the page “prologue,” and began typing.

“I hadn't seen it coming. Of course, the main reason why someone would hit you in the back of the head is so that you can't see it coming.”

Ah, I thought. Good beginning. Keep going.

“When I woke up, the sun was considerably lower in the sky and the air was cooler. I rolled over, immediately wincing and rolling back due to the sharp rocks digging into my side. Of all the places in the world to be stranded, this had to be one of the worst. Undoubtedly, my attacker had planned it that way.”

Now, the key here is that I was just free writing. I had, at that point, no idea in the world who had hit the main character on the head and left him stranded in the desert. Still, I kept writing. Soon enough, I’d pounded out the first draft of the prologue. And I liked it.

Suddenly, everything made sense! I changed the plot around this way and that, modified a character here, and deleted a scene there, and I suddenly had an outline. Four months later, I had a first draft, and, five months after that, I got that sweet, sweet phone call from a publisher saying they wanted to buy the book.
But the key here is that I didn’t wait for the elusive Muse to appear and tap me on the head with her Creativity Wand. Instead, I sat down, looked my manuscript in the eye, and said “Okay pal, it’s you and me. We’re writing today, whether you like it or not.” And then I wrote.

Rule number two: Learn how to write.
In the early days of my writing, I was a pretty crummy writer. My first book, which still to this day has no title, was a long meandering thing with no well-planned direction, only a few vague ideas here and there.

Like I mentioned before, I have had little official writing training. In high school I had some rather unfortunate experiences with English (most of them due to my extreme complacency in the homework department). In college I took the two required English classes, but those focused on writing in the workplace—mostly reports and memos and résumés. The only Creative Writing class I’ve ever attended I signed up for after On Second Thought had been accepted for publication. After encouraging me to write, my brother invited me down to Provo once a week to attend his writing group. It was certainly an eye-opening experience. No punches were pulled. My writing naiveté was described in no uncertain terms. It hurt a lot, at the time, because I wasn’t used to criticism, and I thought that the errors I made forever branded me a “bad writer.”

Instead, however, they were merely burning off the dross and leaving the gold (or whatever that analogy is. Is it the dross that burns off? Or is the dross what’s left over? I don’t know—you all know what I mean). Despite the fact that there was very little gold left, there was gold nonetheless. Somewhere deep within my untrained brain, there was a glimmer of talent, a candle just waiting to be pulled out from under the bushel of Writing Laziness.

I proceeded to do a lot of reading. I read books about writing, and I read other books just to see how authors wrote. But more importantly, I wrote. I wrote and wrote, and then wrote some more. My initial goal was to write three pages a day, every day. I would write during class. I would write at work, at slow times in between phone calls. While driving, an idea or a phrase would pop into my head and I’d jot it down quickly. Once, while on vacation in Yellowstone Park, I got up in the middle of the night and wandered down to the hotel lobby, and scribbled away for hours on the tiny 3”x5” complimentary notepad. And the more I wrote, the better I got.

Ray Bradbury once said the following about writing:

“For I believe that eventually quantity will make up for quality.
“How so?
“Michelangelo’s, da Vinci’s, Tintoretto’s billion sketches, the quantitative, prepared them for the qualitative, single sketches further down the line, single portraits, single landscapes, of incredible control and beauty.
“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can come quality.”

Rule number three: Learn something else.
Learning how to write is all well and good, but writing is, essentially, just the medium by which you convey your ideas. The important part, the vital part, is having ideas to write about.

I fell in love with writing while still in college, but I thank my lucky stars I didn’t get an English degree. My creative writing class at the University of Utah may have given me a few new insights into the writing process—taught me a few new rules, or showed me a new way to look at things, but it never really inspired me to write anything. What has inspired me to write? The idea of soldiers fighting each other in basements, is the first thing that comes to mind. My degrees were in Political Science and History. I learned about ideas and theories, and people and places. Sure, I may have missed the English class about punctuation, and consequently don’t know how to effectively use a semi-colon, but, on the other hand, I based an entire novel off of ideas I learned and things I read in my International Security class. On Second Thought is rife with facts obtained in my “People and Cultures of the Southwest” course (while I was still pursuing an anthropology degree).

If a painter never leaves his studio, he’ll only produce a lot of paintings of easels. An acquaintance with great ideas, whether it’s through schooling, or through work experience, or simply through the day-to-day struggles of living, is what makes an author great. Expand your horizons. Read about something new.

There you have it. Three simple rules: Write. Learn how to write. Learn something else. It’s certainly not rocket science (which is probably why rocket scientists make more money than us starving authors).

I’m not of the opinion that I have a tremendous amount of talent. Really, I don’t think that most authors are more talented than most non-authors. But I am of the opinion that God helps those that help themselves. Sit down an write. Don’t expect Hemingway on your first try. But keep trying, and, when the going gets rough, and everything that you write is tripe, and you fingers ache from tapping endless hours on your keyboard, still keep writing. “Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can come quality.”


At 3/06/2007 9:14 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Rob may be funny, but he's also right. It takes a lot of reading to be a writer and it takes a lot of writing to be a successful writer. Classes and conferences may be helpful to some extent, but there's no substitute for writing and writing and writing.

At 3/06/2007 11:10 PM, Blogger Josi said...

Amen and Amen

And gosh, but he doesn't even sound sick! Amazing.

At 3/07/2007 11:26 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Rob, sorry to hear you're still sick. I mean, sick AND asthma? (Hope you didn't see last Sunday's Without a Trace.)

I'd be happy to drop off my own sickness comfort food: Coke and Cheetos! (Also, don't worry about sending the book out - you've got enough to deal with.)

So, am I reading it right? The story about the tunnels and snipers - it hasn't been published yet? I remember someone telling me about a movie set in New York where they have some sort of bet about who can live without going aboveground for the longest. Underground tunnels are involved with that, too. And madness, apparently. (Don't know the name of the movie.)


At 3/07/2007 11:53 AM, Anonymous kerry said...

I'm so sorry you're sick, but so glad to read the article again. It should be required reading for all of us!

According to his autobiography, Isaac Asimov agreed once (and only once) to speak at a writers conference. He walked on stage, said something like, "If you really wanted to be writers you wouldn't be here; you'd be home writing" and walked off.

At 3/07/2007 12:55 PM, Blogger Belladonna said...

The only reason I had time to read this blog was because I was also home sick for the day, so my heart is with you - wanna pass the kleenex?

I agree completely - fancy word smithing is all well and good, but it is essential that an author begin with having something worthy to talk about.

Which is why I'll putter away at my silly blog and never write a book.


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