The Single Largest Problem of Most First Time Novels
All righty. So we have spent a couple of posts talking about getting our head right when it comes to doing this writing thing. Once we get our heads in the game, then the practical How To advice gets a heck of a lot more mileage. Today we are going to talk about the writing of the actual novel.
When I started out wanting to become a writer years ago, I was so clueless I didn’t even realize I was clueless. I had an overinflated ego from all those years making As in high school then college English. I believed I could write so when it came to reading craft books? I thumbed through them and decided I didn’t want my writing to be “formulaic” *flips hair*.
Trying to take a short cut cost me a lot of time and wasted words because I failed to appreciate that writing a work spanning 60K-100K words might just be a tad more difficult than that five page essay.
Once I realized how much I really didn’t know, I set about reading every craft book I could find, seeking out mentors, reading blogs and articles and taking classes until finally I actually became an expert.
In being an expert though, I run into a lot of writers who say the same things that I as a fledgling newbie said. I remember being utterly perplexed and most of the instructors I came in contact with had no good answer to my questions. Now in the position of teacher? I hope to give you what I had to find on my own.
You need to start in the action.
I did! How much more action do you need than blowing up a building with cyborg ninjas?
You don’t have any conflict.
Sure I do!
What is your book about?
Well, it isn’t about any one thing. Oh, but a lot of stuff happens to my character. She has a lot of issues.
What is your plot problem?
Oh, mine is a character-driven story.
This said, the single largest problem of most first time novels is there is simply no story. It really isn’t a novel, rather a collection of clever vignettes.
What is a STORY?
Okay so one of the major problems I had when I started out is I was too narrowly focused on the pretty prose on the page. I had spent a lifetime being applauded for my brilliant use of language and since I was weak at structure, I relied on what I did well. BS and glitter. But the problem is that pretty prose does not a story make. A novel is not just a collection of cool sentences and witty dialogue. There must be a destination.
The destination is what the entire book is about.
Yes, this even applies to literary fiction so there is no copping out. In fact, when an emerging writer says, “Oh, my book is literary” or “My book is character-driven” I hear “I have no plot and really no clue how to create one.”
Bear with me…
All stories have a CORE SINGULAR PROBLEM that must be resolved in Act Three (or four or five—It doesn’t matter which structure we use, it is all basically Three Act Structure). So for the sake of simplicity, it needs to be resolved at the end.
And yeah yeah I am giving you “rules” but to break the rules we need to know and understand the rules. Yet on this one? Break it at your peril. We don’t want readers lost because we have failed to pick what our book “is about.” We also don’t want them getting all the way through the book then tossing it against the wall because we don’t understand story and thus delivered a frustrating and unsatisfying ending.
Back to the core problem…
Now, this core problem can have all kinds of subplots (and often does) but they are ALL tributaries feeding into the same river. For instance, in Lord of the Rings the core plot problem is to drop an evil ring into a specific volcano before a power hungry necromancer takes over Middle Earth.
But there are all kinds of subplots (I.e. Aragorn no longer running, facing his failures and reclaiming his place as king. Arwen standing up to her father and sacrificing to be with the human she loves even though she is an elf and he is a human who has a lot of baggage with Dad).
But all of these smaller dramas impact the resolution of the story. If they don’t? They are plot bunnies that need to be caged.
Even in character-driven stories, there is a core plot problem. In The Road Man and Boy must make it to the ocean. If at the end, they are not at the ocean OR they are at the ocean but resorted to snacking on humans? They failed.
In The Joy Luck Club Jing-Mei (June) must make a decision whether or not to get on the boat to China to meet her missing twin sisters. If she doesn’t take the lessons from the stories, she will continue to hide and the sins of previous generations will continue. If she doesn’t get on the boat, it will mean she has failed to understand and thus forgive her mother. She fails.
Notice how even in these literary examples there is a physical representation that the character has succeeded—ocean and boat.
When there is an end-goal in mind, then it is far easier to deliver the character change. How the protagonist confronts the problem initially won’t work. The character will have to conquer inner demons and evolve into a hero in order to triumph.
This is why I STRONGLY recommend being able to write what our story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Houston, we have a problem.
Conflict Versus The “Bad” Situation
If we do not have a plot problem it is impossible to generate authentic dramatic tension. I will give you an example.
Kristen oversleeps through her alarm. Worse, when she wakes up, she steps into squishy carpet. The toilet has overflowed. Then she tries to clean that up and the power goes out. Since she has places to be she packs up her stuff to shower at the gym. But after showering and dressing at the gym, she is then caught in bumper to bumper traffic and only once she is an hour away from the house does she realize she has forgotten her purse and has no I.D. or money.
Sounds like a pretty bad day, right? On some level you sympathize. But here is the deal, since this is all happening sequentially with no larger context, it is just bad situation after bad situation. It sucks, but there is no conflict.
Now, let’s add in one little thing. The end goal.
Kristen’s goal was to make an international flight. She is flying to keynote in Australia and this is the make or break of her career. If she fails to make it on time to Australia, she not only forfeits her speaker fee, she will wreck her reputation and also have to pay back the $2,000 for the flight. On top of that an entire hotel of people who have paid for a conference to see her speak, now will have no keynote.
NOW when these setbacks happen, because we know the goal (and what is at stake) we are practically white with tension. We know this isn’t just any other day and that THIS day is vital and so is every decision Kristen makes.
Starting in the Action
Starting in the action has less to do with car chases and bombs and fight scenes and more to do with getting as close to the story problem as possible. Using my example above, we wouldn’t want to start our story with the day Kristen left paper sales to become a writer. No. We would start as close to the day she is leaving to keynote and kick off the problems there.
Obviously there is a lot more to this writing thing, but starting with a solid core plot problem will alleviate a lot of problems. It won’t matter how witty the dialogue, how bad the bad situation, how glorious the prose if all of these are not feeding into the same goal—RESOLVING THE CORE STORY PROBLEM.
If you are struggling with that, sign up for my class about query letters and synopses this Saturday. I will teach you how to whittle your plot to bare bones and find and fix weaknesses. Also, sign up for my Master’s Series (all listed below and recordings come with purchase). I have one for Craft and though the Plotting for Dummies has passed and you can’t attend live, you will get the recording. These Master’s Series give you three classes for the price of TWO. The social media series literally has ALL you need to know to build a brand.
I also have a TOTALLY new Master’s Series with Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg. Normally this sells for $400. It is three classes, two hours a piece and Joel is offering it through W.A.N.A. for only $199. How to Maximize Earning Potential as a Full-Time Writer. So hello? Valentine’s Day gift? *wink, wink*
So what are your thoughts? Do you struggle with plot? Do you find yourself drifting off after plot bunnies?
I love hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
SIGN UP NOW FOR MY UPCOMING CLASSES!!!
Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses!
All you need is an internet connection!