How to write a novel

My regular Thursday morning treat is Russell Smith’s culture column in The Globe and Mail. The columns cover a wide range of topics, but my favourites are those in which he deals with writing — to be specific, the mechanics of writing, including grammar, punctuation, English usage and, this week, tips on how to write a novel.

Now, as I write, there lies on the desk to my left a binder that binds the one hundred and thirty-five thousand words of my unpublished novel, The Lost Journals of William Tanner. I’m in the tedious process of editing the damn thing. So in writing the book, did I follow Smith’s advice? Here are his ten tips.

Tips One and Two. Smith’s first two tips are not to get distracted by process (for example, you don’t need to make up a writing schedule) and don’t worry about selling your work until it’s done.

Check. I didn’t. Only now am I trying to find a publisher or agent. No bites after fifty or so pitches.

Tip Three is to write an outline and get a title.

Oops. Tanner just grew. I started out with the character (He’s the greatest scientist of the Nineteenth Century; his fatal flaw is that he is a libertine.) and let him  loose. The final twist that ends the story did not occur to me until I reached the end of the story. And I didn’t come up with the title for months after that.

Tip Four. Write about your own experiences, but make the relevant to your readers: real life make boring fiction.

Check. Tanner is beyond real life. He outdoes every scientist of the century and then gets lost to history.

Tips Five and Six. Don’t make your protagonist a victim. And put some humour in the book.

Check. Tanner’s personality veers towards the psychopathic; and the scenes in which wronged lovers wreak vengeance on him are quite funny.

Tip Seven. Avoid dialogue verbs like “warned”.

Right, Russell. The verb “said” is just fine most of the time.

Tip Eight. Eyes don’t display emotions. For example, eyes don’t twinkle.

Thanks, Russell. I don’t think I’ve done that, but I’ll watch out for it.

Tip Nine. Don’t be afraid of sex scenes.

Check and double check. The reason no one has heard of William Tanner is that he has spent too much time fleeing from betrayed lovers and jealous husbands. So there are enough — but not too many — sex scenes.  Although apart from one scene, I avoid being graphic.

Tip Ten. Don’t let thing like writing lists distract you from writing.

So, I just spent an hour writing and editing this blog when I could have been bearing down on revising my novel. It needs to be cut down, but the prose is all so deathless.

About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
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