I know how easy it can be to see what you expect rather than what’s there, so I want to make it clear that this isn’t a post about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). My November—and okay, my October as well—would more accurately be called NaNoWriReMo: National Novel Writing Reading Month. Which is to say, I’ve spent the past two months reading books on how to write novels. I know several people who tackled NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m cheering them all on. After reading all these books, I’m also overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task: I may have had some sort of hope of organized learning when I started all this reading, but by now, it’s just an indistinguishable ocean of writing instruction sloshing around in my head.
Around 2005-2006, I had my first burst of
obsession enthusiasm for reading books about how to write books. So when I went through all these books this year, I figured much of what I read would sound familiar. Really, I reasoned, how many different things can you say about writing novels? Apparently quite a lot. For instance, back then I somehow never read any book that discussed three-act structure, probably because I was mostly reading about creating characters. Many of this year’s books have thoroughly analyzed it, while others have at least mentioned it in passing. Ignoring for the moment why I don’t remember it from high school English, I’ve found the whole idea fascinating. So the authors who accuse the three-act structure of being rigid, limited, and likely to stifle any actual creativity in your novel leave me marveling at our different reactions.
Coming off of that, I’m having fun seeing how quickly I can figure out if the author of a particular writing book is a planner or a pantser. Almost no author manages to be neutral on this point. Planners beg pantsers to at least try outlining their next work. Pantsers describe outlines as stifling and advise the reader that sticking to them will ruin your writing, similar to criticisms of three-act structure. I haven’t read as many books by pantsers. I’m not sure whether that’s just my luck in what I chose to read, whether planners are simply more likely to write writing how-to books, or an indication of my own preferences (when I learned there was a book out there called Outlining Your Novel, I had a flash of the sort of anticipation usually reserved for novels by your favorite authors). But all begging and pooh-poohing aside, I’ve come out of all this convinced that you don’t choose this temperamental difference. I “tried” writing intuitively way back when, and I’m using quote marks because it wasn’t an informed choice on my part. I didn’t know you could outline fiction and while writing the scenes that came to me was exhilarating, I was stranded when I needed scenes to tie them together into a story. Meanwhile, I bet all the promises of potentially faster writing won’t make outlining palatable to a confirmed pantser.
I was surprised at how the same novels came up over and over again as examples. The Great Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. At least the authors who play in SF/F often refer to Ender’s Game. I’ve decided The Godfather is the Most Referred to Example Novel, Is it really that superlative? If there are many novels out there that would serve as good examples, then I wish authors would use more than a few of them. No, not everyone will have read every book ever cited, but I don’t think that’s crucial. I haven’t read The Godfather or The Catcher in the Rye, and yet I understood how they illustrated the points authors wanted to make. (Praise and felicitations to Larry Brooks who used The Help and The Hunger Games as examples. Not only had I read The Hunger Games semi-recently, I’d even enjoyed it.)
Eighteen writing books in (and two currently being read), and a few questions remain. I’m not sure what the consensus is on a “successful” novel: well-written or a commercial success? Along the lines of the chicken and the egg, do you come up with characters first and let them bring forth a plot, or vice versa? Or start with the theme and use it to generate characters and plot? Or maybe start with your story world…? And none of this even touches on why people write novels in the first place. At some point, this
obsession enthusiasm for writing books will die down again, leaving me free to read actual novels again. I look forward to seeing how much of all I’m reading about I’ll be able to find in real-life reading.