Small steps to a long story

How do you go about writing a novel?

If you’re John Irving—author of The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany and other novels—you write the last line of the novel first, he said at a lecture I attended a few years ago. Then, as you begin each chapter, you write its last line first, Irving added.

If you’re James Ellroy, writing American Tabloid, you produce a 300-page outline and then write the book, according to an interview with his agent by writer Stuart Neville.

If you’re Michael Connelly—author most recently of The Scarecrow and the forthcoming Nine Dragons—you don’t bother with an outline: “But that said, I never start writing a book until I know what happens at the start and what happens at the end,” Connelly says in a Q & A in the latest issue of The Writer.

If you’re a workshopper like me, however, one who is trying to complete the draft of a novel for the first time, you’re in awe of those masters who can see the entire progression of the story before they begin writing it. Unlike them, you’re dealing with a more fundamental question:

Do I have the chops to invent a story that holds together for 300-plus pages and meets all the criteria it’s supposed to meet? Such as? Such as an organically-evolving plot with unexpected twists and turns. Compelling characters. Alluring setting. Meaningful theme. Surprising, revealing and yet inevitable ending. And, oh yes, such as getting it all down on paper in artful language.

That’s why we should follow the Richard Russo approach. Here’s what the Pulitzer Prize winner (for Empire Falls) and author most recently of That Old Cape Magic, told an interviewer from “Barnes & Noble Review”:

“The task [of writing a novel] is so enormous that if we ever really thought about what we were letting ourselves in for, we’d never begin. Early on we learn to worry only about what we do today. If I get my two or three pages written on Monday my day’s work is done. It’s useless to worry about Friday or four years from Friday. Pages need our attention; books take care of themselves.”

Inevitably, there will be days when composing two or three pages seems impossible. What should we do? Try using the Lawrence Block method, as the mystery Grand Master describes in his writing manual Spider, Spin Me a Web: “I still write a paragraph at a time, a page at a time, and a day at a time. Because that, as far as I know, is the only way to get the work done.”

Once we commit to the “small step” or “small bite” approach, says Don Winslow, whose latest novel is The Dawn Patrol, the key is to “write it every day, no matter what, no excuses. [You’ll] be shocked at how quickly [you]’ve produced a book. It’s a Nike thing – just do it.”

I’m game. Are you?
—Alex McNab

Published in: on September 10, 2009 at 11:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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