There are a few basic expectations a reader has from a story. One is that it will move them, somewhere – in either the world, in their mind, or in their heart… preferably all three. Because reading is escape, movement is a necessity. Therefore we know that pace and progression are key elements to a good story. Another basic expectation is direction. A writer who is lost during the writing will inevitably lose his reader, as well. The sense that one is being led somewhere is essential, and the de facto trust is that it is somewhere meaningful. A writer who writes without a meaningful journey and even more meaningful destination will injure his reader. An injured reader will not likely return for a second trip. These basic expectations must be honored and attended to by any writer. If they do, their chances at success are increased a hundred-fold.
Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public.
What lasts in the reader’s mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what’s it doing there? Make it do its job or cut it without mercy or remorse.
1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
“Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.”
So slowly I go. Word count down to 179k (from 200k+). Simplifying, clarifying. Altering archs, modifying premise, tweaking plot. All sorts of change. This effort will be the final swipe at this story. When it goes back up online, it will live in that form forever. A first novel is a first novel and I’m willing to let it be that, after I do this final round of revision. The lessons learned from it are substantial and I will move forward to the next one with them in mind.
Writing a novel is to have a pendulum in motion, a measurement of action and inaction, where writing and reflection have their place in the process. This pendulum is particular, however, in the case of novel building. Writing and reflection are not always equal parts, arrived at in perfect and predictable timing. The pendulum arm can dally in one stroke or the other, creating long spells of intense writing that are devoid of much reflection or conversely, periods of reflection so long and necessary that one can forget their goals – forget their vision. I can only say that I’ve felt the pendulum and that it still swings.