Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing The Great American Novel(s)

I’ve been doing a little writing lately. Specifically, I’ve written a legal thriller, and I’m in the middle of a second. I’ve got one more to go, and then I plan to switch to science fiction for a while.
It seems that every American is working on their own novel. Indeed, it’s the rare person I’ve met who hasn’t got at least a basic idea of what they’d like to write, and interestingly, everyone has a different reason for wanting to write. Some have a story they want to tell. Some want to understand themselves. Some want to strike it rich as writers. Some just have the writing bug, or they love the idea of creating something.
I started writing the first novel because I wanted to see if I could do it. I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of films in the past, and several things kept bothering me. Too many authors cheated. They let their readers into a character’s mind right until they needed to generate tension, then they cut the reader off. Others created characters whose sole purpose was to push the hero through the plot. Ron Weasley falls into this category in Harry Potter; he acts according to the demands of the plot rather than according to his own interests and beliefs. Other authors routinely rely on deus ex machina or incredible coincidences to make their plots work. This bothered me.
But criticism is one thing and creation is another, so I drew up my complaints as a list of rules and I set out to see if I could write a book without violating these rules. Yep, I did that thing.
By now I’m writing because it’s addictive to create worlds and immerse characters into them, though I find I still need to set challenges for myself. Besides my list of rules, I challenged myself to include some pretty big philosophical points in the first book, but not so that casual readers would notice. The second book needs to give a realistic portrayal of how much attorneys work in the dark about the true motives and intents of their clients and of the other side, and how little they can be sure of about what really happened. Plus, I’m trying to build a genuine mystery where all the clues are constantly there, but the reader just won't assemble them until the end. Another challenge I’m looking forward too will be making one of the science fiction stories into a comedy, without it being a wacky comedy or slapstick (which I also find to be cheating).
The more I've written, the more I’ve discovered some interesting things. I found, for example, that my characters became independent, sometimes annoyingly so. As the stories progressed, they took on real personalities, and I found they wouldn’t always do what I wanted them to do. That meant new plot twists and actually kept me guessing how things would turn out. Indeed, strangely, I found my opinions about several characters changing. Some became more sympathetic, some less so. Some I even felt probably deserved their own books.
I also discovered that the more time I spent building these characters, the easier it became to see how other authors built theirs. Did they just toss them into the story to satisfy the plot (JK Rowling)? Were they designed to hit certain plot points (Stephen King)? Were they all the same character, presumably a projection of the author (Grisham)? Or were they real people with independence. At the same time, I started to hear film dialog a lot more clearly, and I realized I could almost see the dialog printed on the page. This showed me some of the real beauty in the writing in certain films, and the utter lack of it in others, and it gave me total disdain for formulaic pabulum.
So what I’m curious about today is how many of you have written something or want to write something, whether you finished it or not. What was it? What was it about? What did you learn or what did you find fascinating? And most importantly, why did you start? Do tell!

(Let’s put the issue of publishing aside for now, that’s a discussion for another day.)


Tam said...

If I had any talent, I would want to write a parallel novel/auto/biography along the lines of Steinbeck's East of Eden. But, I have no talent, so I just blog my personal and family anecdotes and put it in a book at teh end of each year.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, That's still something! Maybe at some point you can put them all together and turn them into the biography/novel?

I suspect writing isn't as much about talent as it is just practice.

CrispyRice said...

I'd love to read your stuff, Andrew. I'll bet it's good.

Me, I actually have no interest in writing. Well, I'd be a travel writer if the job were handed to me, but more because I want to travel than because I feel any sort of writing bug. Which is why I'll never do the work actually to become a travel writer, LOL.

BevfromNYC said...

I used to write one-act children's plays in college. I don't think I could think of enough words to put together to write a novel.

I think you are right Andrew. Most of it is practice and discipline, but I think you have to have a gift for it. And having the discipline to write is a gift all on it's own.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Thanks! I think it's pretty good. At some point, I will be publishing it -- one way or another (that's for another post though).

On the travel thing, that sounds like a vicious circle! Maybe you should look for a straight travel job? :-)

Game Master Rob Adams said...

I wrote a game book and am self published under The ArmChair General. In addition to the gaming world I am writing several novels set in that world. I also started (and deleted) a dark novel about a thriller serial killer. I think I'll write something about politics one day but for now I'm staying in the Victorian Science Fiction Genre.

Writing a book:

ISBNs are not too expensive and it is nice to use a POD option.

Copyright is fairly inexpensive.

Finding artists and other talent can be expensive.

Editors are necessary (obviously for me) and are well worth their price.

In the end the best best is to write it and then listen to your audience after they give good feedback. Obviously you will want to take each comment with a grain of sand (like mine for instance).

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, There could be a gift for it, I'm not sure. I think you probably have to enjoy the language and playing with words. But beyond that, it seems to be mainly about practice making perfect.

I noticed with legal writing that it was mainly a matter of practice. The more I wrote, the quicker and easier it got to write the next time, and so on.

Novel writing has been very different. In legal writing, it's all about getting the idea on paper in as easily understood a manner as possible -- though advocacy also tends to involve leading people to see certain conclusions as inevitable. In novel writing, by comparison, there are so many other considerations.

What kind of children's plays did you write? And was it for a class or just for fun or where you doing something specific?

AndrewPrice said...

ACG, I thought about doing something similar when I was young -- game design or writing novels based on some games we played. But I never did.

Have you finished any of the novels you've started? What are the topics of some of these? Also, what made you decide to write them?


I wanted to wait until next week to talk about publishing, but I'm considering self-publishing for several reasons. I haven't decided either way yet. I'm kind of at a standstill until I make that decision, but in the meantime, I've gotten so far into the second book that I haven't found the time to research some of the costs associated with self-publishing.

Unknown said...

Andy: I had so much fun in court when I was doing trial work that I started writing about that. Truth occasionally is stranger than fiction, but I intended to write it as fiction anyway. I think I started writing it in 1994. I'm halfway through the second page. You'll have to wait a little longer to read it--like about two centuries. I thought I'd finally work on it when I retired, and then came the grandchildren. I guess Louis Nizer, Clarence Darrow, Alan Dershowitz and Justice Marshall will have to sit on the bookshelves without me.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Having the time and the energy are big factors. It took me a long time after I got started because I was so busy with the day job that I just never had the time or inclination to work. I finally just made sure that I wrote something every day and eventually it drew me in, so that I wanted to write every day.

Unfortunately, the other part is finding quiet time. I understand why authors often move into the wilderness away from phones, television and people. I actually find that I work best late at night right now because there's nothing to distract me.

Doc Whoa said...

I've thought about writing something, but never have. I always wanted to write a Lord of the Rings type story, but I don't have a plot or anything. I just felt like I wanted to see more of that story.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, It strikes me that's probably a pretty good reason for writing.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I moved into the wilderness, and the grandkids found me anyway. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, That's true! I guess you shouldn't have left a forwarding address! LOL!

Seriously though, it is interesting how much quiet it does take to do any serious writing. I've found it takes about a half hour to get into the right mode, and then its very easy to fall back out of that. But the log cabin in the woods is not my thing.

BevfromNYC said...

Andrew - Maybe you don't know this, but I was a Drama major in college. I wrote for my playwriting class. Our visiting professor was a rather famous children's playwright, so we wrote children's plays. I was pretty good at it too. The prof always wanted me to read my plays in class. I loved the writing exercises we had in class where the prof would give us a pattern and we had to make up dialogue that matched the pattern. It's alot like writing lyrics for music.

My topics were always "outside the box". My one big play was called "Young Folk's Home". It was kind of a quasi vampire in reverse - who done it- comedy. It's hard to explain except that I got the idea from spending the summer at really bad drive-in horror movies like "Zombie", "Alligator", "Paranha", and "Dracula's Dogs" (I am not kidding...)

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I did not know that. But that would explain your interest in theater.

I've always had a problem with plays, just like I've had a problem with poetry -- it just doesn't compute somehow.

It sounds like you were years ahead of the curve with the vampire story? I can't believe how vampires have spread everywhere now!

Do you still do any play writing today?

You could do one about a group of conservative bloggers being chased by a Democratic-leaning alligator! Grrrr.... 8-/

patti said...

i've written three novels, currently write for a paper (online edition) about running and life (no politics involved) and am working on getting a column out to a wider audience.

writing is in my genes. my dad was in mass media before it went to hell (or more precisely, before anyone noticed it went to hell). he was tapped to be the voice of the rangers, but decided to retire. i was heartbroken.

i've been writing my since i could pick up a one of those fat pencils.

and i'm not at all surprised you write as well. like minds and all!

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, Definitely like minds!

That's a lot of writing! Congrats. The voice of the Rangers? That would be great too. Too bad it didn't happen.

Three novels? Coooool! Care to share the topics with us (if you can)?

Tennessee Jed said...

I'm late to the party tonight; just one of those days where I had a full schedule (sometimes this even happens to retired insurance fat cats ;-)

I would love to read your manuscripts, Andrew. I'd be more than happy to give you feedback for whatever it might be worth.

As for myself, I did win the top creative writing award in junior high school for a short story I did. It was about a man who could see forsee future events, but not in detail. He thought he saw his wife's death in an accident, but in his rush to try and save her, he was killed in an accident. It turned out to be his own death he foresaw, not his wife's. Considering I was 14 or 15 when I wrote it, it actually was hal way decent.

If I were to write a novel, I would like to do historical novels that weave fictional main characters with real historical figures. This would be somewhat the genre that has been plumbed by Ken Follett and David Nevin.

Love the new links you put on the side.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I thought retirement was all lazy days and pina coladas?

Thanks! I'm glad you like the links. I hope people find them useful.

That sounds like a pretty interesting short story, especially for a 14-15 year old!

Novels that weave fiction with historical events seem to be pretty popular. I know my mother enjoys them and has for years. It sounds like quite a challenge to write one of those, with the need to stay historically accurate.

Thanks for the offer! I'll e-mail you about it tomorrow.

Ed said...

Cool, will we get to read your novels?

AndrewPrice said...

At some point, one way or another. That's the publishing issue, which I'm still trying to decide.

Anonymous said...

As I mentioned the other day, I've tried writing a screenplay but I eventually stopped after the first act grew to the size of a phone book. But that's what I get for not having a plan. It's inspired by my senior year of high school and the various events that revolved around my school's DECA chapter.

Basically, it's be an R-rated teen comedy but I want to avoid the cliches. For instance, the DECA advisor/marketing teacher is a badass and not a pushover like so many bad teen movie teachers. The main character's parents are actually good parents. And even though our heroes want to get laid, there are some students that are waiting for marriage or aren't even thinking about it at all - it's always bothered me that, in every teen comedy, seemingly everyone is trying to get tail.

I even have two sequels planned: a darker story which finds our lead character going away to college and a lighter story in which he comes back home. Putting aside the third one for the moment, the second one would ostensibly be based on my horrific year at FSU. However, I find it hard to justify the actions of the villains - some kids are just pricks and you can't explain it.

I've also tried writing a TV pilot about PAs on a reality show and I keep thinking about it though I haven't touched it in a while. And just recently, I've been fiddling with a dark comedy/mystery about a guy who decides to solve the murder of a prostitute.

That's all for now. :-)

Question: have you consulted any websites or books on novel writing? Do you have a daily routine or process? I'm fascinated by how creative people do their thing.

LL said...

I've sold two screenplays, but I'm going to engage in shameless self-promotion here:

WHITE POWDER: A Novel of the CIA and the Secret War in Laos

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, My advice (for what that's worth), is focus on one story at a time -- just record your other ideas in a word doc and save them. It's very hard to juggle too many unique ideas in your head at once. Also, ideas need time to percolate -- the human brain is like a computer that needs alone time to process what it just learned and to organize its files

So let them rest while you do something else and they'll start to arrange themselves.... and that makes the whole thing easier when you get back to it.

Also, try to have a clear idea of the order of your story and the break points where things change before you start writing, but then don't be afraid to abandon it -- just recalibrate. (I think in terms of when the "feel" of things or characters change, more so than what specifically happens to them, when I outline my story.)

In terms of avoiding cliches, the easiest way is to make the characters into real people. Real people don't live like cliches. So when you keep your characters grounded in the real world, you almost have to avoid cliches because when you come to that cliche moment, you'll realize that no actual human (i.e. your character) would actually do the cliche thing. Basically, this will force you to find new things for the characters to do and new ways to get around well-known situations.

I've found that by allowing the characters to act like real people, I often ended up turning cliches on their head and was able to use the audience's expectations against them to create unexpected plot points -- things that my readers all said "wow, I never saw that coming, but it made so much sense when it did happen."

In terms of some characters just being evil.... that's a fine start, but as you write them, try to think about what actually motivates them. That will give you more subtlety and might explain how others should react to them. Remember my discussion of villains, they don't think they're bad people, even though they know they are sometimes doing evil things. But everyone thinks they're justified in their actions for one reason or another.


AndrewPrice said...


In terms of routine as to when I write, no, I don't have a routine. But that's never been my style. I get ideas at all times of the day and I have no control over when it happens. So I've learned to work when the motivation strikes, work until I start to lose focus, and then go clear my head. Sometimes that means working at noon, sometimes it means working at 4:00 am.

That used to be a problem when I worked at a big law firm, but that's the way I work. They wanted everyone to sit in the office from 8:00 am until 7:00 pm. But that was just a waste of time for me, because my brain doesn't divide time that easily into "work hours" and "non-work hours," and I often did my work late at night or early morning instead.

But in terms of how I write, yes, there are patterns. I've done a lot of different types of writing in the past, e.g. academic, law (commercial drafting, advocacy and non-advocacy), blog, and non-fiction. They all have different demands and require different patterns. But for fiction, which is what you're interested in, I've learned that I work best when I edit.

So what I do is that I will outline where I think the story will go. Then I start on one chapter at a time and I do the dialog first, with my goal being to get a readable story that fully explains the scene just from the dialog. Then, later, I go back and edit the scene into a book format. Then I go back again and edit what I've written to (1) play around with words, (2) add cool new ideas I've thought of, (3) adjust the characters to be more consistent with how their personalities turn out by the end of the book, (4) change the dialog to fit the personalities and unique traits (like accents or intelligence), (5) etc. And I go back as many times as needed, with the understanding that it's pointless to try to make a scene perfect before most (or all) of the book is written.


AndrewPrice said...

In terms of looking at writing sites, no, not really. And here's why. I've looked around generally to see what's out there and it turned me off very quickly.

First, most of the advice is uselessly simplistic. . . "try to use complete sentences and proper punctuation." Do tell?

Secondly, so much of what's out there is either hopelessly defeatist ("I don't know what I'm doing") or obnoxious and pretentious and yet still loaded with cliches ("of course, the average reader will never understand....."). And if you followed the advice they give, you will end up with something completely generic but also completely unreadable.

Third, when people do submit work for others to review, the criticism tends to be either "too nice" or sadistic -- neither of which are useful for learning. Also, the criticism almost always revolves around the author's "failure" to include the various conventions of the genre. But I'm not interested in that because I have no interest in just remaking what's already been made.

Finally, I think it's impossible to learn style from someone else because you've got to have your own style. If you try to copy someone, it will never work. When you write, write what you want to see. When you write dialog, ask yourself if the people you know really speak like that. When you describe things, describe the world as you see it -- not as you've seen someone else describe it. Trying to adopt someone else's style tips will only confuse you.

(P.S. I'm not saying blow off advice, in fact, having people you trust give you feed back is really key and I've been fortunate to have some really good people give me feedback. But trying to incorporate generalized advice is not a good idea.)

AndrewPrice said...


What kind of screenplays? And were they made into movies?

Here's your link: LL's Book

Ponderosa said...

I've had fragments of a movie rolling around my head for years. I've read many screenplay books (easier than writing?) but nothing so far. I need to get it on paper so it will stop annoying me.

Andrew, I'd love to see the complete list of rules.

LL, a new book in February?

Anonymous said...

I'm like Lawhawk - I have a western novel I've been playing around with since 1984. I just can't seem to muster the time or discipline needed to finish it.


AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, Sometimes the best way to get started is to just pick a section that you want to get down and just start writing? In other words, you don't need to start at the beginning, just jump in and start and see if it sorts itself out as you go?

I'll dig up my list of rules and post them.

AndrewPrice said...

TJ, Westerns remain hugely popular and have a definite appeal to me -- though I haven't read very many. I almost gave up on them because my first western was by Zane Gray and it was so melodramatic, but without action.... if felt more like a cheap romance.... that I almost gave up on the genre. But then I read some L'amour and they were much better.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, Louis L'Amour is my favorite western author. I was introduced to his books in high school by my English teacher. I probably have about 40-50 of his books and get them out every couple of years to reread. I never get tired of them.

I just recently got a soft cover collection of four stories by Zane Grey, which included "Riders of the Purple Sage". I thought they were pretty good, but you're right about the melodrama (much different from the writing style of L'Amour). Perhaps it has something to do with the time period in which they were written?


AndrewPrice said...

TJ, I agree about Grey. I think he wrote in a style that was very appropriate for the era in which he lived, but it's not a style that I like. There's too much mental hesitation and aggrandizement for my taste. For example, rather than saying it was time to get on his horse, he would say things like: "He yearned to get on the horse, but he knew not if he dared such an undertaking for the beast was so magnificent he almost dared not ride it for fear of treating it as a mere beast." Just get on the dang horse! ;-)

I haven't read a lot of westerns because I just haven't had as much time to read as I would like in the past decade or so, but I intend to read a lot more of L'amour's work at some point. I need to add a few hours to my days.

rlaWTX said...

I read.

rlaWTX said...

I tried writing but the process was excrutiating. and the result was even worse.

so, I read.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Writing isn't everyone's cup of tea. I'm glad you tried though! :-)

Writer X said...

Andrew, I'm so sorry I missed this post when you originally published it. It's been that kind of week.

Keep going! Never give up. I have no doubt that I will be reading one of your published novels one day soon.

AndrewPrice said...

No problem Writer X, it was only last night. And don't worry, I'm not giving up -- I'm deeply immersed in book two right now, so I've put everything else on hold so I don't lose the rhythm! :-)

Sorry to hear your week's been rough?!

Ponderosa said...

Excellent point.

It might be a scene, a 2-minute commercial or an epic. Heck it could even be prose than neeeds to be adapted.

I'll get it down and let you know.


AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, You're welcome! Let us know how it goes!

Anonymous said...

Have you a sample that we can view? I would be very interested in seeing that?

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Not yet. At some point though.

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, I found my list and I'll publish it next Wednesday as another article.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Outstanding post, Andrew!

While I concur that most villains don't consider themselves evil as a rule, there are some that actually embrace it (Satanists, malignant narcissists/psychopaths, someone trying to be "original and rebellious...but probably would be at least somewhat psychopathic).

And others who don't even believe in the concepts of good or evil (PoMo, scientistic decunstructionists and/or those who consider themselves to be god, conciously or subconciously).

And still others, as you alluded to that don't consider themselves evil but have no compunctions and feel no guilt about using evil means to obtain their goal(s)...which reminds me of many leftists who believe the ends always justifies the means.

And, there are many who believe in actual demons and demonic possession, in which case evil is definitely a feature.

However, if one chooses to use villains such as these, they still don't hafta be one dimensional, nor should they.
They can even have personalities and their own interests (besides being evil that is).
They can be funny, often by accident or in an ironic sense.

I've seen many writers and movie directors and actors make the opposite mistake with the good guy(s)/hero/heroine.
In fact, writers tend to write one dimensional, uninteresting good guys more often than they do the bad guys, which is probably why most actors relish playing the bad guy because even if he is one dimensional it's still more interesting than the one dimensional good guy roles.

I don't mean to say there ain't one dimensional, very shallow people because there is, but if I were a screenwriter or author I would use characters like that very rarely if at all because they just ain't interesting in any sense of the word.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

(Cont.) I wrote a lot of stories...sea stories about my time in the Navy, and also some after I retired in my blog.
Unfortunately, one day my blog simple disappeared!
Which is why strongly urge anyone who does write to save at least one copy of it.

There was more than one reason I decided to write:
1. I couldn't not write. I believe it was Tom Clancy who said something to the effect that he hated the process of writing but he had to do it to get it out of his system.
Writing is a love/hate relationship to me.
If I could do it by talking to the computer (maybe someday) I would.

2. It's part of my purpose...and one I recently found, a little over 4 years ago (this gets into metaphysics and religion also, so I will spare you the details, lol).

3. It's therapeutic. I've learned more about myself, why and what my motivations are, areas I need to improve in, how my mind parasites work, etc..

4. Despite not having a great memory, writing stories from my past helps me recall stuff I thought I had forgotten.
There's a sort of...connection I make...deeper into my memorie...into my subconcious and to God.

I'll write more later. As you mentioned, it's far easier to write when it's quiet and when there's no interruptions.
"Oh hello dear. Yes, I'll get right on that." :^)

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I think in real life, there are actually very few people who truly see themselves as evil. There are some -- like Satanists who revel in it. But even people like serial killers almost always report feeling like they were justified in doing what they did -- many report that they were doing "God's work." It just seems to be a human trait to think we're in the right. Now don't get me wrong, many of them are doing things they know are wrong or evil, but they think they are justified in doing it.

And I think the instances where you get a villain who does believe that he is truly evil are so rare that they should almost never be in books or films. But it's a lot easier to grab a serial killer of something that revels in being evil, because it's easier to write and no one gets confused about your motivation in writing the character.

In terms of the good guys, you've hit on something that drives me nuts -- every hero Hollywood creates today is the same: they are all offshoots of the anti-hero, the anti-social borderline bad guy, who is secretly Dudley Doright, but plays the role of the reluctant hero until the heroine sees the truth within him. Blech!

That's all you see these days. And I think the reasoning is that again, it's very easy to write these people. It lets you sidestep all the questions of motivation and you don't run the risk of creating a character who is either too big of a jerk to be a hero or who is too much of a Boy Scout to be interesting.

It's a pretty lame decision, but all the good guys have turned into this -- even the sidekicks. In fact, if a television show runs long enough, all of the characters (villains included) will drift into this mold. It's pretty pathetic.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, On writing motivation, I have heard that before from several people -- a lot of people say they write because it's therapeutic. I personally haven't experienced that. For me, it's more about the challenge, which is why I set rules for myself, and I truly enjoy the process of creating these worlds and the people in it. I also love playing with words, so I enjoy the craftsmanship of it.

I'm sorry to hear about your blog. We back up every day for that reason, because I've heard too many stories of blogs disappearing for reasons unknown.

Of course, the same thing can happen with a harddrive, and that's one area where I admit that I don't do enough to backup my data. I don't know why, but I just never seem to get around to it. Hmmm. I seem to be telling myself something!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Yes, I concur that the vast majority think thay are in the right, followed by those who don't care, who view good n' evil as social constructs that don't apply to them (PoMo's, psychopaths, anarchists) and then those who basically conciously worship evil of which, I agree, are most rare indeed.

My point is that even the worst villains don't hafta be portrayed in a shallow, uninteresting one dimensional way (perhaps because it's hard enough to understand how someone can get to that point, let alone why someone would choose to sear their own souls to get there. Apparently they believe they will gain something from it).

As for the inate sense of right n' wrong virtually all humans have, I do believe that a few can get to a point where it literally doesn't matter to them...or, to be more precise, they consider themselves above it.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I agree and that is what I took you to be saying. There are definitely people who revel in being evil and there are people who don't seem to recognize the distinction between good and evil. But in society, they are few and far between. Yet, if you took movies as a guide, you would think that half of society is like that.

Moreover, these people, when you see them interviewed in prison for example, are not functional. They're weird, creepy and generally inept. Hollywood tries to make them cool. And the problem is that they all have the same view of how to make these people seem cool. So you get the cartoon effect, where all villains are maniacal and they laugh as they do truly stupid things (like randomly shoot their henchmen).

To me, it's truly lazy writing.

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