Saturday, February 06, 2021

How to Write a Novel

I wonder if the SEO gods will send all sorts of hits my way with a title like "How to Write a Novel"? Honestly, my answer would be to start with the first page and end with the last one, and then proofread and revise. However, I've come to realize it is much more complicated than that.  

Those who regularly read NetGalleys or other Advanced Reader Copies are familiar with the blurb that tells you not to quote anything without checking with the publisher, as the book is not in its final form.  Sometimes it is pretty obvious the book isn't finished--page numbers are missing from the table of contents and from other places in the book, or there are typos.  Other times the ARC really does seem "done". 

Years ago someone wrote a book about a client of ours and we were gearing up for damage control if necessary.  Then I found the book on NetGalley and my request for it was approved, as are most of my requests.  I spent the next few days at work carefully reading the book and sending my boss copious notes about it.  I had to explain what an ARC was, and how I scored this one, and the PR firm we hired was suitably impressed.  Once the book was published, I got the assignment of reading it, and comparing it to the ARC, and honestly I was surprised at how different it was.  The basic story was the same but one scene we found problematic was no longer there and another section had been moved. There were also changes to paragraphs here and there.  While I am sometimes and curious about how other books move through the revision process, I've never been interested enough to go through that exercise on my own time.  

Lately I've been following Kathleen Basi, whose novel A Song for the Road will be published in May, on Facebook and reading about how she sent in another round of revisions, got a publisher interested in the book and then revised it again.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Kathleen about her book and about writing in general, and I asked her about the writing process.

Here are some of the things she had to say:  (my transcription of a verbal interview)

The process of writing, revision and publication begins with a question--are you a plotter or a pantser? Some people write by the seat of their pants. I like to plot things out. I get completely paralyzed if I don't know where I'm going....I want to have a framework to start. 
I thought A Song for the Road would write itself because it was a road trip and had this built in structure.
The rough draft came out pretty quickly. But the revision process was long and painful on this book. Well, I shouldn't say painful. I actually enjoy revision. Drafting is difficult for me, but once the dough is mixed, and you get to get in there and knead and shape it—that's the part that I really enjoy. I think I spent six or seven months writing the draft of this book, and then another year and a half revising it.
When I started getting requests from agents, I did two more revisions for two agents who were interested in it, and ended up signing with one of them. And then did another revision after that before my agents felt like it was ready to go on submission. When it sold, then there was another major revision. It wasn't terrible, but it was it was big. I took out a major plotline that that had been sort of central at the beginning, but by that time, the book had matured into something else. We did another more minor round of revisions in the fall before I sent it in final manuscript.

Then I asked her:  "What was the difference? Without recounting the four different versions,  I mean, was Miriam always been the same person?"

Miriam has always been the same person. By the time A Song for the Road went out to agents and all of that, her character was pretty well set.

But in my initial concept for this book, this was a road trip that was structured around social media. She became an internet sensation. And while she was trying to have this private trip, she was also dealing with trolls, and people showing up wherever she was going to be.

I thought that gave her an extra layer of conflict: she was trying to do this intensely private this thing in public. But in the later stages of revision, editors and agents said this book doesn't need that. So most of it went away. In earlier versions of the book, at the end of every section, I had Facebook and Twitter interactions, stuff about her followers and how she was going viral. All of that went away in order to streamline and focus on what Miriam was going through.

Since Kathleen is also a composer and writes non-fiction, I asked her "So you're a composer, and you're a writer, and you write long fiction novels, you've also written a lot of magazine articles, you've written short books dealing with the liturgical seasons and so forth. How is writing a novel the same or different than writing music or writing shorter forms?

The challenge is different for each one. With nonfiction the structure sort of takes care of itself. You figure out, “Here’s the topic, and here's how I'm going to break it down.” You get to use headings and subheadings.  It's short pieces, and then you just have to tie them together. What's hard about writing nonfiction is making it so that somebody would actually want to read it.  It can't just be dry recitation of facts. So that's what's challenging.

In fiction, it's a lot harder to come up with the structure that propels it forward. You don't have those subheadings to guide you. Which was why the road trip was so nice, because it kind of gave me that structure. But with fiction, you have a lot more freedom to play with language, to pause and stop and really  dig into the moments and things that would just not be appropriate in nonfiction. 

With music, I'm writing texts for use in worship, and that I find much, much more difficult, actually. Because the syllables have to fall just right, and you have very few syllables to get a message across. It’s more accessible to congregational singing if it's consistent from one verse to the next, and that imposes a huge, huge amount of work on the composer to come up with texts that are that are appropriate theology, and which have the same number of syllables in the same stress pattern in every verse, and where accent syllables fall in the right place.  So yeah, that's hard, hard work.

Fiction is incredibly freeing compared to that. I'm not constrained in the same way. But I would imagine all of that text work means that I'm thinking about sentence cadence in a different way than I would if I just wrote fiction.

So, how do you write a novel? With lots of hard work, that's how. As a reader I'm glad there are people who are willing and able to write novels because I for one could never put that much work into one project.

I'd like to thank Kathleen for granting me an interview.  Stay tuned to this blog--we talked for almost an hour and I'm hoping to get a couple of other posts out of the interview.  You can learn more about Kathleen, her writing, her music and her beautiful family at her website. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I love this inside look into the editing process and will look for the book!


View My Stats