I have always wanted to be a novelist. Of course this requires that I spend countless hours in front of a computer screen working, many more hours promoting myself, building my platform and generally getting my name out there.
Over the years, I have found that there are several “hobgoblins” that will grab a novelist’s productivity and eat it as fast as a kid eats candy after trick-or-treating. Here are five of the worst problems that novelists face and how to overcome them.
1. The Brain-to-Fingers Disconnect – Sometimes I will finally sit down to write and nothing comes out. I have thought about it all day, but nothing seems to flow out of me. I used to let this cramp and eventually atrophy my creative muscles. One day (I can’t exactly remember the exact day because if I did I would celebrate it every day as a holiday) I read a quote by Mark Twain: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” I simply decided that I would write whatever came into my head even if that was complete and total garbage. At least I wrote something. I discovered that I was so concerned about writing something “good” or “cool” that I forgot that editing is where all that stuff takes place. It has to get on the page first.
2. Piecemeal Editing – For goodness sake stop giving chunks of your novel to people to read without finishing the whole thing first! Do the research, create the detailed outline, write the snot out of it and then go through at least three revisions before handing it to anyone to edit, proof or critique. You want the work that you give to editors to be the whole text so they can see all of what you had in mind. If you take time and care with this, your editors will appreciate it. I have pushed the due date back to August 1st for my latest novel because I looked at the calendar and realized that there was absolutely no way I would get the book in working order before giving my editors time to review it. Related to this issue is talking to people about your novel before it is finished and letting them change your mind about it. Stop talking about your book and write it.
3. Over-editing – There comes a point when you just have to leave the text alone. You have revised it fifteen times, looked for every possible thread to weave through it that seems clever enough without being overbearing, whittled away the dialogue until it is natural and doesn’t impede the action, cut adrift all those long periods of explanation or episodes where nothing occurs, and still you want to tinker with it. Do us all a favor and stop that. Send it to your editors and when they say “jump” you say “how high?”.
4. Packing It In – How much is too much? Think about how much you want to add to the novel’s story. How much of it is actually necessary to the plot to include. Is there a way to streamline the story so that you don’t overstuff and bog down the action with tedious explanation, random events that do not further the plot, and weird characters that really have no business sticking their noses into the lives of your hero or heroes. What can you cut loose? Think about this carefully and “clean house”. There is a reason Peter Jackson cut the Tom Bombadil scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring even though we all love that character so much: Even though it is well loved by fans it is mostly a side story that is not that important to the rest of the epic. It only drives home the idea that even though the Fellowship is in danger, someone is watching out for them. Find those elements, characters, subplots and descriptions that are not that necessary and give them a shove into your desk drawer or notebook. They can be used in another novel someday.
5. Don’t Stand So Close to Me – This problem is two-fold: either you are writing a memoir or your narrator sounds too much like your own voice. Many writers will write a memoir thinking that their story is unique and that millions of people will want to read it. I hate to break it to you, but unless you have gained a modicum of fame before writing your memoir don’t expect people to beat down your door to hear your life’s story. Most people just want to escape. They read novels to get away from their real lives and follow a road that they wish they could travel. As fiction novelists, it is our job to take them to strange places and for the reader to not wish they had refunded their ticket. I avoid both of these problems by developing characters that are completely unlike me. It is loads of fun to get inside a different person’s head for a while. I will spend days working on character backgrounds through mind webs and listing of traits. Once I have a feel for them, I will write five paragraphs of dialogue using different forms of the voice I have dreamed up for them. I pick the one that works best and then “think” in their voice for the rest of the novel. The point is that I feel like my personal life might be interesting to me, but to most of the world I am not a dashing hero or a leader of the multitude. I’d rather be in my room writing.