[Guest Post] Starting Your Novel: Little Things That Make a Big Difference

Jack London, authorThis is a guest post by Jack Woodville London, the author of A Novel Approach (To Writing Your First Book) and the award-winning books, French Letters: Virginia’s Wars and French Letters: Engaged in War. He has published some 30 literary articles and more than 50 book reviews. Prior to his career in fiction writing, London was a courtroom lawyer and spent over 40 years writing technical legal articles. While in law school, he served as editor of the University of Texas International Law Journal. London grew up in small-town Texas before earning degrees at the University of Texas and West Texas State University. He has also studied creative writing at Oxford University and earned certificates at the Fiction Academy, St. Céré, France and Ecole Francaise, Trois Ponts, France. London lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Alice, and Junebug the writing cat. For more information, please visit www.jwlbooks.com.

You have the story in your head. You’ve overcome the time / space conundrum so that you’re alone with your word processor at your kitchen table or, better yet, in your study. Now, all that’s left is to get started on writing that book.

But where to begin?

A Novel Approach

Like pilots, athletes, teachers, and almost everyone else, writers practice and warm up before they fly solo, kick-off, teach, or write the Great American Novel. These ideas for warming up to write your book are drawn from A Novel Approach and from the classes I give to emerging authors.

Practice writing in the active voice.

Avoid to the point of death writing sentences in the passive voice. They are the number one reason why manuscripts are rejected, why contests are lost and books folded and closed within the first twenty pages. Why? Because they’re hard to read and often are not clear. Instead, write sentences in the active voice rather than in the passive voice:

  • Write an object word, such as a noun.
  • Write a verb.
  • Make them agree.

It’s that simple.

What does a passive sentence look like? In general, the passive voice contains a verb linked to an auxiliary form of “to be,” and generally causes confusion on who is doing what, if anything. In a passive sentence the subject receives the action rather than causes the action. For example:

Passive: “Being lost already, it was better to stop.”

Active: “He decided it was better to stop since he was lost.”

To be sure, being passive has its place (it just did), usually to hide the subject (I just did). But it’s dangerous to write in the passive voice because the absence of a direct object makes the meaning of the sentence unclear (I just did both, in one sentence). However, concentrate in writing active sentences and, when editing what you wrote, in recasting the passive voice sentences into the active voice.

Write each paragraph as a single idea.

Writing paragraphs is an art that requires practice, particularly paragraphs that contain no dialogue. But, and this is a really good but, agents, editors, and readers love good paragraphs. So, to your palette:

A paragraph can express a completely self-contained, stand-alone idea. It also can build on the idea of a previous paragraph. It can lead to the idea of the next paragraph. You might think of your book as a campaign, chapters as teams, and paragraphs as team players. What do team player paragraphs look like?

A team-player paragraph has a topic sentence. The topic sentence might be the first sentence. If so, every sentence that follows should refer to or build on the topic. The paragraph may have several sentences that reflect different or individualized concepts or facts but which, collectively, relate to one another and are then summarized in a topic sentence. The topic sentence might be sneaked into play in the middle or at the end to wrap things up. But, there should only be one topic sentence.

Next, a traditional paragraph has unity. Not only does the paragraph reflect a central idea, each sentence reflects on the idea without repeating it.

Finally, a good paragraph can serve as a bridge. It can advance the topic of the paragraphs that have gone before and can foreshadow or buttress the topics of the paragraphs that follow.

Forget the spell checker. Activate the read checker.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the wonders of word processing programs, simple errors ultimately hole more boats than a renegade submarine. Spelling errors, contractions, commas, and mistakes in word selection are common buggers for writers. They also are the easiest to dust up without having to suffer the red marks of humiliation that editors love to scribble on manuscripts. Here are a few examples of easily-made, easy-to-correct errors:

Bee ware. Your in. Sorry for the incontinence. Man eating tiger. And, my favorite advertisement on the highway billboard of a rather inexpensive motel: ‘Free wife for your lap top.’

Your word processor will not catch these. It is your job to catch them. Just stop trusting the spell checker and read what it is that you’re writing. If you don’t catch them, your reader will, and it will be the next-to-last thing she or he does before putting your manuscript down.

Be serious about your writing.

“What I find hard about writing,” Nora Ephron is reported to have said, “is the writing.”

There’s a difference between writing and typing. Writers produce. Typists reproduce.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Writers believe that a story worth telling is worth telling well. Writers believe that a turn of phrase can evoke a vision, that the choice of exactly the right word will lead someone to think of something in a new light, will persuade, will entertain. Some writers are blessed with a combination of neurons, synapses, left brain cells (or is it right?) that make their words flow with clarity and purpose. The other ninety-nine per cent of us must begin, erase, revise, delete, change, correct, and revisit so that, in the end, after many drafts and rewritings, it only looks like it wasn’t hard work. Where to begin?

Compose a thousand words on the book, novel, memoir, poem, or short story that you’re writing.Tomorrow, edit those thousand words, revise them, and improve them. Recast the fuzzy sentences into the active voice. Make the subjects and verbs agree in number and tense and eliminate the pronouns that might refer to more than one person, place or thing. (Shanan’s note: Please, please, please do this.) Revise the sentences so that they do not unintentionally end with a preposition. Track the topic sentences in your paragraphs. After you’ve finished being hard editing yourself, write your next thousand words.

Then, and only then, may you take up the cudgel of Facebook and email. Why?

Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter of Outliers: The Story of Success to the Beatles, Bill Gates, and your seventh grade violin teacher. The Beatles played over 1,200 sets before anyone Saw Her Standing There. Gates got access to a computer at age 13, then spent most of the next six years doing little else but programming on it. Common denominator: they put in ten thousand hours of work, each of them, before someone recognized their genius.

And your music teacher?

I don’t know about your personal seventh grade music teacher, of course, but such people as a group tend to exemplify the difference between someone who may have had talent, a great deal of talent, but did not put in ten thousand hours and, regrettably, did not go on to perform in Carnegie Hall.

The truth is that composing prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a creative and proactive process. Facebook, email, and similar intrusions on your word processing life tend to be reactive replies to the postings of others and quick postings of your own news – musings to which you expect others to react. The attention given to such writing tends to be in much shorter spans than the attention given to a dedicated effort to compose a news report, a work of history, a short story, or even a chapter.

Instead of such diversions counting toward the time you practice your craft, they just take up your time.

Will it take you ten thousand hours to become the genius that you can be? There’s only one way to find out. Start with a thousand words. Revise them tomorrow, and then write another thousand. That’s what writers do.

Tell me what you think: Do you have other ideas or methods on how to start the next bestselling novel? Please share!

Want to guest post? I love and welcome guest posters to the blog – just read the rules, send me a complete post or a well-fleshed-out pitch (to shanan@theprocrstiwriter.com) and I’ll get back to you!Read the complete rules here: Want to Guest Post?