Recently I have noticed that there has been a tsunami of ‘How to’ writing guides published, and that these are selling extremely well. In fact it is probably more profitable, and perhaps easier, to write a book about writing a novel than it is to write a successful novel.
In fact that must be so – because so many people are buying them. If writing a novel was easy they wouldn’t be turning to these books for help.
The titles are designed to make it sound easy: Fix your Plot in Five Seconds Flat! Be a Billionaire Bestseller in 30 Days! Secrets of Fail-safe Story Structures!
But the reality is that good novels are complex, intricate, difficult things, and just like life, a formula is not necessarily what creates a great novel, particularly for historical novelists who have to juggle the reality of real historical events alongside any story structure. It is a slightly more thorny task to suddenly ‘create’ a worthy antagonist if the real history does not provide one. We cannot turn real characters into easily categorized roles in our novels, so have to work hard to fit our stories easily into conventional models, turning instead to internal motivations to create opposing forces.
It is not true, however, to say that good story structure has to be thrown out of the window, and that none of these books on writing have anything to offer. On the contrary, I’m a big fan of books on writing. But reading the book is often not the same as editing something with multiple timelines, events that must take place on certain days, or characters who are known to be a certain way because of genuine evidence. Such a journey is more like negotiating a maze of corridors with light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, but not necessarily where you thought the exit was.
I would argue that good novels are complex, that they weave a number of interlocking themes, ideas and plots. When working on a novel the urge to get it finished by an easy solution can be overwhelming, but rather than looking for a ‘quick fix’ it is often better to sit with the complexities, let them simmer and brew, making your novel that much richer and subtler in the process. Anyone will find it easy to apply story structure to a novel after it is finished – to point out the mid-point, the hook etc etc. But the simple structures may have been a lot less easy to spot whilst the novel was in progress, and too often in desperation to see our novels finished, we want to fix them too early, before they have had a chance to breathe.
In order to sell books, it is argued, we must be more productive, to build our readership more quickly. This can induce a panic (and a vague sense of being bullied) to produce more and more books, but does not necessarily mean that the books are better. A readership is not built on bad books. I would argue that like wine, a good novel needs to be matured. A book like Shantaram or The Far Pavilions both at nearly 1000 pages long, (yes, 1000 pages!) surely cannot be produced quickly. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, a historical novel about the time of the building of cathedrals in England, took about 10 years to write, but has stayed popular with readers ever since.
For those of you who still would like a quick fix (I can’t convince you, can I?) then I heartily recommend ‘How not to write a novel’ by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark, which not only avoids telling you what to do, but shows you what NOT to do through a series of hilarious but cleverly-constructed ‘bad writing’ examples. When you are feeling like you need a quick fix, pick this up instead and sift through your novel for similar cringeworthy examples. Total gold.