Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Novel, Guerrilla Style Part 1: the introduction

I was in a bar in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I was mindlessly drinking gin martinis when I met the white, hockey player, teacher from the south. He was, at that time anyway, a local. I was the tourist from Denver squatting in a summertime cabin. It was not the tourist season yet, so the rent was really cheap. I'd been holed up for three days assembling my graduate school thesis: From Ansbach to Color. I had wandered into this bar because the end of a very long work day warranted a bucket or two of gin.
“What do you do?” he asked.
I love this question, I always have.
“I'm a waiter up in Denver,” I told him.
“Why are you here then?” he asked.
“I'm relaxing,” I said. This was true, at least in a way. I was at the bar relaxing.
I've been in the bar for a long time. Many of you know me. You know I spent a great number of years working bars starting with the Green Goose in Ansbach, Germany back in 1991. Many of you know that I'm no stranger to drinking in bars either. I feel like I know bar etiquette. I understand the importance of the bar mate. The instant friendship that can happen over such questions as “what do you do?” or “what do you drink?”
I decided this guy was all right. We were strangers, who would know when I'd be back in this particular bar? That was a warm day in April of 2008, and I still haven't been back. He and I would always be strangers.
“I'm spending a few days putting together my graduate thesis,” I said. Honesty felt okay to me. “That's why I'm here.”
“Wow,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What do you study?”
“Like journalism?”
“Fiction,” I said. “I write novels.” At this statement I expected him to nod, glass over and be done with it. Many conversations about the writing of novels leads to end of a discussion or a discussion of reading. In recent years, the discussion of reading has been strange stories mixed with vampire children or memoir people bring up. Not having read these books, I smile and nod.
“Novels?” he asked.
“I got this idea. I wish I could write it down. You can have it.”
“I wouldn't do that,” I said. And all of you reading, you wouldn't do it either, would you?
“Okay. It's the modern day. The south won the civil war and so their lifestyle stayed the same. They still have plantations and slaves. So, they get involved in the winter Olympics. Their hockey team really sucks, you know? Do you follow hockey?” he asked.
I shook my head. I don't care about hockey, and I was appalled that the south would still have slaves in the modern day. “I don't know a thing about hockey,” I said.
“Well, this team is really bad. So, they get a player from the north, and he'd black.”
Whoa? What did he just say? A black player from the north? Now, we're getting somewhere. Here we have some great conflict, and any number of interesting stories. The old boy, my bar mate, was getting somewhere. “Cool,” I said.
“Yeah, well.”
“What happens?” I asked.
“I don't know.”
“What? This premise is so great. What do they do to the black player?” I asked.
“Well, I guess they learn from him, and they win games, and they see him as an equal and they think maybe slavery is wrong.”
“What a fucking great idea,” I said.
“Well, you can have it,” he said. “I'll love to read it, but I can't write it.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, you can.”

Anyone can.

I believe that too. Writing a novel is easy. All anyone had to do is write it down. Writing a well written novel may be a little harder to do. Writing a publishable novel may be a little tougher still. But to write one is very easy. It takes only two things: an idea and a committed schedule of writing it.
There are several ways I've heard of to draft a novel The two extremes I know are: 1) write one page a day and in a year you'll have a novel. This method is the slow and steady wins the race approach. And 2) the National Novel Writing Month in November. November has 30 days and they suggest a writer write 50,000 words in that time. This is the hare approach, fast and furious. Both could work for anyone. Obviously, a page a day breaks down the enormous project into a management piece. It breaks the fear of the task too. And the 50,000 words in 30 days can be intimidating. It is more intensity over a shorter duration.
Now, before I go any further, of all the how-to novel writing programs out there, you may ask, which one works? I feel like a novel how-to guide is a bit like the diet manuals available. None work. They all work. Only an individual can decide what works and what doesn't. I will tell you what works for me and we'll outline a guide together.

Welcome to The Novel Guerrilla Style.

My first few experiences writing long fiction were in fits and bouts. I'd written cheaper versions of novels in my youth, long pages of endless nonsense. We all must start somewhere. I would write from beginning to end without a break. I chose vacations spots in places were I could write a novel. Looking back on those pieces, they were hardly novels at all.
Then there was graduate school. Grad school worked for me. It may work for you too. It is an investment of time and a tremendous expense. But it's regimentation, and some of us need that. It took me two years and two days to write my thesis which was a manuscript of a novel. Two years and two days. I also had three professors telling me what to do. Their guidance was wonderful. It was a project from idea to completion. Fortunately, I'm going to subject anyone to that in this series: idea through completion. Let's take is slow and develop a process, a personal process. As we work, we'll come to some elements of style and as we wind down, we'll come to format suggestions.
Now, a few givens: let's consider a novel as 50,000 words which is about 250 pages. To begin the process with this mindset will make it easier to handle. Second, during our process we will not self-edit, self-stifle, or self-criticize, this leads to bad things like leaving a story untold and not complete. Last, we're going to strike a middle ground with our time line. I can say this: two years and two days on From Ansbach to Color was too long. A page a day is too long. I also think the 30 day sprint may be too short a duration. I can develop an idea write a novel in about twelve weeks, that equals a first, second and third draft. We're going to slow that down even more and do our project in 15 weeks. It may seem like a daunting task, but the sense of accomplishment at the end of it will be the biggest pay off of all.
As our stories begin, we'll shape them with elements of good fiction construction. We'll shape our stories as we go. Between now and next week, try to sit down everyday and sketch ideas. These can be vignettes (or little stories) involving your characters. You can try outlines, they never work for me, but they might work for you. You can develop your characters using a dossier system. And if you have a story in mind like our hockey player bar mate, write down all the things you know. This is the pre-writing phase. In this phase, we decide a number of things. We discover a few things, we'll figure out a character or get a whole group of them. If you need something to get started: consider an anecdote, find inspiration in other pieces, novels or short stories. Think about a single conflict and develop it. In short, start thinking. Start writing. Start setting time aside for this project.
Good luck and happy writing.

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