By Alan Ables
A guide to writing successful novels
I was asked to opine on the process of developing and writing a novel. I can assure you that I speak from a virtual storehouse of ignorance of that and many, many other subjects. But, this will only limit my presentation, not stop it. The exception is, of course, my own writing. If we all can accept that, I’ll plow on, begging your pardon.
My Writing Process: How I overcame the 'blank screen' and at least entertained myself for a while.
"ENTRUSTPR defines itself by its agility and relevancy to client requirements and its responsiveness to public & stakeholder demands."
© 2014 ENTRUSTPR (Public Relations / Public Affairs) // All rights reserved on text, photos and graphics displayed on this webpage unless otherwise noted. // Webpage developed & maintained by ENTRUSTPR.
First, I believe that anyone who sets about to write, whether a text message or a novel, does so through their experience.
In my case the process augurs back to my days as a journalist. I owe much to those who taught me the mechanical process of news gathering. More specifically, I’m guided by years of writing television and radio news and, later, speeches. It was a wonderful way to learn and practice the discipline of distilling much into much less, while trying not to lose (or worse, shade) the essential ideas and message. It is a continuing education for me, although I’m beginning to fear it’s something of a vanishing virtue among later day journalists. Thomas Jefferson was a proponent. He’s credited with apologizing in a letter that the communication would have been much shorter had he the time to edit it down. Succinct is hard, and it takes more time than knocking out stream-of-conscience thoughts on a full-size keyboard or one of those tiny IPhone versions. I must admit that there’s a part of me that appreciated the Twitter limit of 140 characters per “tweet” (now removed, I’m told).
During my years as a speech writer I would begin by researching the data my client wanted to present. That’s essential, especially if you want to get paid. But, after the technical side of research was underway, I did something extra, something I like to think added real value to the enterprise. I asked them just how they wanted the audience to feel when they stopped talking, when the room (we hoped) would be filled with thunderous applause. Through the years I saw that the question liberated the speakers and lifted them beyond their well-known arguments and to a place where they - as leaders - could soar. Time after time, I literally saw their eyes light up, even their posture changed with the challenge. In my judgment, this was the exact moment that the real creative, effective process of the speech began. As my writing interviews and draft reviews proceeded, we would use stories, data (always tons of boring data) humor, arguments that complemented each other and subtly - I hoped - would create even a brief bond between the speaker and the audience. I suppose that’s what really effective speakers do. It is precisely what I try to do as a novelist, with my readers.
It’s probably impossible to know the origin of the old saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” For the writer, I believe, the words are solid gold. Outlining is essential. I cannot imagine the author who starts writing and builds as he goes. It may work for some. My hat’s off to them; I reckon they must be pretty smart. In my case, I took the “end feeling” from my speech clients and applied it to organizing my novels. Otherwise I’m pretty sure I would have never finished.
I began my first book on kind of a personal challenge. Could I do it? Would telling a story - with all its twists and turns, challenges and rewards, told through the actions of believable characters - involve the processes I’d used before?
Sketching the characters, connecting the events I’d seen with those I knew through research and laying out the plot of Tale of the Tape: Two Unlikely Heroes Take Down the Dixie Mafia, all began with a single thought, “they were no longer afraid to embrace life and live it.” I wrote it on a single sheet of paper and taped it to the wall above my desk. That concluding idea shaped the novel - and everything in it - from beginning to end.
Next, I followed another shop-worn cliché, but one I believe has survived because it’s true:
“Write about what you know about.”
For me, that meant recalling a couple of historical events with which I was very familiar: the strange case of a Soviet merchant seaman jumping ship in New Orleans, the still-unsolved, under-investigated murders of two teenagers near a remote airstrip in Arkansas allegedly used by international drug traffickers and the real dramas of a Navy band performing during a circumnavigation of South America.
To tie them together I next needed characters, and I created them. Just as in speech writing, I needed a constant device - in this case the development of these characters’ emotionally and in interaction with each other over the entire span of the story. At this point my characters could come and go, but I soon settled on about half a dozen through whom the story could be told. Next to that single “end feeling” sheet on the wall I soon added complete descriptions of them, their appearance, education, professional and familial relationships, ethical beliefs and - tantalizingly - their flaws as well as their moral strengths.
I now felt like I was ready to really begin. My outline grew one sentence, one idea, at a time. As it progressed I kept asking myself, “What if?” For example, what if a Navy band leader discovered he was being used as a pawn by an international drug cartel? How would he react when he found out they were trying to kill him? How would a woman, a Coast Guard officer, respond after this man she once admired betrayed her, then reentered her life years later and was in dire need of her help? I built in other conflicts with all my other characters. Creating some rotten villains was also essential; their shady personalities added over-arching plot twists and catalysts for developing personalities.
My outline grew from one sentence into a page, then ten, finally - more than a year later - into more than fifty.
I took time with the first novel because I needed to. Things changed, but by the time I began “flesh on bones” writing - descriptions of persons, places and events - I knew exactly what was going to happen in my story, from beginning to end. With such an outline in hand, writing what I hope is an entertaining and compelling story was pure fun. Actually, it was too much fun. The first draft was probably more than 130,000 words, maybe more. My target, based on publishers’ needs, was around 110,000 to 120,000.
I don’t know if Jefferson also said that “Good writing is good re-writing,” but I know that it’s true. I spent another four months doing just that. Any sentence can be improved, at least that’s always been true in my case.
Again, I took my time. The process of condensing and trimming speech text and - most importantly, I believe - re-shaping sentences to sound like the spoken word to the reader, occupied my efforts for nearly four months. I went over every page, over and over, reading them aloud to myself.
When I was satisfied with the way my book “sounded”, I knew the now 116,000-word manuscript was ready for release.
I am humbled with the acceptance of Tale of the Tape. My second novel, Code Day Zero: USS Constitution’s Escape from Armageddon, was conceived and written using the same process.
In all this, my purpose is simply to tell a good story.
It’s all out of my hands now: to the extent that my readers are entertained, or educated, or challenged, I will have succeeded.
Posted: December 16, 2015