When writing a novel based on your experiences at a particular age, you must view that time dramatically, and with size. There is no need to develop bizarre plots that happen in exotic locations. Nor do you have to reveal the absolute truth about yourself, as it actually happened. You need only write of it so the reader is convinced that it is true.
If you have an elaborate academic background, don’t let the theories of writing bully you. If you have a scant academic past, don’t crush yourself with accusations of ignorance. Writing a novel does not depend upon scholarship, but on how intensely and theatrically you reveal experience.
The story-model I suggest is Red Riding Hood. Her mother asks her to bring a basket of food to her ailing grandmother. She is warned that it is getting dark and there is a swamp and a forest to cross. There is also a vile wolf lurking about. She confronts all hazards with personal resources she did not realize she possessed. Yet, at the end, just when she is about to be ravished, she is rescued.
You are not writing an autobiographical novel. You have selected a particular interval in your life to write about. Only some of that content will be true. Some of it will be fictional. You will portray some people you have known, properly disguising them. Others you will create. You are writing a novel, not a court room case-history. Here are some writing terms.
Red Riding Hood’s motivation is to get food to her grandmother. The plot-line is what happens on the way. The conflict comes from the dangers she must face. The character changes happen as she overcomes the dangers. She is the major character. The others are secondary characters.
You are the major character in your novel. Objectively estimate the facets of your own character that are complex–which contained some contradictions: Good /evil. Sensitive /crude. Intelligent /foolish. Ambitious /slugardly. Hateful /loving. Serious /frivolous. Simplistic characters are uninteresting. Complex characters are always getting into trouble.
Describe yourself as you are. If that is not suitable for the character you need, make changes. If you are plain, become lovely. Fictionalize off about 30 pounds, or fatten up. If you are sloppy, neaten yourself. Not enough members in your family? Create a few more. You are the creator.
The structure of the Red Riding Hood-type novel should be done in episodes. Keep them short. If you’re writing in the first person, as though you were telling it to someone, then you use one viewpoint. All situations, problems, conflicts, action and knowledge of other characters are revealed by the first person. Here’s Red Riding Hood telling her story:
“I was 13 years old and my mother told me, ‘Daughter, I want you to deliver this basket of food to your grandma. She’s feeling poorly. Hurry,’cause it’s getting late. You have to cross a swamp and the forest. Also, daughter, be careful of the Wolf.’ I left the house, singing.”
If you are writing in the third person, the detached, the writer is telling the story. You can write through many viewpoints. Here is third person:
“On Red Riding Hood’s 13th birthday, her mother asked her to run an errand. ‘Daughter, I want you to deliver this basket of food to your grandma.’ Red Riding Hood frowned.’I’m sorry grandma is sick.’ She was a tall girl with strikingly blonde hair and crossed blue eyes. She hated her grandmother. She was always picking her teeth and coughing. ‘Daughter, you must be careful.’ Her mother thought the girl was a little slow.”
Story is what the novel is all about. Plot is how the story unfolds and happens. On the way to her grandmother’s house, you fix Red Riding Hood into many situations, episodes. Every difficulty she overcomes leads her into other difficulties. Every new situation is a new challenge.
Transpose the Red Riding Hood story into the one you desire to write. Example: you are an apprentice electrician living with your father who is a drunk. He keeps stealing your money to buy booze. One morning you get into a fight with your foreman and are fired. You pack a bag to go to Phoenix, leaving your father with his bottle. The adventure has begun.
The key that opens the release of writing is the passion of unrestraint. Do not be inhibited by social proprieties. Socrates called writers “plausible liars.” Do not report what you were like, long ago. You were too inside yourself to really notice others. Fictionalize yourself. This frees you from your past. It gives you control over your history. You can also make other people interesting and dramatic. Allow your real experiences to lead you into inventing other experiences and link them together.
Do not become upset about the poor quality of your prose. You do not know enough about writing, now, to judge your own prose. You will write better prose as you keep writing. Your goal is to get a novel written. Now. If you have the endurance to complete the novel, you will have the stamina to do the rewriting, the editing, and polishing of prose. You begin with ignorance and hope, and end with experience and achievement. You learn to write your first novel by the writing of your first novel.
©Leonard Bisho, 2013
(first published November 10, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)
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