Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing the Novel by Marilyn Celeste Morris

A daunting task. Some people get discouraged just thinking of the time involved. I wonder if anyone ever asks an artist how long it takes to paint a landscape? A vase of flowers? Well, you don’t do it all at one sitting. It takes as long as it takes. My first novel, Sabbath’s Gift, took me oh, about twenty years. From concept to publishing. Life intrudes. But you keep working on it.

Okay, you have an idea for a novel. But you ask, “How do I get started?”

You’re faced with whether to outline or fly by the seat of your pants, or Free Fall. I vote for Free Fall. I believe outlines should be outlawed. Choose which one works for you.

The dreaded Page One, Chapter One: Relax. This can and will change a thousand times. Do something different. Write your last chapter first. Really. You'll know where you're headed, and you can even use that chapter as your first chapter and use flashbacks, if you're good with them.

Just throw words on the computer screen. Just get started;you can rearrange it into some form of cohesiveness later. My first novel was done on an old-fashioned typewriter, so my drafts were literally cut and pasted, then retyped. When I got my computer, I was able to put it all onscreen, and it was so much easier. The important thing is, just get it on screen. On a disk. Out of your head.

Describe your characters: Cut out pictures from magazines. If it’s a period setting, get old magazines and cut out the characters, or use the Internet. There are many sites devoted to period pieces. Describe your hero, heroine, villain, and peripheral characters. Give them quirks. (Tugging on an ear lobe; putting hands in pockets; biting her nails.)

Give each character a complete background, from birth to present time, where they went to school, favorite colors, siblings, their hobbies, etc. Even if you don't use them, you'll know them well, and that will sift into your story: For instance, the villain is a volunteer at the animal sanctuary.

Names are important. I heard a well-known writer at a convention once say: “Name your hero something you would call your dog. One syllable. Never, ever name your hero "Hank". It should be something like "Brock". Think of Cruella De Ville or Snidely Whiplash. You get the idea.

Your setting: When? Where? All the senses should be involved: Sights, sounds, smells. Be sure you know what you're talking about! Don't have a person talking on a telephone when it hadn't been invented yet.

Point of View: First person/Third Person/Omniscient? Generally, novelists use use Third Person. He or She. I have read novels where the main character is the first person throughout, and some novelists do it very well. But you have to be very, very good at that.

Tenses: Always use the past tense. Keep the tenses in synch with each other. Don't do: "He said," and "She answers."

Try to write as we speak. We don't say, "Do not," we say, "don't." There are exceptions, of course, if your character is using English as a second language and is unfamiliar with contractions, etc. A huge mistake some people make is giving the villain a stilted form of speech, with no ordinary contractions. “I will kill you” vs. “I’ll kill you.”

Dialogue and dialect can get tricky. Be very careful, especially if you don’t know the area lingo. Take NY vs. the Old South. Dialogue not done well can lead to some real howlers: “How y’all doing?” for instance, is incorrect when addressing only one person. It’s meant to include more than one person.

Please avoid this mistake in dialogue: "Hi, John.” “Hi, George.” “How are you, John?” “Fine, George, how are you?" If there are only two people speaking, the reader can easily figure out who is speaking.

Avoid too many dialogue tags: John said, “It’s over.” Jim said, “Are you sure?” John answered, “Yes, I’m sure.”

Show, don't tell: “His face turned red and he struggled to control himself as he stalked through the room." We don’t tell the reader the man was angry. Same with other emotions: She was confused. It’s better to write: Her brow wrinkled as she heard the words.-Don’t tell the reader she is confused; show it.

Flashbacks: Be very careful that the reader knows they're flashbacks. Use italics, or spaces, or something to break the current action. One of the flaws of "Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” in my opinion, was that I couldn't follow who was doing what, when.

Watch your language! Spelling & grammar. Don’t rely on spell check. It doesn’t differentiate between there, their and they’re, and other grammar dilemmas. Edit carefully, watching for those errors. Good writing is good re-writing. Then let someone else edit your work.

Don't let anyone else see your first, or even second draft. They are usually awful, and make sense to no one but yourself. However, when you finally turn it over to an editor, don't take criticism personally. What they will say is something like: “Chapter One needs to be tightened up a bit.” What you hear is: "Your baby is ugly and shouldn't be allowed outside in the daytime."

Are you ready? Now, do a one page synopsis (in present tense) and send it to a publisher or …Send to an agent. Be very careful if you go this route. If your only goal is to break into a major NY publishing house, go ahead. But there are plenty of great independent publishers out there, and I happened to find a great one, the second time around. Join a Yahoo group dedicated to writing and publishing and find out from other writers who they chose as their publisher.

Wait. And Wait. And wait some more. While you are haunting your email In Box, work on your next project. You do have one, don't you?

At last! You're going to be published! You do the Happy Dance. But wait! There’s more!

Writing is fun. Re-Writing is hell. Especially when someone disagrees with the way you wrote a certain passage. Editors are a sorry lot. After they lower themselves to accept your work, they send it back. They don't like your punctuation, your grammar, your ANYTHING. It's not personal. Do what they suggest, up to pitching the whole thing and starting over.

It's Published! You have your work in your hands. You like the cover. You like the binding. It almost has that "new car smell." You like everything, except it looks different from the manuscript page. Doubts set in. You're positive nobody will read it. And those who do read it wont like it. Your mother calls. Your friends call. They tell you they like it. (They have to.) Those in the business criticize your work.

You begin to wonder: Why did I ever start this? Remember: Criticism isn’t a bullet through the heart. Just think: You've done what other people only dream of doing. Who only talk of doing. Your "someday" has become a reality. You're a writer.

Marilyn Celeste Morris, Author
See http://mcmauthor.wordpress.com/
http://www.freado.com/users/5422/Marilyn-Celeste-Morris -- Free Reads of all my books!


  1. Wow, Marilyn, this is all such great advice! I laughed out loud at "Your baby is ugly and shouldn't be allowed out in the daytime." That's soooooo what we hear, isn't it? :)

    Also loved your advice to "throw words at the page." That's almost always how I start out, too, and eventually they start to make sense. Thanks for this post! :)

  2. I vote for Free Fall as well - good post, good advice.

  3. Twenty years? Oh baby! Excellent ideas, well told. Fly by the seat of your pants, my friend.

  4. Okay, now there are no more excuses for anyone who read this post: they need to JUST DO IT. You gave them the basics.

    "The Sun Singer" was created on an electric typewriter as well in the early 1980s and saw print in 2004 after I used OCR to get it into a computer, and "Garden of Heaven" was underway in the early 1990s and was just released this month. Sometimes it takes a bit of persistence.


  5. Thanks for the great advise! I am struggling with the name of my heroine. Now I think I will name a puppy first, just to see how it works out. LOL

  6. Hi Marilyn,
    Thanks for mentioning putting a flashback either in italics or a new paragraph. I will go back and fix those in my manuscript. (I simply just made a new paragraph on the flashback without leaving an extra space.)

  7. Good post. Flashbacks can be very tricky, but making them obvious by putting them in italics can be avoided.

    Flashbacks or recollections can be woven into a narrative if its set up properly. I use them often in Conquering Venus since the story moves from the 1940s to 1995. I tried to make it a stream of consciousness from one character at a time. Another way is to use a narrative break -- two return spaces or using asterisks or an icon to show a shifting of time or place. I encourage all writers who use flashbacks to try and write coherent easy to read flashbacks, but do it without drawing attention to the shift.

    I disagree about showing a first or second draft to someone else. I always show my first complete draft to a couple of trusted friends/editors. They will see continuity errors you've missed, plot discrepancies, spelling, and a load of other things you'll have missed coming off a long spell of writing.

  8. I love your post, and it's all true. I've done the whole route, my first book is out.

    But now I'm going through it all again with another book. One of my critiquers said my chapter has no sexual tension. Its just two people talking. I thought about it and read it again. Hmm, she's right. So I had a great time writing it in.

    Another tip should be keep an open mind and don't take things too personally.


  9. Janice wrote: Another tip should be keep an open mind and don't take things too personally.

    Oh is that ever the Truth with a capital T. If you can't take a critique how will ever tolerate a review? You must set aside your inner "mom" or "dad" and listen to the critiques. Outsiders who have never seen the ms will be much more objective than you. Take the advice that works, and ditch the rest, but always say thank you.

    I have two beta readers who get my books chapter by chapter. I write better to an audience, and don't think I could write an entire book before letting someone see it. I want a reaction -- I need the "oo-rah!" A short story I could do, but not a book. The first two chapters are usually tweaked several times, or details altered. Sometimes I don't know the characters as well in the first two chapters, or I'm developing a plot and realize I need to add a detail back in chapter one. My advice is to learn the way you work best and stop fighting it. Let yourself work the way you are the most creative.

    Wonderful post. It should be required reading for all new writers. Excellent advice.