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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The First Novel (Part 1)~Lessons I Have Learned Along the Way

(Post originally published June 4, 2011)

We accept writers love to write, others assert it's a compulsion, even when the dreaded curse of “Writer's Block” threatens to charge out of the murky recesses of the mind at times and seize control, until held at bay once more by the Knight of Inspiration with his sword—the mighty pen.

But changing genres? That is a daunting step to take. Until now, I have written non-fiction books and have felt quite comfortable in this familiar sphere, that is, until I completed Volume 2 on “Faust”, which literally wore me out. So much data to process! A break was needed to cool the over-heated mind and a novel was the perfect solution.  Here it is:


(Batalha Publishers, May 2011)

At first, writing a novel was easier said than done; the last fictional works I wrote, other than a short story in college, were my English compositions for high school. Was it possible for me to switch back after all this time? Why not? If I dared to analyse other authors, it was high time I wrote my first book. While working on Brushstrokes of a Gadfly I discovered many of the old clichés and quotes by famous authors about writing were true, or half true, and thought I would share them.

* “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” ~ Stephen King

True. There are many doubts, or at least, niggling insecurities that try to hold you back, especially with a first novel. Stephen King no longer has to worry about building a fan base, but for a new novelist, staring at a blank page can be intimidating, even when you have a story just waiting to be put on paper, or the hard drive, whatever the case may be. Can I write an entire book people will find interesting to read? Develop believable characters? Construct a decent plot? Write scenes that have action and movement, even if the book is not a crime novel or a thriller? Set my story in a city I have never visited past the airport during flight changes and rely on research? You can only try, there comes a time you have to stop worrying what people might think, and concentrate on what is important for your story. If you try and please the readers first, or write just what you think will sell, the story will not ring true. Deep down people want something truthful, believable, perhaps just entertaining, or something that makes them observe life in a way they didn't before. They can tell if something is geared for their pocketbook rather than their sensibilities. Even if they don't like your book or agree with everything you have written, at least they may have read something new. Reading is supposed to broaden horizons, not narrow them.

* Your opening paragraph or scene must be a “Grabber” and hook your readers at the very beginning.

This I would say is half or two-thirds true. Yes, it is important to write a vivid introduction to draw the reader into your story, but it is only an introduction after all. In a few of the old classics, I've read some opening paragraphs or first chapters that seem pretty boring in my view, it's after those sections we really see the tale and characters unfold that in the end made these books classics. Today, some writers are so adamant on hooking the reader with searing barbs that it smacks of desperation. “Read me!” “Read me!” It's like being introduced to someone, and instead of a nice firm handshake, they grab your hand and crunch your knuckles while screaming their name, just to make sure you know who they are. Or, authors put so much information into their opening chapter with a bewildering amount of graphic description they can't continue the momentum and the action slows to a crawl until you reach some pivotal moments of the plot. That nearly turns me off a book! In answer to this, I tried to achieve a balance between introducing several of my key characters at an important event that I could carry through the rest of the novel, yet not do anything so shocking in the first opening paragraphs that I've completely assaulted my readers. I wanted my first novel to blossom into a majestic oak, not shoot up like a weed only to be stepped on.

* The characters tend to write themselves. They become like living, breathing people.

So true, it's scary. How can people you invent in your imagination become so lifelike? Because authors draw their characters from life around them. Perhaps not exact characters, authors also experiment in combining different character traits, but authors use what they observe, and before long, characters do feel like real people that you have known all your life. I used to be sceptical of this old cliché until it felt like all my characters wanted to run away and do their own thing, and I had to lasso them back into place when and where I needed them at times! It became so natural to find myself saying, “No, Steves wouldn't say that, he would do this instead,” when I really wanted him to say something, but it didn't suit him. Or “I know what Aunt Martha's going to say when she finds this out! She'll have Katherine and the family in knots...”, thus the characters helped write the story and fill the blanks, I didn't have too much to say in the matter. One character refused to go in the direction I had originally planned for him, he rebelled entirely. The story completely changed course because of it, I can't give details without ruining the book for you, but if I forced him to go the way I had envisioned, it literally wouldn't have worked, the story would have sounded “artificial” if it wasn't true to the way the character had eventually developed. It went beyond my control, which leads us to another observation ...

* Dorris Lessing said in an interview that none of her books turned out the way she expected them to.

Well, it happened with this novel, but that is a topic for another blog post. To be continued!

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