How I Write Novels

One Way to Write a Novel by Ernest Hebert

Non-starters It's tempting to start a novel with a big or beautiful or disturbing idea; that strategy has never worked for me, nor, I believe, for most writers. Ideas, symbols, themes--any abstract notion--ought to emerge from the novel, not precede it. If you have an idea that stimulates you to do more with it, write an essay.
Probably the worse way to start a novel is with a plot outline. That method will likely lead to characters without depth and action without insight. Eventually you will be lost in the woods.

So, then, how to start a novel?

Step 1. Start a novel the way you would start a poem, with a image or a feeling from a memory that has lingered over time.

Stay away from major traumas, which tend to trigger defense mechanisms that prevent or divert us from crushing truths or terrible hurts. Stick with the small stuff, those little dramas in our heads that constantly nettle us. Something somebody said that hurt your feelings when you were ten years old, an image observed from a moving car, an inconclusive experience. In a word, the uncanny. Such memories constitute unfinished business in the mind. You are writing this poem or this story or this novel to learn more, to clarify, to lay to rest. Your curiosity will help not only to drive the fiction but to keep you, the writer, interested about what happens next.

The hardest part of writing a novel is the plot and the most important part is the voice, that stew of tone, feeling, and style that gives the author the courage to go on day after day and future readers the sense that they are in the presence of something grand. In the early stages of writing the novel--the first year or so--forget the plot, forget the voice. In my method, you unfurl the characters before you unfurl the story. The main difference between writing the poem and long fiction is that in the novel you embody the uncanny memory in the figure of a character, almost always the protagonist.

Step 2: Write twenty-four hours in the life of the protagonist with no thought to story, plot, or voice.

You start the action with that uncanny memory that you are embodying with a character, or you can start in the morning and lead up to the event of the memory. This is not an ordinary day. This is a day in which everything goes wrong. Sometimes you never actually get to that uncanny memory; sometimes the story develops in an entirely new direction. One hint from your muse that you are doing good work is when the surprises are better than the original notions.
Write in scenic narration, that is with action and dialogue, something happening all the time that is loaded with potential and/or impending doom of one kind or another, whether it's a gun shot in the night or an urge in crowded elevator to fart out loud. If it would take actors, say ten minutes, to act out your scene and the reader the same amount time to read the scene, you are writing scenic narration. When you are writing about events in essay style, you are writing summary narration. Keep summary narration to a minimum, using that technique mainly for transitions from one scene to another.

Try to write every scene as well as you can, as if it will be the only one in the book. What will happen is that you will discover the world of your protagonist: strengths, weaknesses, loved ones, the small and intimate details that give the world of the fiction meaning for the author and pleasure for the reader. As you write, you will get plot ideas. Jot them down in a separate computer file or on a notepad in pencil or just let them linger in your head. Let the story takes its shape from the writing, and not from your preconceived notions.

So how does one find a voice in this method? The answer is by experimenting. Write scenes in first person major character, write in first person minor character. Write in third person. Write from the perspective of the antagonist, or a future historian, or the family cat. As you switch points of view, experiment with style. Parody other writers. Write long, elegant Proustian sentences; write short sentences in clusters. Screw around, have fun. If the writing isn't going well, and the writing is not fun, quit that style and point of view. Start over in a different point of view, different style. Eventually, you will forget that you are experimenting and you will be just writing easily and with joy. Now you have the point of view that the novel wants to be written in, now you have the voice. It sneaks up on you. Once you have the voice you can forget about it. It will be there for you.

These twenty-fours you are writing, this day in the life, this inquiry into the psyche of your protagonist, ought to go on for some time, a hundred double-spaced pages anyway, two or three hundred even better. Eventually, you won't be able to stand it; you'll want to start the damn book. It's time for step three.

Step 3. Plot the novel in outline form.

Now that you have all these notes, now that you know the back story of the protagonist, now that you know the fictional world, now that you know--or think you know--the story, plotting should come easily and won't take much time. I like to plot a book in the car as I drive. I plotted my first novel, THE DOGS OF MARCH (1979, Viking Press) by driving all day and talking into a tape recorder. At the end of the day I transcribed my notes on the typewriter in a campground. Started in Keene, New Hampshire, four days later in New Mexico, had my book plotted, turned around and came home. I plotted my most recent work, HOWARD ELMAN'S FAREWELL, driving back and forth between my house in Westmoreland, NH, and my job at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.

I must repeat myself now: Even if you believe the story should be told in some tricky or unusual format, the plot outline for the first draft should be chronological.

Step 4. Write chapter 1.

(By way, I think in the early drafts you should name the chapters. For one thing it will help you keep track of the events in the story; for another, if you can't think of a name for a chapter, that's a clue that probably it isn't about anything and you should re-think it.) There are three things to remember when writing the first draft: NARRATIVE, NARRATIVE, NARRATIVE. Tell the story from beginning to end as it unfolds. No flashbacks. No cutting, no jumping around in time. Better that scenes run too long, than too short. You are not Michelangelo sculpting David in stone, you are God building a coral reef, one calcium deposit after another. Novel writing is a process of accretion. You will no doubt cut much of the early writing, but not now. Eventually you will build stories and events that do not appear in the novel. You should always know more about the fictional world than your readers. You want them to sense your author[ity].

Step 5. The theme for the second draft is INTERIOR.

There are two dramas in life. There’s the drama on the outside that we are all familiar with. We struggle to earn a living, get along with loved ones, serve entities such as church, corporation, and state, deal with strangers, make our way in the world, satisfy our corporeal desires, try not screw up. This is a public drama of human life that is celebrated in film, concerts, and print media.

There’s another more secretive and sometimes more intense world, and that is the world of the interior self, the world that the novelist does best. Sometimes we pretend to know what’s going in someone else’s mind, but nobody really knows anyone else. I will go so far as to say that we cannot even entirely know ourselves. By the time we gain an insight to our self it’s because we have actually shaped a new self who has observed and noted the old self. But this new self remains unknown. You can’t observe yourself at the same time that you are being you: this is a corollary to Heinsberg’s Uncertainty Principle. We never quite catch up to ourselves. A nagging loneliness accompanied by the shadow of the uncanny haunts us all. It’s this continuing, elusive drama--the story with no end in sight--the story inside the mind, that is your domain as a fiction writer; nobody does interior better than the fiction writer, not the poet, not the script writer, not the playwright, not the essayist, not the speechifier.

That world of the secret self, the self hidden from public view, but revealed in fiction writing is sometimes referred to as the “stream of consciousness.” Perhaps “scream of consciousness” would be more appropriate. I prefer the less excitable term “interior monologue,” probably because I am always talking to myself.

You should seek a balance between the thoughts and motivations of the protagonist as revealed in the interior monologue with the actions he or she performs in the world of things and time. That's the ideal, but actually revelations of the interior life of the protagonist can vary widely. Maybe most of the story takes place in the head of the main character or even a minor character who is relating the story, in which case the interior world is the story. Maybe the protagonist is not particularly meditative and there is very little interior monologue. How to balance interior with exterior is a judgement call by the writer. No cutting in this draft.

Step 6. The theme for the third draft is PLOT, PLOT, PLOT

Now is the time is take that long early scene that slows down the narration and bring it in as a flashback later in the book. This draft can be a massively huge job of completely changing the chronological plot that can take many months, yea years, or it could be just a couple weeks of touch-up. The point I want to get across is that you won't really know how the narrative--or anti-narrative--should flow until you have written two or three drafts.

Okay now you can make some cuts. Not too many now. It's probably better to keep the scenes on the long side and wait until the last draft to make cuts.

Step 7. The theme for the fourth draft is LANGUAGE.

For me this is the most fun part of writing a novel. By now you have the story down in the way it wants to be told. You know the characters. You love them. Yes, you must love them. Even the idiots and evil ones. There is no need to make major changes. There is no angst. You're the thirsty traveler who can see the oasis in the desert. (Let's hope it's not a mirage.) While the work is joyful, it is exacting. You should question every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Read the prose out loud, or have the computer read it to you. You should hear when something is not quite right.

If you discover a paragraph or section that does not meet your own personal standards and you cannot improve it that's your muse telling you that something else is wrong. Something is false or too easy. When you can't make the writing better by tinkering, it's best to chuck that paragraph or scene or even chapter out the window, and start over.

Okay, time for final cuts.

Step 8. Show the novel to trusted readers. Never show a work until it is as good as you can make it.

That's it. You're done. For the time being anyway. You'll almost certainly make changes after comments from your trusted readers and after some time has gone by. Take a day or two to celebrate your achievement. Even if the book is never published you have the satisfaction of knowing that you did it. There's no greater intellectual adventure than writing a novel that rises to your level of talent and skill.