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Writing Your First Novel: Five Fundamentals for Your Path to the Pulitzer

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WRITING A BOOK
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Autumn is the season when word processors develop twitches in keyboards. Writers emerge from summers abroad, agents hunger for a new voice, publishers finally release the hidden gems that will save their industry. Book reviews burst with new titles and bestseller lists change faster than television cable lineup.

So, where's your book? We're waiting, all of us, readers, publishers, fellow writers who have patiently stood by while you grew up, went to school, married, had kids, and found a job to keep you afloat while the book inside you burbled about until you got around to writing it. So, enough! You know how to type; sit down at your laptop and get on with it. But ... where to start?

Here are my five fundamentals to get you going.

Number One: What is your story? This sounds like an easy one because you have the story in your mind, but -- what is it? Try to write your story in no more than three sentences and you soon will see that what your story involves is a much different thing than what your story is. For example, was the story of Gone with the Wind Scarlett O'Hara chasing Ashley Wilkes or was it Scarlett chasing something else that was long gone, the fairy tale Old South? Was The Lord of the Rings about Frodo finding Mordor so he could throw the ring into the fire or was it about Frodo finding Frodo?

Well, then, what were all those pages about Tara and Rhett Butler and Gollum? Those were story-telling, the waypoints that the authors used to support the stories but were not stories in their own right. What's the fundamental here? It is 'write your story but don't hide it beneath vignettes and your brilliant way with words.' No matter how great it looks on the page, if it doesn't move the story, leave it out.

Number Two: Learn the conventions of fiction writing - voice, conflict, dialogue, point of view, and setting. Practice writing not only in the first person but also in the second person as a narrator and in the omniscient voice, like a fly on the wall that happens to see everything and knows what everyone is thinking. Learn to write clearly by trying when you write settings and descriptions that your story will be read to a blind person who has never seen what you're describing. Give a great deal of thought to when your conflict will explode, how your hero will resolve it, and what happens next (Hint: 'solution' is usually followed by 'disaster.' See Scarlett, above, and think 'Melanie,' and 'Civil War.') And never, ever write in the passive voice. Trust me.

Number Three: Make your readers a part of the story by creating expectations that invest them in the outcome, no matter how impossible it might be. For example, Alexandre Dumas engineered the Count of Monte Cristo's escape from the Chateau d'If with details of the thickness of rock walls, habits of guards, and height above pounding waves so that readers believed the internal truth of the novel, that escape not only was possible but actually happened. By commencing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian with a phone call in which widowed Dad informs grown Daughter that he is about to remarry, to a nice girl from Kiev whom he just met (and who has 'superior breasts'), Martina Lewyka hooked every reader's personal fears for their own parents' loony golden years. Write not only what you know, but what your readers know.

Number Four: Read books written by really good authors. This sounds like a platitude, but isn't. Ideally you would study creative writing at Oxford or Harvard. Failing that, by reading authors you enjoy you will see on careful study that they have a way of writing a sentence that becomes a paragraph, then a chapter, and that there is a cadence in the structure that weaves for you, the reader, something appealing. Prop open one of their books, find a passage you like, then turn on your word processor and try to compose a sentence in the same cadence that your favorite author has done. Try to write a couple of lines of dialogue that evoke the word patterns that appeal to you -- not the words, but the patterns. (Alert: don't plagiarize, just learn). Write a paragraph, then another. Stay with it until your mind thinks, however briefly, in those patterns. By staying with this process and applying it to your story, you'll begin to develop your own unique style.

Number Five: Be serious about your writing. Write every day. Compose a thousand words on your novel, memoir, poem, or short story. Tomorrow, edit those thousand words, revise them, and improve them. Recast the fuzzy sentences into the active voice. Make the subjects and verbs agree in number and tense and eliminate the pronouns that might refer to more than one person, place, or thing so that a reader is able to understand what you intended to say. Repeat. Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter of Outliers: The Story of Success to the Beatles, Bill Gates, and your seventh grade violin teacher. The Beatles, Gates and just about every other successful genius put in ten thousand hours of work, seriously, before anyone recognized their talents. Your music teacher? I don't know about your personal seventh grade music teacher, of course, but such people as a group tend to exemplify the difference between someone who may have had talent, a great deal of talent, but didn't put in ten thousand hours and, regrettably, didn't make it to Carnegie Hall. Punch Line: put in the time. And, just so you know, Facebook, e-mails, Twitter, and the like do not count toward your daily thousand words. All this sounds like work, and it is, but you can do it. Now, get started. We're waiting for your book.

Jack Woodville London is the author of A Novel Approach: (To Writing Your First Book, or Your Best One), Vire Press, 2014.