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Jeffrey Small

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Tough Lessons From a Debut Novelist

Posted: 09/14/11 03:22 PM ET

After six years of writing, receiving rejections, rewriting, receiving more rejections, getting an agent, even more rejections, losing my agent, and rewriting again, my first novel, The Breath of God, finally hit bookstore shelves a few months ago. The Breath of God follows grad student Grant Matthews on a journey through the Himalayas as he pursues an ancient legend that promises to tie the world's religions together. Facing a murder at the Taj Mahal, a kidnapping in a sacred city, and a desperate chase through a cliffside monastery, Grant confronts a conspiracy of zealots who will stop at nothing to suppress the truth. A truth that his university colleagues believe is mere myth. A truth that will change his life forever -- if he survives.

Publishing The Breath of God has been the most difficult project I've ever tackled. For all of you aspiring novelists, I thought that I would share some of the lessons that I wish I'd better understood when I embarked on this journey of heartache, of three hundred pages of discarded prose, and of elation at seeing my book in print. Because I made so many wrong turns along the way, I've split my lessons into two parts. The second will appear a week from now.

1. Prior success and credentials won't get you published. (Unless you are a celebrity.)
Every time I walk into a bookstore and I see a novel written by a celebrity or some newly-minted reality star (no doubt with the help of a ghostwriter), I cringe. Yes, I'm jealous and resentful. But the truth is the book publishing business is a terrible business. Most novels lose money for their publishers. A celebrity author provides a marketing hook that brings with it media attention and a preexisting fan base. Success in other walks of life, no matter how impressive such achievements may sound, however, will not guarantee that your novel will be published. I learned this first-hand. My résumé is full of impressive sounding names: Harvard, Yale, Oxford, CEO, and Trustee. Writing a novel and then getting published with my credentials would be a breeze, right? Wrong. While an interesting or impressive bio might get your pitch letter noticed, it won't get you an agent or a publisher. Only your writing will do that. The early drafts of my novel were simply not good enough. I quickly learned that I would have to check my ego and work harder than I ever had before.

2. If you build it, they will come doesn't apply to fiction writing.
In the thirty-eight years of my life prior to the day I started my novel, I had written a lot. Academic papers, legal briefs, business plans. I had been rewarded for my writing in the form of good grades and healthy pay. Although none of my writing experience was in fiction, I figured that writing was writing. I could compose a sentence. I had some cool ideas. And I loved to read. Writing a novel would be fun, and then agents and publishers would be knocking on my door praising my talent. Wrong again. Now I understand that what I was trying to do was the equivalent of deciding one day that I wanted to record a hit pop song. I've enjoyed listening to pop music my whole life. I sing in the car and the shower. The problem is I can't play an instrument or sing on key. Why would I think that I could record a song, or write a novel, without learning the technique that goes into it? In the years I spent rewriting The Breath of God -- throwing away hundreds of pages and reinventing my main characters -- I had to learn an entirely new craft, that of fiction writing. I read many books on fiction writing, I took an online course, and I worked with two great editors. It's not enough to write a novel. You must write a good one.

3. But first, you must build it.
The corollary to Lesson #2 is the cliché that the only way to guarantee not getting published is not writing the book. Why do we avoid clichés in our writing? Because they're common. I can't count the number of people who upon hearing that I've written a novel have expressed their secret desire to do the same. When I ask them why they don't start, the excuses start flowing. For years whenever I was bored or uninspired at work, I would jot down story ideas I kept in a folder for books that I wanted to write one day. Then one day, I came to the realization that one day would always be in the future. I could go on forever dreaming of being a writer and brainstorming ideas, but I would never actually write a book if all I did was plan to do it. I started writing that day.

4. Write one page at a time.
The thought of writing 400 pages of a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that has all sorts of twists and turns is intimidating to point of being paralyzing. Novels, however, are not written in one fell swoop. Each day, I had to sit down and begin by starting with a single page, just as twelve step programs encourage their members to take one day at a time. Rather than focus on the end product, or even the challenges that might face me in the next chapter, I set a modest goal for myself: 1000 words a day, about four or five days a week. But I always starting with that first single page. Day by day, the pages began to add up.

5. Turn off your self-critic.
Okay, you've completed your research; you've taken notes on your characters; and you've outlined your plot; now it's time to start writing that initial draft. For me, the most difficult part each day was beginning. Getting those first words out was torture. My favorite method of procrastination was to read over my previous day's work. Doing so would then lead to the temptation to edit my writing. I could rationalize that by editing I was still working. Although a number of successful authors edit as they go along, I discovered that it was too easy to get lost in trying to perfect my earlier prose, a endless process, and thus risk never finishing the book. Once I gave myself permission to write badly, to accept that my first draft would suck, then it became easier to start writing something. I had plenty of time when the first draft was finished to fix it.

6. A frustrated protagonist is a happy reader.
When I began The Breath of God, I understood the basic requirement in fiction that conflict is good: bad things must happen to your protagonist. I had lots of conflict: unusual murders, chases in exotic and dangerous settings, unhinged characters. My problem was that I tended to resolve these conflicts too early and too easily. Because my characters lived in the imaginary world inside my head, the conflict they experienced made me uncomfortable, and I wanted to relieve them of this discomfort. Tension and frustration, however, keeps readers turning pages. As I rewrote, I began making the conflicts more difficult to resolve. I also employed the common technique of introducing a new conflict as soon as an earlier one was conquered. And, yes, I ended each chapter with an open conflict or question.

7. The antagonist must oppose the central aim of the protagonist.
I'm not quite sure how I screwed up this simple bit of structure in my first draft. I had lots of conflict, my protagonist was often frustrated, and I had an antagonist who was colorful and frightening. But as I dove into the story, I realized that the antagonist was often pitted against secondary characters or the situation in general, rather than specifically out to thwart the objective of my protagonist. As I looked even deeper, I had to admit that for the first half of the book my protagonist did not even have a clear central aim. These realizations caused me to completely rewrite both my protagonist and antagonist characters.

8. The purpose of fiction is to entertain not to educate.
If you want to educate, write nonfiction. This lesson was the most difficult for me to handle. An early editor who read my novel told me that I had written two books in one: a suspense novel and a non-fiction book on comparative religion. I'd always loved the thriller/suspense genre, but I wanted to write one that made people think. I grew up a Tom Clancy fan. I loved how he interwove the technical details of military strategy, espionage, and cool hardware into his thrillers. I wanted to do the same with the topic of religion. The danger with such an approach is that the non-fiction elements can take precedence over the fictional ones. The book can become preachy or, worse, boring. People read fiction to be entertained. It took me many drafts to strike the right balance: a balance that puts primacy on story and character. The educational aspects of the book had to be woven into the story and integral to the plot and the journey my characters take.

To hear more of my struggle from idea to publication of The Breath of God, come back next week for Part 2: More Lessons from a Debut Novelist.

 
 
 

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