I recently found myself reading an article on the web. It purported to reveal the correct way to write a novel.
I am immediately distrustful of anyone who insists that there is only one correct way of doing anything. I believe I have some good empirical evidence to back this up. Before committing to writing fulltime, I navigated a thirty-five-year career in the corporate sector, holding many managerial posts along the way, culminating in the position of vice president. I observed that many of my peers doggedly attempted to micromanage their staff, and insisted that things be accomplished in a specific way. I, instead, would explain to my people in detail the outcomes we needed to achieve, and let them go about it in the way that best suited them, checking in periodically to coordinate and assess progress. My teams were consistently among the highest performing.
I don’t think that writing a novel is any different. The article I was reading insisted that you must make three passes through the manuscript. The first is a rapid spewing out of the narration and dialogue—never, absolutely never stopping to correct or edit anything you’ve belched out onto the page. It’s the second pass where you edit. And the third where you fine-tune.
I could never write that way. Leaving a paragraph, or even a sentence, in such rough form would make it impossible for me to go forward. I need to know what I have before I can build on it.
Other articles I’ve read have demanded that an author take at least six months at the outset, to outline, in minute detail, the novel’s plot from beginning to end. And then write the novel strictly from the outline.
I’m sure there are human beings capable of outlining in this manner. I am not one of them. If I tried, I would undoubtedly fail, but more importantly, I’d be so miserable along the way that I’d surely give up writing altogether.
Clearly, there is no single right way to write a novel. I don’t know why some people continue to insist that there is. But, sadly, there are people who approach everything in life with the assurance that their way is correct and every other one is wrong. That’s a very slippery slope. It is essentially fanaticism. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic here, but fanaticism leads to intolerance, which can in turn lead to dehumanizing others because of their beliefs. That eventually can result in intolerance, discrimination, violence, wars, inquisitions, genocides, and holocausts.
It’s a good idea to steer away from such things.
I’m not saying that insisting that there is only one way to write a novel is equivalent to instigating genocide.
But it is really annoying. And everyone doing so ought to stop.
For the record, in case you’re interested, I start a novel with only a very high-level general sense of the arc of the story. I may not even know how it will end. I certainly don’t know all the stops along the way. Those will be created as I go. I have a few characters well-defined in my head, but many more will undoubtedly materialize as I write. I will come to many junctures where I say, “Oh! A while back she did that, so it would be great now if she does this.” But the only reason I now know that she did that is because I made it up back where she did it.
And I edit a good deal as I go. The time I spend editing is not just useful in itself, but it gives me some time to think about what comes next.
It’s really fun to write this way. And hopefully I wind up with stories other people enjoy reading.
I’m certainly not advocating that anyone else write the way I do. But if you’re looking for an approach to writing, you can try it and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, please try something else.
I wouldn’t want to be accused of being a fanatic.
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