Here’s a useful thought exercise I went through recently on writing.
As a writer, I want to write good novels. This immediately begs the question, what exactly is a good novel?
Most of the time, people interchange the term ‘good book’ with ‘a book I enjoyed’. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, which happens to make answering the question impossible. Take any book and briefly tour the internet for reviews, and you’ll find everything from worship to revilement. It can be sobering, sometimes, to go to the Amazon page of your favorite book, the one that you loved so much finishing it left you feeling empty, the one you thought about for days after, and find that someone else reading the exact same book thought the author ought to be tried for war crimes. (This may lead to fantasies of finding said review and strangling them sane, though I recommend instead eating a cupcake and petting a cat.)
The problem is, this isn’t helpful. We can track the books more people seemed to enjoy (via ratings on Amazon and sales figures) but given that includes everything from Harry Potter to 50 Shades of Grey, it’s not clear what we actually conclude about good books except that, well, they can be about anything.
So going back to the initial question, how does a writer learn to write a better book?
The first problem is with the question itself. It’s so damn broad. Writing a novel isn’t a single skill but rather a big mess of dozens (if not hundreds) of sub-skills. Trying to take them all in account at once is overwhelming.
So if we want to try to write a better novel, we need to narrow the question. First, what type of novel are you trying to write? What genre? What sub-genre? First-person, or third? From one perspective, or many? What tone do you want to achieve? Dark, somber, gritty, pulpy, humorous?
The questions don’t stop there. Take your plot. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a hero’s journey? How about your setting? Is it merely a back-drop or is it a living piece of the story? Then there are your characters. How sharply are their personalities realized? How true is their dialogue?
The questions don’t stop there, but I will. Point is, a novel consists of hundreds of layers. If we want to analytically describe how to write a better novel, we need to start within these layers. Doing that allows us to ask more precise questions.
Take setting. My current novel is an urban fantasy, which means it’s a version of our world where magic is real. In earlier drafts, the setting wasn’t described at all. There was little-to-no world building. That mean that if I wanted the setting to matter, I wasn’t doing a good job. I had a hole, which once filled, would make my novel stronger.
So how do you write a better novel? First you decide what you want your novel to be, then you decide how each layer would have to work to achieve that goal, then you try to execute. During the first draft, you don’t want to be thinking about all these thing simultaneously – you’d drive yourself insane. Instead, I advocate for using this approach when you edit, when you’re ready to polish.
David Farland talks more about this idea here: http://www.davidfarland.com/writing_tips/?a=91, enumerating dozens of these layers that he tries to improve during his editing process.
Now, will this result in a book a million people will like? That depends on whether your over-arching goal was one that would appeal to that many people in the first place. Figuring that out’s a totally different problem. But I believe there are many books which have the potential to reach that wide of an audience, that fail because they don’t execute well on all these sub-layers.
People generally don’t approach writing this analytically, relying on intuition to guide them. The problem is that then success sometimes feels arbitrary since we don’t always understand why we succeeded (or why we failed).
Though I let my intuition guide me during much of the writing process, I try to step back at times and look for concrete things I can improve. It’s a competitive business and I know that if I ever want to be one of the best, I have to find every edge I can. Even if I learn to nail all the layers, that doesn’t mean I’ll sell well – there’s still the question of writing stories readers will love.
But I think it’s a good start.
For today’s video, you might be sick of them, but I’m not, here’s Pentatonix doing one of my Christmas favorites!