The Problem with Writing your Novel

You Are Not Alone

I have run my course, Writers Write for almost five years now. I have learned so much from teaching novelists to dream their books into life. I have watched people struggle as they decide whether or not they need to attend a writing course. After many rejections and lots of reflection, they join.

Writing teachers and mentors, and writing courses, have been popular for longer than most people know. Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) lectures creative writing, as do Wally Lamb (She’s Come Undone) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander).

And what about the Bloomsbury Set? Gertrude Stein sacrificed much of her own career to mentor the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, whom she once told to start again – and this time, “Concentrate.”

Writers like Andre Brink and J M Coetzee have lectured the art of creative writing at UCT. Authors, like Diane Awerbuck (Gardening at Night) and Susan Mann (One Tongue Singing), have graduated from this programme.

Don’t ever be afraid to learn. The most successful novelists have always looked for help when they’ve needed it.

I have identified the five points that I believe to be the problems that 90% of these writers share.

The Five Most Common Problems First Time Writers Share

  • Beginner writers all want to write their life story in the form of a novel
  • Beginners have no antagonist
  • Beginner writers have no plot
  • Beginners do not have enough dialogue
  • Beginner writers hang on to an idea for a novel that is no longer popular.

Almost every writer who comes through the school thinks they have a life story so compelling that an editor in London or New York is waiting to publish it. Starting a query letter with, “This novel is based on my life,” means the dreaded slush pile.

Tell your Life Story to a Therapist

Decide what you are doing and why you feel so compelled to hang on to your life story. Tell it to a therapist. Then write a novel that other readers would want to buy. Or write a memoir. Chris van Wyk’s, (Shirley, Goodness & Mercy), Alexandra Fuller’s, (Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight) and (Mukiwa) by Peter Godwin are good examples of memoirs. A memoir is a collection of life experiences held together by a single theme. Don’t even think of writing an autobiography unless you are someone famous.

If you develop well constructed protagonists and antagonists, who SPEAK and ARGUE and FIGHT, you will be able to write fiction. How can you write a book, which is generally 360 pages long, without a villain? Who will your hero fight to achieve his goal?

The other characters – love interests and friends, are not important for the plot. They are important to show a protagonist’s life, goals, motivations and feelings without you telling your reader what they are.

A Novel Has to Have a Plot

Beginner writers either stop at about 20 000 words or carry on until they reach 120 000 or more! Most novels are 80 000 words. Either way, these writers don’t have a plot. A novel has to have a plot. A plot means that you have a hero whose life is turned upside down by the villain in the first chapter.

The hero’s story goal is to strive and struggle to come to terms with what has happened. He/she must overcome all obstacles put in his/her way by the villain. The villain’s goal is to thwart the hero at every opportunity. This leads to conflict which is necessary in every scene of your book. Most first time authors don’t understand this. They ramble on philosophically until they have told the story. They are writing an essay, not a novel. This is called telling. Never tell.

Show Don’t Tell

In modern fiction you have to show. The narrator style of writing has all but disappeared. One way to get around this problem is to use dialogue. Modern novels contain 50 – 70% dialogue. I suggest that writers make friends with this writing tool.

If your characters speak, you have to shut up and listen to them. You have to stop intruding. This allows the reader to understand and empathise with who the character really is. Authors need to make sure that each character has a unique voice. Listen to voices around you. Which voice suits your character? Why?

Does Your Story Fit into the Market?

All writers have a story from long ago, mostly high school, which they hang onto. I ask these writers to go to their nearest good bookshop and look at the new releases. I tell them to log onto Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Would your book fit in anywhere in either of these places? Family sagas written by authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford in the 1980’s do not sell now. Nor do cosy mysteries a la Agatha Christie, or historical adventures like those written by Wilbur Smith – unless you are Wilbur Smith. These writers need to let go, do some research and write fiction that publishers will buy.

Of course there is more to writing a successful story than these five points. I could write about plotting techniques, character development, viewpoint, scene and sequel, pacing, chapter structure etc. And I will. Watch this space.

Amanda PattersonAmanda Patterson, founder of The Write Co, and creator of Writers Write. 33 graduates of this course have been published.