Why Writing Your ‘Perfect’ Novel Is Hard

I’ve been looking around the web, trying to find a site that maybe I can get some feedback through. I came back to that ole Scribophile site. I was there for a bit. But, like Fanstory, they suffer from a similar experience: people who are only concerned with HOW you can sell a story. And all those basic little “mistakes” first time writers make.  An example of what I mean from one of these sites:

Putting this up, as I wrote it, the original text is, “SHE STOOD THERE, paralyzed. The hand around her throat pressing her face harder into the filth encrusted wall of brick and mud. She tried to stifle the sob desperate to unleash itself and braced for the inevitable violation of her body. She felt a grimy hand (calloused and not the least bit gentle), crawling up her thigh as her frilled satin dress slid up towards her waist. Her eyes clenched tighter, and the sobbing started breaking through.”

How the general reviewer response would be while reviewing this passage, “This is way too wordy. Try not to describe so much and just get into the basics. Why not something like this, ‘Her face was pressed into the wall. The hand around it clenched tighter. She cringed in fear as he pulled up her dress.  She braced herself to be raped.’ As you can see, this description gets right into the action and doesn’t bother the reader with so much description. Let the reader get straight to the point. Don’t bog them down with unnecessary adjectives and long sentences. It’s extraneous and pointless.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the advice given with this passage (full disclosure: I did NOT actually post this to Scribophile. This is an example of feedback that I have received from the site and is exactly how the readers there review. I don’t have those old feedbacks readily available. So, I am giving an example of what is received while publishing there. Or, seeking advice anyway. And, should you seek out a website like this, expect similar statements). What’s interesting in this that I’ve found is that most people on those sites tend to stick to the perception of those industry standards that only look for straightforward works (this in spite of the ONSLAUGHT of multimedia projects such as: Resident Evil, Mass Effect, Star Wars, and any number of projects based off an already established product. Novels based on those entities such as Supernatural and Star Trek tend to not be very well written and only exist to get every last dollar. So, yay?) Here’s an example of that mentality straight from a blogger on Scribophile on the notion of selling your work to the mass market:

“If you dream of one day having your book at Barnes and Noble next to Wally Lamb or Mary Higgins Clark, you’d better learn this quick: It must show market potential—which means:

  • It’s engaging to read

  • It’s got an innovative, original concept

  • It’s written with clear, strong language

  • It plays to an audience that is currently buying books

If you’re an unpublished author and your work can’t meet these criteria, nobody in the publishing world will go near it.

Why? Because publishing is a business—a simple fact they don’t teach you in creative writing classes. When a project comes across an agent/editor’s desk, they’re only thinking one thing: Can I sell this? Although you may love and emulate books by Austen, Hemingway or Tolkien, you should realize—those books would never get published in today’s market!”  (bold emphasis is mine but it IS italicized! BTW an aside. Clear, strong language is BS. What they want is simple, to the point language.)

https://www.scribophile.com/blog/yes-but-do-you-want-anyone-to-read-it-an-intro-to-the-world-of-agents-editors-and-publishing/

That’s right, folks! Austen, Hemingway, and Tolkien wouldn’t be touched with a ten foot pole in the modern market. That means those famous authors (who, mind you, are the reason we even have a modern market) would have a helluva time trying to find a publisher to carry their works.

Let’s look at the very first paragraph of Tolkien’s seminal work, The Hobbit.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

To me, that’s a perfectly fine and exceptional passage. It immediately brings to mind a scene that suggests a small person hiding himself away under the ground. Safe and sound and secure. Yet, this passage wouldn’t even garner much more than a fleeting ‘eh’ from the modern editor (and, to be honest, Tolkien himself did actually have some issues with editors and publishers of his own time. Which was why Lord of the Rings ended up a trilogy rather than the single novel he had envisioned. But it would be even more difficult in this day in age, is all that I’m saying). So, what the MODERN editor is looking for, if you wish to be published through them, of course, would be something more in line with:

“He was a small person known as a hobbit. He lived in a small hole dug into the ground. It wasn’t dirty or nasty by any sense of those terms. But comfortable and safe.”

Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with this suggested edit. HOWEVER, I’m having a serious problem with our modern story telling conventions. They basically are saying there is no room for flourish (and I LOVE flourish). There is only room for getting to the point. And I find that sad. I think that might be the reason why we don’t have any modern day classics. Not like The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, and The Grapes of Wrath, or The Great Gatsby. No, our current day best sellers list includes things like:

  • The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

  • The Outsiders by Stephen King

  • Line of Sight by Tom Clancy

  • The Pharaoh Key by Mike Maden

  • and Shelter In Place by Nora Roberts

By no means are any of these bad books. They are all exceptionally well written, entertaining novels that bring the reader in. But there’s a problem with them. They don’t stand out in the test of time. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re mass marketed. These aren’t the Great American novels promised by the past. These are the books that make publishers money (not that there’s any wrong with that, of course. If you’re in it to win it, there’s a place for you. Believe you me).  What it does tell me, though, is that if you want to make it as a published author, you’re going to have to play ball with the publishers and, hopefully, not sacrifice much of your artistic talents in the process.

Let me try to shine a light more on what I’m saying. I’m going to take a passage from one of those more popular authors out there, Stephen King. I love Stephen King’s works. They all entertain me greatly.  There isn’t a book by him I won’t pick up, even if I’m not feeling it from the cover. That being said, I get the feeling that even HE would like to be more ostentatious with his writings (despite the major detours he makes in almost all of his stories as it is), but is beholden to his publishers to deliver something THEY think will sell (and I can tell you, a Stephen King fan will just buy his works period. They like his stories, prose be damned!) This passage I will use is from the very first pages of Carrie. King’s first novel. This isn’t the first paragraph as that is a news article but it is the very next one after that (rewriting a news article would be pointless so I’m not going to do that). The passage in question is as follows:

“Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass. [break. new one line paragraph] What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.”

This was a pretty good passage that gets the reader into the story rather quickly. But I wonder how many drafts Mr. King had to write until the publishers were okay with it? Now, there are a few run-ons in it and I don’t mind them one bit. It tells me everything I need to know about the setup before getting into the action. However, since I’m a reader that loves flourish, let’s see if I can spice it up to what I like out of a good read (I’m not saying I can do better, this is just an example of what I enjoy. I think this is a wonderful book and I have no problems with it. This is merely a ‘what if’ exercise had I been the one to write it):

“Carrie White was a young woman that many of the girls in the shower room had known since first grade. She’d always been someone that they’d despised, picked on, and hated. Though they’d be hard pressed to say why, she just set something off in their heads. Some little inkling of fear that suggested she wasn’t one of them. Wasn’t right.  A real whacked out weirdo that was overweight and ugly. A little white bitch that they kept waiting for to do something outlandish, so that they could remind her of just how pathetic she really was. Hallelujah if that simpleton didn’t just provide them with the greatest opportunity of ridicule ever. They were going to savor this for the rest of their lives (even if some of those other cunts didn’t recognize the treasure trove they’d just been handed).  [Break. New Paragraph one line] Unfortunately, none of them understood the full scope of what they were dealing with. Even up until that very moment they’d pushed her to the breaking point.”

Like I said, not perfect. But it provides some flourish without divulging what comes next. For me, it’s the hook that keeps me reading. I don’t feel that I HAVE to spell out what the story is about. I’d rather let it say it for me. But publishers, well, they like having it spelled out up front because they don’t seem to think the reader is smart enough to get what’s happening. Or that they’ll be willing to delve further to answer those questions suddenly raised. Why is she being picked on? Why do they hate her? What did she just do to make them so happy? I like to build on the narrative and carry the themes through. Too many instances, though, are just publishers wanting to skip over all the narration, the exposition (and yet, somehow, still managing to give us too much from time to time and going nowhere), and just make it as simple as possible. Which, as I hope I’ve made clear, is not an issue. Sometimes, a story just requires a simple approach.

However, Jules Vernes, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare (I know, a playwright. But a writer nonetheless), and even the Greek poet Homer, were not simple writers. Their works required thought and a return read to truly understand the works they were writing. The modern day, though, seems to think everything needs to be mass produced to be successful and are not always so willing to let the author just let their work speak for itself. It has to say right there what it’s about and not allow the reader to fill in the blanks.

Let me provide another example for you (I know, I know, we’re getting to the end so cool your jets!) about the expectations of mass produced literature in this current age. This will be the first two passages to the novel ‘Resident Evil: Zero Hour’ by SD Perry (Stephanie Daniel Perry, who has pretty much exclusively written tie in books for the mass media franchises). I read all of the RE books and enjoyed them. I wished they’d served a deeper basis for the movies in fact. But this is what is expected when it comes to the mass media machine:

“The train swayed and rocked as it traveled through the Raccoon woods, the thunder of its wheels echoed by a thundering twilight sky. [Break. New Paragraph.] Bill Nyberg rifled through the Hardy file, his briefcase on the floor at his feet. It had been a long day, and the gentle rocking of the train soothed him. It was late, after eight, but the Ecliptic Express was mostly full, as it often was for the dinner hour. It was a company train, and since the renovation–Umbrella had gone to great expense to make it classically retro, everything from velvet seats to chandeliers in the dining car–a lot of employees brought family or friends along to experience the atmosphere. There were usually a number of out-of-towners on board as well, having caught the connection out of Latham, but Nyberg would have bet that nine out of ten of them worked for Umbrella, too. Without the pharmaceutical giant’s support, Raccoon City wouldn’t even be a wide spot in the road.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the strongest passage I’ve ever read. It says nothing about anything and doesn’t really make the reader care to know more (no offense to Ms. Perry. I enjoy her books even if they bring nothing new to the table-which is something publishers say they ‘want’ but never really acknowledge when they get it) about what’s going to happen next. It’s a pure by the numbers approach that exists simply to sell books. Name recognition is what drives multi media products.

Yet, even with an original work, you, as the writer, are still competing against the expectation of the sell. And it has to be something they can market it as. ‘It’s like Twilight, if it were a soft porno!’, ‘It’s like Star Wars with heroes that are truckers!’, ‘It’s like every 80’s classic ever was crossed with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!’. The sell is what the story compares to, not how it stands on its own. Publication, afterall, is like they say,  a business. And it is a very hard sell to get your original work out there to the masses.

This is not to say it’s impossible. It just takes a  whole helluva lotta work to get it out there. Now, of course, you could just publish to Kindle (Amazon’s own little publication site through the Kindle Direct Publishing moniker), but as I’ve mentioned before, the site is so much like Steam anymore. Sure, there are some diamonds in the rough, but it’s mostly full of shit. Making it hard to reach an audience. It can be done, but with a whole lot of extraneous work. 

The reason why all of us writers have to work so hard (and I admit I’m a newbie. I’ve written 3 books, 25 short stories,  4 novellas, something like 30 non fiction works, and 12 poems. And only 1 published short story in a Turkish magazine) is because we’re fighting against the expectations of the publishers. We might have a potentially HUGE fanbase, but if it can’t be sold ‘like something’ then it might never see the light of day. Which, again, I understand. I get it. They’re a business. They are there to sell a product. And if I know anything, the public is a mass of fickle readers who want a story to remind them of another story they once read.

It’s like pissing in the wind and all you’re really accomplishing is making yourself wet.

What keeps a writer going is that they like to write. If you’re looking for a quick buck, forget it, bucko. You’re in the wrong line of work. But, if you like writing, just write. Fuck it. Your job sucks and you know it. But then you get to come home, drink a beer, and write your problems away. If the masses want to continue buying shit (forgive my french) then to hell with em. Just write what you enjoy and keep going. It’s an uphill battle, and any writer worth their salt knows it. What we REALLY hate is for people to say, ‘You want to write? Man, it’s so hard to get published. Don’t quit your day job’. Yeah, we know. Shut up, you insignificant twat! What we really want to hear is, ‘I know you know it’s hard. But, damnit, don’t give up! Maybe I’m no expert but I like what you write and want to see you published someday!’ If you’re not a writer but know someone who is, just tell them that. Let them know, it isn’t a wasted effort. Because writing is hard. The story itself, easy. I can knock out a story in a few months. Getting someone interested in publishing it, well, that’s another story altogether. 

The truth is, writing is not a game for the weak. There is no immediate reward. We’re fighting against business interests just to be seen. We have to play their game to start out with if we ever want to set our own ground rules. There are a lot of popular books out there that say little but are entertaining reads. But they’re never going to be one of the greats. They’re never going to stand beside Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, James Joyce, Mary Shelley, William Faulkner, Lewis Carroll,  Walt Whitman, J.D. Salinger, Emily Dickinson, or H.G. Wells. Because those were the authors who defined what modern story telling is all about. We write because they inspired us. Hell, even Edgar Rice Burroughs (much to his utter chagrin), demonstrated how to write a classic story. He is an inspiration of mine, afterall. But now? We write to fulfill a need. A need to sell the next New York Times bestseller. Anything less and the reader is mostly like, “Who?”

Don’t let that dissuade you, though. If you didn’t like writing, you wouldn’t be doing it, would you? So write. And don’t forget it’s hard. Because the people around you sure as hell won’t let you.

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TIM’S METHOD OF WRITING

SO you want to write? Looking for that great American novel? Forget that nonsense. That ship sailed back in the 1800’s. Now, you just want to write a great novel. And I have a thought on how to accomplish that. I’m currently in the midst of writing a novel that I hope to find an agent for sometime in the fall of this year. I was thinking about how I should go about writing my novel (which I’ve been working on for a year now fyi). And it occurred to me that finding a writer’s group is impossible. An objective opinion outside of grammar police is almost a mythical creature. Therefore I thought, ‘why not come up with your own method, Tim?’ Therefore, I did. Here is my new approach to writing be it a novel, short story, or merely every day fantasy. And I think it has some merit. Do you agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts. But here it is. Tim’s Method of Writing:

Step One: Tell yourself a story. Don’t worry about sharing it with anyone. In fact, my rough draft is being written entirely by hand in an old line blank paged book. It’s almost four hundred pages worth of paper and I’m 221 pages in with it. I’m telling MYSELF the story. And not worrying about what anyone thinks about it just yet. I just need to get the story out and banished to the page. Later on, I’ll ask what people think. Right now, it’s about what I think. That’s the most important step. Get it down on paper don’t even BOTHER rereading what you’ve written yet because it’ll just distract you and delay you.  WRITE IT FIRST!

Step Two: The Second Draft. It is, for me, nothing but notes on what I’m rereading. That’s right, I’m rereading my novel and using a separate notebook to jot down ideas on what could work differently. How the characters interact and how they are developed. I’m looking at story and plot point oversights and inconsistencies in the narrative. I’m not concerned about grammar. I’m concerned about how the STORY works. Grammar later, story now. I look to balance what I’ve overlooked and to flesh out what isn’t developed enough. The Second Draft is made up solely of my notes. And nothing more. STOP looking at the grammatical! Focus on how the story is told! Are there plotholes? Do the characters act differently over the span of the story? Are enemies weak? Are supporting characters irrelevant? This is the note taking phase and only reading the book or story. Get it done!

Step Three: Draft Three. Draft three is based on your draft two notes. You rewrite passages, flesh out characters, and get into the nitty gritty of what makes your story good to read. Still grammar is irrelevant. It isn’t important. Forget about it!  Rewrite your story here! Develop it further based on the insights you’ve eurekaed! Get the beats down! Narrow the scope! Cut out the inconsequential! Formulate your final thesis! Are your characters intriguing? Are the plot points enthralling? Does it make sense story wise? This is the flesh to your skeleton. This is the preparatory stage to your Magnum Opus. You’ve seen what’s wrong, now you’re fleshing it out! Getting into the details. Establishing motivation and correcting oversights.

Step Four: Draft Four is now here. Draft Four is another reading venture! You’re rereading what you wrote and have your notebook ready again!  Don’t correct the work. NO. Write down what isn’t working and what you think needs further developed. It is in this step you’ll seek an outside opinion. Find a writer’s group (if it even exists. Online is a waste of time. They’re only out for themselves and the drama they can cause). No find, something in town. If not, then petition family, friends, acquaintances, spouses, children, pay an editor, coworkers, hobos, or whatever it takes to get an unbiased opinion on how the story plays out. STOP FUCKING WORRYING ABOUT GRAMMAR! IT ISN’T RELEVANT YET! Get your story where it needs to be. You’ll find too many people worried about grammar. And if that’s all they want to focus on, find somebody else! Just get the story right! And where your final vision resides! Take feedback on what they think of the characters, situations, plot points, scenarios, and descriptions. That’s what’s important here.

Step Five: Your final draft. Here is where everything comes together. Here is where your story is the strongest. Here is where you seek your agent, your publicist, your buyer. Here is where you’re ready to unveil your work of art to the world. Here is where you read through it again and here (AND ONLY HERE) do you concentrate on grammar. Grammar is the makeup. That rouge you splash on to make it gorgeous. If everything else is working, then this is just your selling point. This makes it easier to read and to digest. It’s the paint job to your sculpture. The base is finished. And now you’re painting and glossing and saying ‘Hey, check this out. What do you think?’ It’s been fine tuned and ready to be unleashed. If it stands the story test (that test that makes sense and is intriguing to your potential audience and your agent and editor and publicist) then you know you made it. You know your story is ready for consumption. And they’ll tell you (those agents and editors) they’ll tell you what they think. And if you’re self publishing, then you’ll know for yourself that it’s the best that it can be. For better or for worst.

At the end of the day, it’s about you. It’s about the story you wanted to tell and if people wanted to have it shared with them. If the people didn’t like it, what did you think? Are you happy with it? If you are, good job. The masses don’t have to savor every once of your awesomeness. You want to make it big, sure. But YOU HAVE to be satisfied with it. You’re your number one critic. And if it doesn’t do it for you, then it isn’t a great story. Thousands of stories get tossed away everyday. But only ONE story is yours. Do YOU love it? If not, start again. If so, then to hell with want anyone else thinks. Of course, selling to the masses isn’t easy (despite what all the mound of junk might make you think). But in the end if you’re true to yourself, you can’t go wrong. Even if you don’t sell. Plenty of artists only became popular after they were dead and gone. Sickening thought, but also…strangely satisfying. Don’t look to be a famous millionaire…look to be the best author you can.

If you can be happy with what you’ve done, others will follow. It’s the nature of the beast. I’m going to keep up keeping on because when I’m happy with my own story, I know others will be too. I hope this has helped. In any endeavor you want to be able to thrive. But the most important part is being able to be proud of yourself. It’s also the hardest. Because PEOPLE are hard to please. So only please yourself and to hell with the obnoxious masses. You’re your own person.