“What if it’s a novel?” someone–I can’t remember who–said. There it was: the dreaded comment I had been anticipating from the moment I handed my story in for workshop. In the four years I had been in college, I’d taken countless writing workshops, some for prose, some for scripts, and always with predictable results. By the end of my Advanced Fiction Workshop, I had come to understand that the go-to critique–that thing you say to take charge of the conversation, seem smart, and poise yourself on a pedestal all at once–was, “maybe it’s a novel.”
I had gotten this critique countless times, and admittedly had given it out once or twice myself, yet I couldn’t ignore the sting I felt at hearing them about this particular story. I sat there at the corner of the long table and bit my tongue to keep from audibly scoffing as the conversation focused on all the things about my piece that “would work better if it wasn’t a short story.” I was irked because, once the word ‘novel’ was uttered, the workshop had devolved into a free-for-all where people threw around ideas that had absolutely nothing to do with the draft at hand: “what if your main character wasn’t the focus of the story?” “what if, instead of present-day Boston, it’s set in 1950s Venezuela?” I was angry that they were stripping my story down to nothing. I was angry that they couldn’t stick to critiquing the work in front of them and had instead resorted to hypotheticals. And, most of all, I was angry because they were right. It would be better as a novel.
This story came to me with a title already attached: “Carrot Cake.” The first stroke of inspiration came in the shape of (you guessed it!) a carrot cake. I was internally creating a world and characters and conflicts from the first time I saw the cake and thought to myself maybe there’s a story there. By the time I had a seventeen-page draft ready for workshop, I had been thinking about or working on “Carrot Cake” for well over a year. So, yeah, it sucked to hear people fixating on what it could be instead of what it was. This annoyance was heightened by the fact that I was graduating in a few weeks and I had spent more time studying media theory and scriptwriting than studying creative writing. In other words, I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel.
I love rules. I absolutely adore them. It’s why I kick ass at Uno. It’s why my idea of a perfect night involves Settlers of Catan. It’s also why I am so terrified of tackling a novel project. WHAT ARE THE RULES???? Ask some “experts,” and they’ll tell you there are too many rules to count. Others will say there are none. Most will hit you something along the lines of “I don’t know the recipe for good writing; I just know it when I see it.” As a self-proclaimed lover of rules, that vague shit just wasn’t going to cut it for me.
I stayed back after class on the day of my workshop and confided in my professor that I had considered turning “Carrot Cake” into a novel but was unsure how to go about it. I told her the prospect of writing a novel scared me. “You’re right,” she said. “ I don’t think you’re ready to write a novel.” I nodded, thanked her, then made some polite conversation before skulking off to the bathroom to talk shit about her to my mom. I took it like a champ. But, the minute I left that classroom, I was determined to write the novel.
Notwithstanding, I still had no fucking clue how to do it.
A few months later, I stood in the teeny Writing section of my local Barnes and Noble. I grabbed a copy of everything that claimed to help write a novel and carried my pile to a worn armchair by the second-floor windows. I spent all afternoon skimming everything from Stephen King’s “On Writing” to “Writing a Novel And Getting Published For Dummies.” I wrote extensive notes on the perceived pros and cons of more than a dozen guidebooks (I. Love. Rules.). By the time I was finished, I had a tension headache and numb buttcheeks, but I had narrowed it down to two books: “The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel” by Hallie Ephron (follow her on Twitter!) and “Writing Your Novel From Start To Finish” by Joseph Bates (follow him on Twitter!).
After bringing both books home, I realized that “The Everything Guide” is much more technical, and it focuses on the logistics of how to break down your idea into a novel (which is great because, as I have said probably too many times by now, I have no clue how to go about doing that). Joseph Bates’s book is more about the intellectual process of novel writing, though it does include technical step-by-steps. Reading it emulates the feeling of being in the middle of a really great lecture. In the absence of hard and fast rules, I decided to let Ephron and Bates guide me through this journey of writing my first novel.
As I delve into the first few chapters of both guides, I am driven to think about beginnings. When I say beginnings I don’t mean the opening scene of my novel; I mean the start of this journey. In “The Everything Guide,” Ephron talks about the tools one needs to write a novel. She says the best first step you can take is to gift yourself time and space. I’ve set up my desk in a corner of my room, and I’ve filled the drawers with chocolate (and Lactaids) to reward myself after a couple of productive hours. I light a candle, put on a record, and hang a makeshift DO NOT DISTURB sign on my bedroom door, and boom–I’m ready to start writing.
The next step of this journey–Ephron and Bates seem to concur–is turning an idea into a premise. I won’t say much about this because I’m superstitious and don’t like giving details about a work-in-progress, but this was a fairly easy step for me to take because “Carrot Cake” already exists as a story. But, as I began to distill Ephron and Bates’s advice on beginnings, I started to notice similarities between what they were writing and what I had been taught in my screenwriting classes. I ran to my shelf and pulled out my favorite scriptwriting guide, Syd Field’s “Screenplay.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that starting a screenplay is not at all different from starting a novel; it all starts with turning an idea into a premise. This realization came as a relief, because I may not know how to write a novel yet, but I sure as hell know how to write a script.
As I get ready to take the first steps of this journey, I feel a little more confident than I did following that less-than-awesome workshop experience (I’d loathe to call it a ‘bad’ experience, because there were some nice takeaways and the professor was mostly kind and always supportive). I feel like I have Ephron, Bates, and Field in my corner, and now it’s time to let them take the wheel.
I can’t wait to see where they lead me!
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