"Keeping it Simple" or How I Wrote a Novel I Love
I want to preface this the same way I preface all of my writing tips and discussions. I am a small press published author with only a single novel and a dozen short stories under my belt. I am not any kind of expert, and any writing advice I may have was spawned in the forge of personal experience. I sincerely hope that any reader may glean something useful from me and my ramblings.
When I first set out to write my novel "REMNANT", I only had a few vague ideas and a desire to create something that I would want to read. I suspect the vast majority of authors set out do just that.
I also imagine, a lot of them aren't exactly satisfied with their finished product either.
I am lucky, I think, that upon finishing "REMNANT" I was, and still am, insanely happy with my finished product. It turned out exactly how I wanted it to, at least more or less. I'll admit that some of the editing it went through while it transitioned from self-published to small press was not 100% to my liking, but I digress.
So, how did I do this? What advice or tips would I give to others who can't quite get to the place they want?
I think this is an extremely complex issue that can be approached from multiple perspectives. I actually started writing this yesterday, but had to take some time to reflect. After processing the question a bit (and pumping 1000+ words on a novel), I think I came up with the biggest key to my own personal enjoyment.
Keep it simple.
I reiterate, I am no expert on the craft of writing. I don't really think I even aspire to be. My only goal was to create something I thought was cool, at least at the time. If other people also thought it was cool, that's just icing on the cake. This is something I was consciously aware of when I set out to write my novel, and it guided me through the process. I am an avid reader of the Thriller genre which is known for sudden twists and trails of clues leading to some unguessed secret.
I LOVE THAT STUFF.
That said, I knew I was not prepared to write something of that scale or complexity. If I had attempted to write a twist-y turn-y Thriller a la Dan Brown, I would have failed miserably and perhaps never tried again. Instead, I made a simple list of things I had a deep passion about, things that I already had a decent understanding of. Basically a grocery list of my interests.
Those three items were my starting point, and from there I built my plot. I knew that I wanted to feature two ice age animals fighting at least once in the book. That was my centerpiece. I wasn't 100% where cannibals fit in, but I knew I wanted to portray them as accurately as I could, as opposed to the stereotypical "Oh no, cannibals bad!" that you often see in related Pulp Material. For me, the "Jungle Stuff" was easy. I had previously read a ton of material relating to the Amazon and had dozens of ideas floating around in my head to cause trouble for my characters.
The next big hurdle was laying it out in a linear fashion. Having not read anything at all about when and where to place your plot beats, my gut told me that the at least one creature should be revealed somewhere within reach of the first quarter of the book. That gave me a goal. From there, I spread out pieces more or less evenly along a line, interspersing obstacles between major points.
Start--->Jungle Stuff--->Jungle Stuff--->Jungle Stuff--->Creature reveal
Unfortunately, that only got me 1/4 of the way to the end.
So, what's next?
Every good Thriller has at least one twist. Lucky for me, my centerpiece required not one, but TWO prehistoric animals in order for the aforementioned fight to happen.
--->Creature reveal--->TWIST!--->Creature Fight--->
Once my centerpiece happened at about 1/3 the way through, I understood that alone would not carry me to the end of a novel length work. That meant, at least to me, that I needed to introduce another villain. For the first portion I focused solely on the nature aspect, and I wanted to introduce a human element as well. In my mind, this constituted another twist. This would also provide me with a new set of obstacles to throw at my characters.
--->Creature reveal--->TWIST!--->Creature Fight--->TWIST!--->Obstacle--->Obstacle--->
I think you're seeing the pattern, here. It is admittedly a fairly linear plot that basically boils down to:
Step 1: Characters find something
Step 2: Things go South
Step 3: Characters escape
Just in case this inspires anyone to pick up "REMNANT", I'll not spoil the third act, but this sort of pattern basically repeats to the end.
So, I have a plot, but what about characters? For me, it is easiest to create characters after I know where the plot is going. I don't ever want to have more characters than a plot requires to function. I knew I wanted a female lead, and really liked the idea of sisters. I also knew I needed a catalyst for the adventure, and I needed a character to bridge the gap between my party and the jungle. I peppered a couple more minor characters, the human villain and a lifeline, alongside a few unnamed mooks to throw to the wolves, and BAM! This is a super simplified version of how I created my characters that completely ignores their arcs and motivations. This post is growing long in the tooth, and I fear I am straying from the point. I will no doubt come back to that for another post.
From there it was just a matter of putting the pieces in an order that made sense. I'm sure this all seems like it was very methodical and planned out, but I assure you it wasn't. This was all done on the fly, sans outline or notes, over the course of three months. That said, I hope you can see what I am getting at.
The recipe calls for ingredients that I am both relatively knowledgeable about AND extremely passionate about. The plot has few, if any, bells and whistles, being essentially a "there and back again" story. The most important piece, for me at least, was to maintain this simple set up. As a novice I was not prepared to tackle the inner-workings of anything more intricate.
I must say, there is also a genuine joy to writing by the seat of your pants. I'm not sure I'll ever do it again, but there is an undeniable sense of adventure to it. You get to discover things alongside your characters, and you get to experience the twists with them. I have sense moved on to outlining as I strive to grow the complexity of my plots, though not to the extent as some authors do. I know that outlines help productivity and output, but I can't completely forego my own personal sense of adventure.
After all, who am I writing for if not myself?
In truth, that might be key to the whole thing. Push thoughts of anyone and everyone else from your mind. Don't compare yourself to others, especially genre giants. It's easy to get caught up in questions and self-doubt. Trust me, that will only drag you down.
Start small, keep it simple, and focus on what makes YOU happy.