Evan Hunter: About that novel
Published: January 21, 2002
|About that novel|
Starting: If you haven't got an idea for one, forget it. If you haven't got an idea you want to express on paper, in words, forget it. If you prefer putting paint on canvas, or rolls on your pianola or in your oven, forget it. You're going to be with this novel for a long, long time, so you'd better have thought about it before you start writing. When it's ready to be written, you'll know. You'll know because you can't get it out of your mind. It'll be with you literally day and night. You'll even dream about it—but don't get up and rush to your typewriter. Go back to sleep. Only in movies do writers get up in the middle of the night with an inspiration. The time to go to the typewriter is when you're fresh and ready to do battle. There will be a battle, no question, a siege that will seemingly go on forever. So sit down, make yourself comfortable, and begin.
No outline at first, except the loose one in your head, draped casually around the idea. The thing you are trying to find is the voice. This is the single most important thing in any novel. The voice. How it will sound. Who is telling the story? Why is he telling it? If you're sixty years old and writing in the first person singular about a 16-year-old high school student, beware of the voice. It may be your own, and that is wrong. If you're writing in the third person, you can change the tone of the voice each time you switch to another character, but the voice itself must remain consistent throughout. The voice is your style. Except in my mystery series, I try to change my style to suit the subject matter of any novel I'm writing. I've come a hundred pages into a novel using the wrong voice, and I've thrown those pages away and started a new search for the right voice. Don't worry about spending days or weeks trying to find a voice. It will be time well spent. You'll know when you hit upon it. Things will suddenly feel right.
Once you've found the voice, write your first chapter or your first scene. Test the water. Does it still feel right? Good. Now make your outline. First of all, determine how long the book will be. The average mystery novel runs about 200 pages in manuscript, but a straight novel can be something as slim as Love Story or as thick as Gone With the Wind. You are the only person who knows in advance what your story is about. You are the only one who can figure how many pages you will need to tell this story. Take out your calculator. Are you writing a 300-page novel? OK, how many chapters will you need? The length of each chapter will be determined by how much you have to say in that chapter. If you're depicting the Battle of Waterloo, it might be a trifle difficult to compress it into 10 pages. If you're writing about a man putting out the garbage, you probably have only a scene, and you'll need additional scenes to make a full chapter.
Outline the novel in your own way—never mind freshman high school English courses. I've outlined a 40-page chapter with just the words "Father-son confrontation." The outline is you, talking to yourself on paper. Get friendly with yourself. Tell yourself what you, as the writer, want to accomplish in any given chapter. "OK, now we want a big explosion in the garage, and we want to see all these goddamn flames, and smell the smoke, and we want neighbors running over with garden hoses. Bring the little girl in at the end of the scene, shocked by what she's done." Got it? Talk to yourself. You don't have to outline the whole book. Just take the outline as far as your invention will carry it. Later, when you've written all the chapters you've already outlined, you can make another outline of the next several chapters. If a chapter is needed between something that has happened before and something that will happen later, and you don't know what to put between those two slices of bread, just type in the words "scene missing." You'll come back to it later. You're going to be here awhile.
|Moving: Set yourself a definite goal each day. Tack it on the wall. Ten pages? Five pages? Two pages? Two paragraphs? It doesn't matter. Set the goal, make it realistic, and meet it. If you're writing a planned 400-page novel, it will seem impossible ever to get it finished. Four hundred pages may be a year away. But your daily goal is here and now, and it's important to set that goal and meet it so that you'll have a sense of immediate reward. At the end of each week, on your calendar, jot down the number of pages you've already written. Store your kernels. Watch the cache grow. Keep the thing moving. If it bogs down, if you're supposed to write a tender love scene and you've just had a fight with your accountant, put the anger to good use. Jump ahead and write the Battle of Waterloo chapter. Don't stop writing! It's easier to go fishing or skiing—but sit at that damn typewriter, and look at the four walls all day long if you have to. There is nothing more boring than looking at the walls. Eventually, if only to relieve the boredom, and because you've made a deal with yourself not to get out of that chair, you'll start writing again. At the end of the day, read over what you've written. If you think it's lousy, don't throw it away. Read it again in the morning. If it still looks lousy, do it over again. Or if it's still bothering you, and you don't know why, move on. Keep it moving. The nice thing about writing, unlike public speaking, is that you can correct all your mistakes later.|
|Changing: The only true creative aspect of writing is the first draft. That's when it's coming straight from your head and your heart, a direct tapping of the unconscious. The rest is donkey work. It is, however, donkey work that must be done. Whether you rewrite as you go along—taking that bad chapter from the night before and putting it through the machine again from the top—or whether you rewrite everything only after you've completed the book, you must rewrite. But be careful. You can hone and polish something until it glows like a diamond, but you may end up with something hard and glittering and totally without the interior spark that was the result of your first commitment to paper. Try to bring to each rereading of your own material the same innocence you brought to it the first time around. You will be rereading it 20 times before you're finished. Each time, ask yourself what you intended. Do you want me to cry when I read this scene? Well, are you crying? If you're not, why aren't you? Find out why you aren't. Did someone say something that broke the mood of the scene? Is the field of daffodils too cheerful for the tone of the scene? Has your heroine stamped her foot when she should be tearing out her hair? Work it, rework it. When you yourself begin crying, you've got it.|
|Ending: How do you know when you're finished? You're finished when you're satisfied. If a scene is right the first time around, leave it alone. Tell yourself, "Terrific, pal," and leave it alone. You'll know you're getting to the end because you'll suddenly slow down. When that happens, set smaller goals for yourself. Instead of those five pages today, make it three. Your pace is slower because you don't want to let go of this thing. You've been living together for a long, long time, you've let this smelly beast into your tent, and you've grown to love it, and now you're reluctant to have it gallop out over the sands and out of your life forever. The temptation is to keep it with you forever, to constantly bathe it and scent it, groom it and curry it, tweeze its lashes and tie a bow on its tail. Recognize the temptation and recognize, too, that everything eventually grows up and leaves home. When you've done the best you can possibly do at this time (there will be other books, you know), put the manuscript in a box, give it a farewell kiss, and send it out into that great big hostile world.|
|Sending: Where do you send it? Be exceedingly careful in choosing your agent or your publisher. Don't send the book to anyone who charges a fee for reading it or publishing it. In the real world of publishing, people pay you for your work. The Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. (if you decide to go the agent route) will send you on request a list of reputable agents in the United States. The address is P.O. Box 237201, Ansonia Sta., New York, N.Y., 10003. Just write and ask, enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope. If you decide to submit your manuscript directly to a publisher instead, a long list of publishers looking for various kinds of novels appears in The Writer every year. Although some publishers today have given up reading unsolicited manuscripts, many others still maintain reading staffs, and their sole purpose is to search for publishing possibilities. Send the novel manuscript out. One publisher at a time. Multiple submissions are frowned upon except when an agent is conduction a huge auction, and then the publishers are made aware beforehand that the book is being submitted simultaneously all over the field. Choose a publisher who has previously published your sort of book. Don't shotgun it around blindly. If your novel espouses atheism, don't send it to a religious publisher.|
|Waiting: So now your monster is out roaming the countryside, trying to earn a living. No, there it is in the mailbox. Damn thing. Wish you hadn't given it life at all. Tear open the package. Nice little noncommittal note. Thanks a lot, but no … . Despair. Chin up, kiddo, send it out again. But here it is back again. And again. And yet again. Plenty of publishers in the world, just keep trying. Pack it, send it, wait again. Why? Why wait? Why set up a vigil at the mailbox? Why hang around the post office looking like someone on the Wanted posters? You should be thinking instead. You should be mulling a new idea. Don't wait. What you should be doing is—|
|Starting: If you haven't got an idea for one, forget it. If you haven't got an idea you want to express on paper, in words, forget it. If you prefer putting paint on canvas, or rolls on your pianola or in your oven, forget it. You're going to be with the novel for a long, long time, so you'd better have thought about it before you start writing. When it's ready to be written, you'll know.|
To learn more about Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, visit his Web site.
Photo courtesy of Evan Hunter.
--Originally posted Jan. 2002