You Can Write A Novel

A novel is more than 50,000 words despite what NaNoWriMo might suggest and it takes more than sitting down at the computer and typing out 50,000 words in a month to put one together. And to sell it. After all, that is what you want to do right?


In his how-to book on writing, James V. Smith Jr. sets out steps, "cardinal rules" and literal things to add to your "writer's toolbox" so that you can write and sell a novel.


My thoughts: this book would be better for someone earlier on in their process of writing.


The author spends 3/4 of the book thoroughly explaining his personal writing process and outlining very specific tools that he suggests the reader use when writing their own novel. For me, this was largely useless. I have my own writing process and someone telling me how to do things when I have spent years learning what the most productive way for me to do things is felt rude and frustrating.


It would be like someone telling you how to organize your bookshelf. Now, if you have a number of boxes of books and no idea how you want to organize them, this advice is great. But if you have been organizing your bookshelf on your own for a while, this will make you want to yell at the person.


Let me give you an example:


James V. Smith Jr. spends a great deal of time telling the reader how important it is that they know their characters. On this, I entirely agree. If you do not know your characters' goals and motivations, you should not be writing a book for this is the driving factor of the plot. If you don't know your character's eye color and height, you're probably fine in the first draft but you will have a lot of fixes when you come back to edit (that character who ad black hair in the first scene might have red hair in the third). To avoid these problems, I have a character binder.


James V. Smith Jr. advises creating flashcards for your characters. He identifies a few elements he is sure you need to know for your characters. He suggests writing these out on 5x8 or 3x5 cards and then taping them in a particular fashion in a file folder. Finally, he identifies which characters are "master," "major" and "minor" and suggests you do the same. He spends 26 pages (of a novel only 128 pages long) explaining how to do all of this.


I read all 26 pages despite having done all of this prior to reading page one.


Within my character binder, my 6 "master characters" around whom each book revolves get a page (which is not even close to filled) on which I place their names, physical features, close family relations, motivations/goals, and more. These characters also get a page of descriptions/images of their weaponry and a page for inspiration for their clothing. My villian, also a "master character" gets a page of description. Each love interest (which Smith would identify as a "master character") gets half a page of description. Major characters such as those who appear consistently throughout multiple books also receive half-page descriptions. Minor characters such as those who receive large roles within only one book (for example, Cinderella's stepsisters) have only a quarter page of description. Characters that appear for only a short time do not receive a picture and only brief physical descriptions are given. The binder contains a few other items including a family tree, notes on creatures in my world, and notes on the personalities of my characters. I have a similar binder detailing the world of my book which you can read about in a prior post. Most importantly, everything page is numbered and a table of contents at the front allows me to flip between the pages (kept in sheet protectors) easily.


When Smith moves on from discussing how to organize your characters, he does provide a tip that I do plan to try. Smith suggests organizing your scenes out in a similar way to your characters. Smith has two theories on which he bases a lot of his "cardinal rules". First, he suggests that you cannot write a book without knowing the ending of the book. On this, I entirely agree. I know that many writers, particularly in NaNoWriMo will go in without any plan and will write with a beginning in mind but without any idea of a destination. I don't believe that this is any way to write.


However, Smith's beliefs differ from my own in every way but this. Smith suggests that one must have their scenes planned out, particularly their "master" and "major" scenes before they can start to write anything. I believe that some writers are more inclined to write with a plan and others are better at winging it. We are made different and that's ok. This was something that really frustrated me with Smith's book as he seemed to suggest that if you are failing at writing, it is because you aren't using his technique.


I would suggest, if you are failing at writing, it is because you aren't using your technique. The writing process will be different for each writer and though I do plan to try out his technique of planning out scenes (mostly because I do succeed well when I plan out things), this is not currently the way that things work best for me. If you are a writer and find a strategy that works well for you, I encourage you to develop that. Don't listen to writing books like this one that tell you to do things a certain way. Personally, I like to plan out my book in "plot points" which looks like saying something like:


"Character battles her curse in a new town. On Cadeaus Dag (similar to Christmas or Solstice) she swears to not give into the curse any longer but when a pregnant woman invites her to dance and offers her a treat, she accidentally brushes the woman’s hand, sending her into early labor and killing the woman and child."


This "plot point" ended up slightly different and became two or three chapters. It is a simple guide like this that allows my book to move and flow as need be as I write it while still being structured enough to guide me to the finish line. I like to use the plot points to either write from start to finish (if I need to do so to get to know my characters and scenes) or to skip around. I don't write only my "master" scenes, edit, and then continue as that would slow down my process and stop my writing from flowing like it does when I keep writing and leave editing for later. This is what has worked for me so far and so it is what I will continue to do.


Smith did eventually (on page 83 or so) get around to some interesting stuff. He finally began to talk about actually writing the book and mistakes that could be made whether in the writing or editing process. This is where he began to talk about imagery, overdone words, punctuations mistakes, etc. While some of these things could have been helpful, everything was mentioned in The Writer's Lexicon which I had previously read (read the review of The Writer's Lexicon here). The Writer's Lexicon does an excellent job of addressing these kinds of errors in much greater detail and guides the reader in correcting them to a greater extent. While You Can Write a Novel often says "don't do this" The Writer's Lexicon addresses when not to do it. Smith often says something can't be done while The Writer's Lexicon notes that it should be done only very rarely (and gives instances of when). I highly suggest buying The Writer's Lexicon (its only $6 full price!) and reading it over and over, using the tips and tricks in its pages to enhance your writing. It is a much better book than Smith's.


Smith finally makes note of how to sell your book to publishers and agents. DO NOT rely on the few words that Smith gives on the subject. Smith's books are not widely known nor are they published around the world. He references querying agents and publishers but a quick search on the internet will tell you that the publishers who accept queries from authors are not the ones with wide nets to sell your book to millions, get you a good cover, and market your novel the best. Unless you are willing to make sacrifices like these or do your research well on a publisher who does let you query them, I suggest only querying agents (look at my blog post on how to get started).


All that being said, this wouldn't be the book I'd recommend to anyone who has been writing for some time. While it might aid you in getting together a "writer's toolkit" and establishing a writing process if you haven't already done so, I would instead suggest the following to add to your "writer's toolkit."

  • The Writer's Lexicon

  • post-it notes (here's a 12 pack)

  • pens and a lot of them (I like bic cristal pens BONUS: they're cheap!)

  • your computer and charging cord

  • binders for organizing information

  • printer paper (for making maps, timelines, family trees or other extras)

  • sheet protectors (I like to use them to keep maps, notes, timelines, family trees, etc. dry and clean)

  • books (whatever books are in your novel's genre, read them and take notes of what inspires on your sticky notes!)

  • whatever else works for YOU




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