Copyright © 2015 Jerry Dunne
I get a fair few e-mails from people telling me they’re about to give up on trying to finish their first novel (or have already given up) and can I offer them any advice on how they might get going again. Their main trouble appears to be their inability to claw their way out of the middle part of the novel. Either they find they can’t write themselves out of this section, no matter how many words they put down on paper, or they simply can’t think of what to write next. But whether it’s this or something else that prevents them from progressing, they all become so frustrated over their trial that not only does physical and mental exhaustion eventually set in, but their morale also takes a nosedive.
Some will take a break of a few weeks or even months before returning to the struggle. However, frustration and exhaustion quickly overwhelm them again, and another dip in their morale follows. After several attempts of this, they start to believe they will forever remain stuck in the swamp of the middle section of the novel, or wherever else they are stuck. At some point along the road, and it may takes years to get there, but long-term exhaustion, lack of confidence and even boredom sets in, and they give up. Now they believe they were never cut out to be a novelist, after all, and they turn their back on writing altogether.
The reasons for their failure seem not to occur to them, which means that each time they make another attempt at the novel, they are simply setting themselves up for another round of failure. Even if the reasons for failure do occur to some, they choose to continue ploughing onward rather than reassessing and changing their overall writing strategy. They believe that writing in the way they are is in and of itself giving them plenty of experience. It is, of course, only not in the way they believe. In fact, this type of experience is generally destroying their potential writing career over the long run.
The amazing thing about these would-be novelists is that some of them spend years on and off working on their manuscript before turning their back on the game; some as much as four or five years working on the one always-unfinished book. Others will spend as much as ten or more years working on a solo novel, or up to three or four, or even five or six novels, but they are always ones that they will never finish. Everything will eventually be abandoned and the same reasons for abandonment (unknown to them) will haunt each manuscript. Yet, look at the will power and stamina it takes even to accomplish as much as they do! Such a shame it all goes to waste in the end. Such a shame they just don’t have enough resilience to finish a single novel.
So what’s missing with them? Why do they eventually throw in the towel?
These trainee novel writers all have something in common. They lack real knowledge, real skills and real experience of any kind of fiction writing. Several will have written only half a dozen short stories, usually no more than two or three thousand words in length previous to making an attempt on the novel. Others will have plunged straight into the novel with absolutely zero experience, skills and knowledge of fiction writing. Because they lack these basic and necessary elements, it also means they have not built up over time the necessary reservoir of stamina that is another necessary element required to write a competent novel. They have not gone through the steady training process that often ends in novel writing, but rarely starts with it, and for obvious reasons. Another way of saying this is that they have not been seasoned in any way to the art of fiction writing
These people have undertaken to become masters in a really difficult and competitive craft, and I find the way they have gone about doing this to be staggeringly naïve. I think the best way to explain what I mean and make my point crystal clear is by way of a sporting analogy. So let’s now step into the world of professional boxing.
Professional boxing is a very tough sport which takes a great deal of physical and psychological skill and endurance. Most pro boxers start as amateurs so even the beginner pro is often a knowledgeable, skilful and experienced fighter. He is already seasoned as a boxer. However, amateurs box only three three-minute rounds; pros go up to twelve three-minute rounds. For this reason alone, though there are many more, amateurs must become seasoned to the pro fight game. Their training regime becomes tougher and their early fights are only six two-minute rounds and with boxers of their own level of experience. The length of their fights and the toughness of the competition increases only with experience. This applies even to the most gifted amateur boxers. It is a massive jump from three rounds to twelve rounds and that is why even a seasoned amateur undergoes a further apprenticeship of several years as a pro before he starts taking on the best pro fighters in twelve-round fights. Allow me to emphasise that point: even the most seasoned and gifted amateur boxers undergo a professional apprenticeship.
If you threw a gifted and experienced amateur boxer at the very start of his pro career into the ring with a pro fighter of his equal ability at the pro level for a twelve three-minute round fight, the amateur would sink somewhere in the middle of the fight, if he even lasted that long. In other words, the pro boxer would destroy him. Now imagine doing this to the amateur four or five times in a row over several months. Yes, he is gaining experience but it is not the kind of experience in which he is learning anything. He is just struggling to survive in the ring. He is being destroyed as s fighter, not improved. He will lose every fight and his morale will desert him. Eventually, he will leave the fight game. And this is with someone who was already gifted and experienced at the sport! The great pro that he might have been if he had been taken along at his own pace by a good coach will now never emerge.
I see these so-called trainee novelists in this light. They are destroying their future potential as novelists because they have very little or even no seasoning at all in the game before they go straight to the toughest medium in fiction writing. It is not necessarily the trickiest to master, but it is definitely the toughest. They are setting themselves up for hiding after hiding and long-term failure if they go on as they are. Even the gifted amongst them will never realise what they might otherwise have been if only they had come along in smaller and slower steps. To write novels at the professional level involves a long apprenticeship in which you build up your knowledge, skill base and physical, mental and emotional endurance slowly and often painfully.
The best way for the beginner to develop as a novelist is actually to forget about the novel until they have mastered shorter fiction. Flash fiction or the short story is the most obvious place to begin. Start to hone your knowledge, skills and endurance at this word length. Finish lots of small pieces and see your confidence rise. Once you have finished one piece at two thousand words, you will finish another. Because you have done it once, you know you can repeat it. Then write short stories at various lengths of up to ten thousand words. Finish them all! It will build your confidence exponentially. If you have finished two five thousand word stories, you know you can finish a six thousand word one. Soon, you won’t even notice the stamina level needed in writing and finishing a ten thousand word story because you will have seasoned yourself to this level through your earlier work. And all the time, you will be honing your craft and your storytelling instinct.
The novella is seen as a long short story or a short novel. Its length is about twenty to forty thousand words. It is an excellent bridge between the short story and the novel for the trainee fiction writer to continue their seasoning process. It would do the apprentice no harm and a lot of good to attempt to write three novellas, one at twenty, one at thirty and one at forty thousand words. For each piece of writing, and, in fact, this applies right from the flash fiction up to the higher word count stories, the writer will also be discovering what story ideas work in each medium and what specific skills are required to develop them.
From the novella to the novel is but a small step. You can attempt to write a short novel of sixty thousand words now. Once, you have finished one novel at sixty thousand words you know you can finish another. And, then, of course, you can move up to an even higher word length and maybe end up writing that bestselling blockbuster.
By progressing in this manner, you are at least giving yourself a chance of discovering whether or not you have the talent to be a novelist. If you ever find that you want to cut corners in this very tough and competitive game, just remember the boxing ring analogy and how easy it is to destroy a potentially successful career by jumping into the twelve-round fight far too early on in the apprenticeship.
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