Category: novels

I Wrote a Book

I did something I never thought I’d be able to do: I wrote a novel.

It probably sounds weird that someone who considers themselves an aspiring writer, and someone that has proven able to finish projects, would think they’d never be able to write a novel. I know lots of people have written several novels, published or not, and don’t think of it as a huge milestone. But I sincerely believed that I didn’t have the focus, the idea, or the stamina to write an entire novel.

Well, I did it. And I learned that (for this particular story, anyway) I can write ~69,000 words in ~11 months (which, according to Google, is actually somewhat short for a novel of its ilk). It helped that the novel I wrote is a story that’s been gestating for five years, and something I’ve already written and revised as a screenplay.

I’m more proud of this accomplishment than maybe anything else I’ve ever done. It’s hard to overstate just how difficult this process was, but also hard to describe how fulfilling. Novels are a different beast than screenplays (not least because a typical novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words while an average screenplay is around 20,000) and, as new ground for me, I found that those differences were changing the way I thought about storytelling. First, the differences:

Novels have more dimensions than screenplays, but screenplays have more restrictions.

The biggest challenge in writing a novel for me was the amount of content I had to shape. I’m used to writing short stories and screenplays, which have a finite amount of space to work with. Screenplays, especially, are limited by the form itself. In a screenplay there are no inner thoughts, there is no memory, the only things that you write are the things that the audience will see or hear on screen. While you can add flashbacks or exposition to explain pieces of a character’s backstory, that sort of thing is generally frowned on and slows your story down. The challenge to screenwriting is using subtext and action to inform the audience of what they need to know.

Novels, on the other hand, have limitless space. I was afforded the opportunity to dive deep into the characters’ pysches, histories, and insecurities. I still had to pick and choose what was relevant and what wasn’t–you never want to clog the page with irrelevant bullshit–but being able to slow down and explore certain aspects of the characters’ lives was a new challenge. It allowed me to weave together narrative threads and add nuance to character actions that would be impossible in a screenplay. Which leads me to the next challenge…

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air.

The story I have is relatively simple; in the original screenplay there were only five characters we spent considerable time with, their relationships with people outside of their group were limited, and (because of a screenplay’s emphasis on forward-motion) there wasn’t a huge number of threads that made up the fabric of the story. Aside from introducing inner lives and complicated histories for every major and minor character in the novel, there were also several new, more detailed story threads to keep track of.

Characters that had bit roles in the screenplay were promoted to nearly full-fledged players. I invented several characters from whole clothe, two of which were major, and introduced several new subplots that tied into the theme of the story. It became a lot to keep track of and, while my memory (and documentation) is pretty good when it comes to character quirks and story threads, I’ve resolved myself to taking copious notes and inventories when I do my first edit. Things that in a screenplay just aren’t as important to have in your head because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking (and, again, the limitations of the form) take on added significance when you’re relying on the imagination of the reader to fill out a frame. How big is a certain character’s apartment? What is the layout of the building for that escape? Did I say it was on the fifth floor or the seventh floor earlier?

These types of questions are in every chapter as you build your story and layer details upon details on one another.

Writing a script is a sprint; writing a novel is a marathon.

Keeping momentum on the story was difficult, especially as I worked through the second act doldrums. The beginning of any story is always fun because it’s new and you’re introducing characters and story elements. The end of a story is fun because things are coming together and all of the groundwork laid earlier on is paying off. The middle of a story is confusing and messy because you’re deep in the woods, your compass is broken, and you can’t retrace your steps to the beginning because a fresh snow fell and covered your previous tracks.

This was especially difficult to deal with when I ran into moments of burn-out or I got busy with work and couldn’t write consistently. There were a few times when I turned my focus to writing a short story or developing a new idea simply because I was tired of looking at the novel. There were other times when I just couldn’t carve out the time to write because I was slammed at work. Inevitably, when I returned to the story I had a hard time regaining any momentum.

With a screenplay, being relatively short, it’s easy to reread everything you’ve done and reorient yourself with the story. When you’re 40,000 or 50,000 words deep into a novel all you’ve really got is your outline to keep you on track. My outlines are generally pretty light; I map out plot points and some specific details that will help me get to them, and then fill in the details as I go. I go back and fill in more details to the outline if I write something major that wasn’t originally there, but generally it doesn’t change too much as I go through the first draft.

I’m wholly expecting that in my first read-through I’m going to find a lot of inconsistencies and WTF moments simply because there was so much time between my writing certain chapters.

What I learned.

As I’ve alluded to several times in this post, stories are made of all sorts of different threads that come together. In screenwriting, it’s easy to overlook this fact because there is so little real estate to work with. Screenplays are very economical, so using what you introduce (or not) is easy to do. With the novel, though, those threads took on new significance because they informed where the story was going.

For me, this became most evident in some of the minor characters. In the screenplay, the minor characters are a footnote; just a way to move the plot forward or add dimension to the setting (i.e., townsfolk a character interacts with). But as I wrote the novel I started to learn ways to reuse minor characters in a way that enriched the major characters and the story as a whole.

In summation, I realized that when telling a story one should use every piece of it. There is always depth behind a character, or a plot point, or a setting that could help to tie things together later and make a more enriching experience for the reader or audience.

So what’s next?

As I was writing and I introduced new elements to the story or thought of ways to elaborate on things already written I took lots of notes on how and when to implement those. So, before anything, I’ll probably go back into certain chapters and write a few thousand more words of backstory and connective tissue for the plot.

Then, I plan to sit on it while I write a screenplay I’ve been noodling on. In that time I might edit the first couple of chapters (it’s been nearly a year since they’ve been written and, while I’ve glanced at them a few times since then, I haven’t really read them) and then give them to my writers’ group for feedback. Otherwise, though, it will sit for a few months while I write a new project.

When the new script is written and, itself, needs time to marinate, I’ll start my edit of the first draft. By that time I’ll likely hate what I’ve written and curse all the time and effort I put into it. But, as I revise, maybe I’ll take big steps toward making it great.

After the first revision, I’ll pass it around to people I trust for their opinions and edits. I may even pay some of them to do the job of an editor, as I know some talented people. (If there are major issues with it when all that is said and done, I’ve thought about hiring an experience industry editor, but that can be pricey.)

Using the notes I get from my trusted circle of fellow writers I’ll write a third draft. Then, and only then, will I decide whether or not to shop it around. I think the story and its hook are strong enough to garner some attention, but that isn’t where I’ve faltered in the past. Maybe the added space to let the story breathe will fulfill the potential of my execution.

If not, then at least now I know how to revise the screenplay again.

The Constant Search for Inspiration

That title is a bit misleading. I, personally, don’t typically search for inspiration. I have no real need to. I’m bombarded by ideas, most of which are shitty and I forget as soon as they happen, all the time. Inspiration is everywhere. The last idea I got that I was excited about what as I was driving through a foggy Pennsylvania after visiting home for Easter. My girlfriend was sleeping in the passenger seat of the car, the fog was the thickest I’ve ever seen, there were woods on either side of us, and we suddenly passed an overturned semi. That atmosphere and jarring image were all it took to shake something loose in my mind, and I wrote up a short treatment as soon as I got home.

Easter may seem like a long time ago. And it was. But ideas (really good ones, anyhow) are fairly rare. For a screenplay I’m happy with maybe two or three ideas that could be considered high-concept per year. Novels are even less than that (although sometimes there is a choice to be made between an idea being right for a screenplay or a novel). Short stories are a different beast. Ray Bradbury believed in writing one short story per week. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have the ability (right now) to be that prolific. However, I think short stories can deal with much more mundane material, perhaps with a twist, and still be engaging. I’m a fan of the slice-of-life and think that sort of thing suits itself well to flash fiction and even longer short stories, if done well.

I’ve run into a problem, though. Recently I’ve lacked some inspiration. I know the cause – my life has been boring. That’s not even completely accurate; you’re life can be boring and still give you fantastical ideas. But you need to seek them out by reading more, observing more, studying more. I haven’t taken the time to do that recently. My more intellectual pursuits have fallen by the wayside. It’s difficult to know if that will change anytime soon. My summer, as of right now, looks like it might be full of work and not much else.

I know what you’re thinking: Who wants to live that way? I should clarify what I mean by “work.” I mean my day job, of course, but I also mean writing work. Finishing scripts, new projects, that bane of my existence I call Manifest Destiny (one day I will break you, Manifest Destiny! One day!). It’s just that between those things and whatever social life I can cobble together in this strange city, there is the risk of enveloping myself in a bubble that doesn’t allow for new experiences or learning new things.

So here’s my point: Inspiration is, literally, everywhere. But you still have to take the time and put in the effort to look. It may be hiding in plain sight, but it’s still hiding.

Research: Necessity and Complication

Ask almost anyone on LinkedIn and they’ll tell you: I’m good at research.

(That was probably the most inside joke that can be insided. For that, I apologize.)

I consider myself a lifelong learner. I fell in love with science in college and have yet to look back. Many of my story ideas come from reading about things in science and history. Many writers aren’t like that. Some prefer to wing it and research later. Others prefer to just rely on their imagination entirely. We won’t talk about that latter group.

I’ve found that research is a necessity for many stories, but can also complicate writing. Let’s explore those thoughts.

A lot of writing advice I’ve read (especially recently, what with NaNoWriMo and all) says to just write and worry about research later. Bradbury, one of my literary idols, recommended the same thing. He believed the best stories were purely imaginative. That’s probably why he was ballsy enough to lie to his readers in the interest of a story well told. In The Martian Chronicles he fully admits that he didn’t care there was no atmosphere on Mars. He put one there because it served to stories he wanted to tell. 451 degrees fahrenheit isn’t the temperature at which paper burns, despite what he would have you believe in Fahrenheit 451.

The logic is that you’ll have to rewrite anyway, so it’s best to get the story on paper as quickly as possible. After all, that is the most difficult part of writing – the writing part. I disagree. To use Bradbury as an example again, he also advocated reading every night. One poem, one short story, and one nonfiction article. He recommends this because it expands the writer’s imagination with more knowledge. When Bradbury was writing purely from imagination, his imagination was filled with facts and figures from the things he read at night. That was his way of doing research.

Other authors are different. Some try to hew a bit more closely to reality. I’m one of those writers. For me, research becomes important even before writing. For one, often time research will lead to other ideas to explore. I’ve recently been doing research for The Manifest Destiny and it has given me ideas for other chapters, and given me ways to elaborate on ideas in already written chapters.

During NaNoWriMo I also learned that if you start to write something you don’t know, it will be useless. There are some things that you should have an idea of before writing, especially if those things set the tone for the rest of the story. My problem happened in the very first chapter. It revolves heavily around the way United States legislation works. I had an idea of how it works (I did minor in Political Science in college – not that I retained much), but on actually starting to do my research I realized that everything I had written was way off base. On getting into deeper research recently, including reading declassified materials similar to what I’m writing about, my original vision for the chapter was not only wrong, but less interesting.

I’m of the mind that truth is often stranger (or more interesting) than fiction. There is a lot of room for embellishments and prognostications in reality that do not negate the creativity involved. The fun in writing creatively is taking a piece of reality and exploring it. That can be as simple as exploring a boy/girl relationship, or as complicated as describing the innerworkings of an ion sail propulsion system for an interstellar starship.

What separates artists from non-artists is the artists ability to take a slice of reality and explore it. Offer differing perspectives. Find some deeper meaning. Offer a greater truth. But it all starts with research. How else is the reader supposed to buy into the world we’re creating? By understanding your subject you can better bring your reader into your world more quickly and easily, allowing them to cut right to the heart of the matter: Your story. Your perspective. Your deeper meaning. Or your greater truth.

Despite my belief in research being necessary to believable and powerful writing, it can also complicate the process and bog you down. It can be difficult to know when is too much. It’s more difficult to resist the urge to show off and yell at your reader, “Look what I learned! Isn’t this interesting? Aren’t you glad I’m now regurgitating it to you and neglecting the things you actually care about i.e. my characters, plot, etc.?”

The Manifest Destiny is running the risk of this. Even the political machinations of the U.S. Government aren’t really simple enough to create a compelling, easily followed storyline. Corners will need to be cut. Processes simplified or glossed over completely. Because as much as my first chapter relies on my characters (and therefore, me) understanding how Federal funding works, it’s not important to or for the reader. But I also can’t lose the reader by being too vague. That’s the balance to strike between believability and overcomplication.

Just today, while researching actually, I read a story from famed Science Fiction/Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson called “Atmosphera Incognita.” It was well-written, and well-researched, but didn’t grab me because it became so dense in parts. Admittedly, this is partially the fault of the reader. I was reading an anthology consisting of a mixture of science-heavy non-fiction articles and short fiction based on the science in the articles. Stephenson’s story was definitely in the right place.

The issue I had with it was that he spent so much time building his world, explaining the mechanics and history of the building at the center of the story, that I began to lose interest. The reason I started to lose interest was simple, because the story was so focused on making me believe in this feat of engineering there was no room to give me a character to identify with and hold on to. The narrator is somewhat interesting on a surface level, but she’s rarely active in the story and because she’s the one explaining these concepts, you never get to know her very well, either. Now, Neal Stephenson is a very successful writer whereas I’m just some guy with access to an internet connection, so I will definitely allow that I missed something in the story. But that doesn’t change my initial impression.

This brings me to my second belief about writing: A story needs to relate back to something relatable to a typical person. This is where the perspective/meaning/truth comes in again. People are going to be the ones reading your story. People with hopes, dreams, fears, ideas, and viewpoints. If they can’t find a reflection of any of those things in your writing, that decreases the chances that they’ll enjoy it or take anything from it.

Everything I just wrote above isn’t always true. Again, Bradbury is a good example to use (and a good way to bookend everything). The Martian Chronicles, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have much in the way of hard research-based factual writing. But what it does have is strong perspectives, deeper meanings, and greater truths. Bradbury was talented enough to easily build worlds, no matter how fantastic, that a reader could jump into and believe in.

It is also true that not every story needs to be relatable. I recently read a story from Isaac Asimov that was simply an idea explored through various characters you never got to know well in small bites. I still loved it.

My point with all this, and perhaps this says more about who I want to be as a writer than what I think writers should be in general, is that the best writing is both honest and believable, and relatable. It is filled with great characters with dramatic conflicts, but also says something or explores an idea greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s the type of writing I like to read, and that’s the type of writing I’d like to write.

© 2024 Craig Gusmann

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