Welcome Brad Leach and his monthly installment of insights, humor and
a sly bit of sarcasm.
A few kindly people have recently asked some version of: “What’s it like to try and write a novel?” And initially, my answer was “it’s fun.” After half a year now, I would add, “It’s atrociously hard work.” Not that I’m complaining – much. Here are my findings.
The plot is the map of the story. Imagine it’s the road trip on which you intend to take your readers. It must be scenic, pleasurable, and unique. It must have thrills, tears, turns, and twists. It must do this while not being too complicated or confusing. You want readers exhilarated and intrigued but not car-sick.
Putting a story together is like picking out a hidden path through quicksand bogs in the dark, while juggling. Why? Today’s readers have been raised on the best of TV, Hollywood movies, and classic books. Saturated with media, they notice flaws, are easily bored, and are used to being fed the story. Fail and readers walk away.
And characters? They’re the vehicles readers occupy to take this ride. Characters must be likeable and relatable, or at least watchable. Yet they need human irritations, flaws, and complexity. They need to be original, having unique quirks and habits, not contrived or stereotyped. Readers want characters that are challenged, overcome their flaws, change and grow, while remaining the same person they knew. But most of all, characters must never be boring or shallow.
Setting is the scenery the reader sees out of the windows as the trip progresses. It must entertain and delight, set up the trip’s feel and mood, yet not slow the story down too much or overpower the action or characters. And it must be interwoven into text as the story moves, not just set in a block at the front. No one starts a car trip watching all the scenery in a flash, and then has blacked-out windows for the rest of the ride.
Add to this research and details. You can’t use a Nehru jacket for antebellum America and the color you mention in chapter two must be the same in chapter thirty. You might have forgotten some specific written five months ago, but your readers, civil war curators all, read both chapters within a few hours. They spot lapses.
Like any tour, the beginning must attract the reader’s attention. Dialogue must pop and sizzle, while remaining unique to each character. Back-story must balance action. Pacing needs slow moments to offset the exhilarating action. Dialogue must balance narration. Grammar needs to be correct, yet not formal. Sense the juggling balls yet?
And all of this must be done using a unique style of voice. Readers are looking for fun, quirky, or deeply moving ways of seeing familiar things or having new events and people described. Old ghosts don’t produce new shivers, so new ghosts must be fashioned. And today’s shivers are harder to come by.
The best authors do this with a seeming ease. But behind the curtain, they are combining the skills of a tour bus driver, an over-the-road trucker, a NASCAR driver, a Hollywood stunt driver, and an English chauffeur. At the end, the author hopes to collect simple bus fare. Yet if the author performs well, they know the hurdle for their next book just got a little higher.