This originally appeared in my zine The Inner Swine a few years ago.
BRING ON THE HELPER MONKEYS
How My Genius Novels Get Written
by Jeff Somers
FRIEND, do you have a book in you?
Note: Not literally. Or, OK, why not: Literally too.
If you’re one of the billions who does, indeed, have a story to tell but doesn’t know where to start, then this issue of The Inner Swine is for you. Because, you see, I myself have written several books. More than was probably wise, actually; if you consider how much time I’ve spent on them compared with how many I’ve sold and made money from, the resulting per-hour salary is depressing (homeless folks begging on the street make more per hour). Still, this isn’t an essay about selling a book, but rather about writing one.
Are you one of those folks who, when they’re introduced to a working writer at a party immediately tell them that you have a great idea for a book? Do you have a notebook filled with random notes for your “great American novel”? Do you work in an English Department, anywhere? Then this essay is for you, because I’m going to show you how easy it is to write a book. Easier than many other things, in fact. Hell, I’m writing a book right now, while I write this essay. It’s that easy.
An aside: I think everyone in the universe has a book in them, yes, but of course not everyone wants to write one, which is fine. I make no judgments. And some folks have self-help books or dictionaries in them, which again: no judgments, but you really should ask yourself two questions: Do I have a book in me, and should I actually write it?
You will almost certainly always discover the answer is: no.
First, some definitions: A Novel is approximately 50,000—100,000 words. Opinions differ; there are novels out there that clock in much lower with really HUGE FONTS AND MARGINS to bulk them up, and some folks obviously think the lower minimum for novels is about 600,000 words. You can argue a lot about where novellas end and novels begin, or whether that’s even a useful distinction, but we’ll stick with approximately 50,000 words. Words that link together to form sentences, sentences pooling into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters. You just start telling a story and keep going until you’re done.
I know I made that sound really easy, and some of you are scratching your heads in front of your keyboards wondering how exactly that works. So, let’s walk through my process for writing a novel. I’ll take you step by step through the whole thing, so you can see how I go from blank pages to 70,000 words in no time. Then you can apply my template to your own life and write your own novels, and stop mailing me postcards with NOVEL IDEA written on the front and a tiny contract promising you 50% of the royalties if published on the back.
JEFF’s WRITING PROCESS
1. INSPIRATION. Naturally, you have to have a story to tell, first. Most people want to tell their story, but I heartily discourage this. First of all, most of us are boring. You may not be, but I can’t possibly know that. I must assume you are boring, boring, boring, just like the rest of us.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use yourself as fodder for your story: Anything can be an entertaining tale if it is embellished enough. You’re not writing a memoir, after all—you’re writing a novel. Feel free to sprinkle in challenges you never faced, philosphies you never followed, ninjas, dragons, and love affairs. Sadly, most of you, even with ninjas and dragons, are going to be dull to a fault. So dull I will likely be willing to gnaw off my own arm in order to escape your droning, ninja-infested story.
You could always try Nazis. Nazis have powers to make even the worst stories seem interesting.
However, I strongly encourage you to come up with some other source of inspiration that is not: you. This way your own ego won’t get in the way, forcing you to spend hundreds and hundreds of paragraphs describing your immortal physique, your complex, sensitive thoughts, and your many, many inventions which you have donated to the world at large.
Where to get inspiration? A great way is, simply, to steal from other books or movies. Read and watch a lot of stuff and look for threads you can pull out and make your own. A subplot that gets short thrift, but has fascinating possibilities. A minor character with interesting characteristics. A different, superior way the entire premise could have been resolved—all of these threads are paths you can follow to a new story. There’s nothing new under the sun, as H.L. Mencken once said—there have been a million stories told about murders, about love affairs, adultery, robbery, space travel, disease, war, or alien invasion. Just because the basic idea’s been done doesn’t mean you can’t find a little-known path and follow it into something interesting.
If you’re completely stymied, pick an ancient classic (Shakespeare works nicely) and steal the plot hook, line, and sinker.
2. BEGINNING. Getting started is the most difficult and lengthy part of the process, because you’re staring at the heavy, frightening length of blank pages or word processor screens, and it seems absolutely impossible that you could ever pile up enough words to form an actual novel. Even a long string of gibberish seems an impossibly heavy load, although there have been published books that certainly seem to be little more than a long string of gibberish. This zine, in fact, is usually a long string of gibberish.
How then, to plow through? Simple: You do it by doing. Just start piling the words on. Don’t think about it too hard. My own personal secret is, most books don’t really get started until a few thousand words in. You just keep pushing words onto the page until something clicks. If you just keep pushing, even if it never clicks you’ll have a big shitty pile of words which you can declare a novel and go get a drink. And every now and then those words might actually coalesce into something cool.
It helps if you have someone who will threaten to beat you up if you don’t get some writing done. In my case, my lovely wife The Duchess computes my advance monies in terms of pairs of shoes and handbags, and thus is an excellent motivator. She’s also learned, from grim experience, that whatever else she employs to motivate me, she should never break my precious hands, or diminish my eyesight, both of which would entail expensive disability-themed tools in order to keep me productive. If you don’t have your own Duchess, you can always hire someone—soccer hooligans are good—to beat you over the head with something whenever you stop typing for more than thirty seconds.
3. FOLLOW-THROUGH. This is the hardest, as I like bright shiny new things and get very bored once I’ve actually written something. The fun is in getting it down on paper, not on tweaking it and making sure the commas are in the right place (they usually aren’t; my comma abuse is becoming famous in the midlist world). I considered the following techniques to get me to revise and correct:
A. Lent Revision: Deny yourself something until you’ve finished your proofread and revision of the aforementioned gibberish. This isn’t as effective as it should be; the only thing worth giving up is booze, and without booze I don’t function at top efficiency, which in turn retards the revision process. I prefer to be as drunk as possible when reading my own work, in order to blunt the horror of my own prose. I recommend that anyone else reading my work also strive to be as drunk as possible. It helps.
B. Speed Revving: This is where I just decide I’m going to have all 100,000 words revised in three days, and just power through it. Usually I accomplish this by reading every fifth word or so. Sometimes I just take forty or fifty pages and decide they’re fine. I figure any problems can be explained away pretty easily (see below).
C. Nothing. I just let the manuscript sit on my desk for a few weeks and then declare it revised via osmosis.
TIPS AND TRICKS
As with just about everything else we do here at The Inner Swine, most of my writing technique is smoke and mirrors. Here are a couple of useful tricks that will get you through some rough spots:
POETIC LICENSE. Ah, the Swiss Army Knife of the artistic life. Any time you find yourself smeared with the acrid stench of incompetence, just haul out this chestnut and dance around with it a bit. Caught using blatantly incorrect grammar in your prose? Poetic frickin’ license, bubba, I did it on purpose for “flavor”. Did I forget halfway through that my novel was a murder mystery and start inserting ghosts and space aliens? Not incompetence either, but rather genius that you simply can’t follow. So there. Does the story suddenly change from being about a love affair between Ralph and Mary and become, on page 134, a tale about futuristic warriors declaring a Christmas Truce on Mars? You simply don’t understand the symbolism.
PLANE CRASH. Stuck for an ending? Have you been working on that 340,000-word monster since you were fifteen and it just won’t end? Sometimes you just have to end it, even if that means a 1500-word coda wherein all the characters are revealed to be laboratory mice in some facility, dreaming. Or if you have to just kill everyone off in a very sad extended final chapter. And if anyone questions your ending, refer to poetic license above and explain to them that it embodies the pointlessness of our existence.
Well, there you go: Get crackin’. You should now be able to churn out books by the bucketload. Horrible, unreadable books, but books nonetheless. Just please don’t send me any of your stillborn creations; I’ve got enough of my own to deal with.