It’s Sunday and it’s raining –again-, so it’s a good opportunity to write. I know what you are thinking: it rains A LOT in Athens –it must be the third or fourth Sunday that I mention it has been raining. Amazingly enough, it seems that the weather is choosing very carefully when to rain and when to destroy some well-thought, perfectly-laid plan involving BBQs and/or walks in the forest with the dog. In fact, I know that tomorrow we will have some fantastic sunshine!
Anyway, I was reading this io9 post about how to write a great fiction novel, and it gave me the idea for this post. So, what do you need to write a great story? To me, it is the following four steps that are the most important:
Have an idea
Oh yes, the idea. Mine came as I was reading an ancient historian who was describing the battle of Marathon and many details I cite in my book are real –some of them, quite gory! I decided to relocate the story into a science fiction setting, et voilà!
In fact, I have a ton of ideas; I just don’t have the time to research them and eventually write them all down.
A few weeks ago, I was reading in the New Yorker the story of how the Nazis stole the amazing and fantastic books from the Jewish households and libraries that existed across Europe. Some books were burnt –the Nazis being true to their beliefs- , but others were stored with the expectation that, after the war, the winners would build a library -accessible to Nazis only- in order to remind themselves of the vanquished cultures.
Clearly and thankfully this did not happen, and in 1945 the Monuments Men (yes, the one played by Clooney) found some three million looted books in Frankfurt. They tried to return the books to their rightful owners, whether people or libraries. In many cases, this was impossible. Families had disappeared in the horror of the Holocaust, and libraries had been burned down. In such cases, the Allies sent the books to the US or Israel, where a new library is dedicated to them. Today, there is an amazing online exhibit that allows you to trace each book’s journey through the post stamps marking the various stops and destinations. Some of them had quite a few stamps on them, which testify to the long journey these books endured.
Now, you must wonder why I am telling you this story: I find it poignant. The books survived, although a lot of the people didn’t. Soldiers, administrators and commanders decided to pay attention to books at the aftermath of a war, when there were so many other priorities. And some of the books were quite old, indeed, like an ancient century Torah: they had probably survived many wars, many lives, many changes. They were most likely passed from one person to another and were probably read in the most amazing places I can imagine. They all carry a story, and I wish I had the time to write a novel about every one of them.
Have a situation
You have to put people in a situation; just describing people does not make sense. The situation must change and your creations must find themselves in novel circumstances which they have to deal with. Just like real life! We write about the story, about the ‘what happens next’ sort of feeling, and the expectations we create for our heroes. As the io9 blogger puts it ‘[…] stories that aren’t about people are landscape paintings.’.
I never thought I would say that, but an inflated ego is probably necessary to write a book! An inflated ego will tell you that you can definitely do it, that 100,000 words is a piece of cake, that your first draft is ‘fantastic … amazing … plausible … intuitive … real…’ and so many other adjectives you can think of (and easily find their synonyms) and that you probably are a genius.
You actually need that inflated ego to carry on and reach the level of ‘maybe-I-should-change-a-bit-the-ending’ and ‘this-is-slightly-unrealistic’ and ‘perhaps-I-could-move-this-part-somewhere-else- where-it-makes-more-sense’ and ‘oh-wait, this-person-died, how-come-she-is-back-in-the-plot?’ Basically, the inflated ego will make you write the first draft and will give enough wind beneath your wings to do the re-writing, editing and re-writing again.
Read! Then, imitate!
No matter what else you do, don’t stop reading! Since I started writing, I have been reading almost one book a week. The difference in my own writing is profound, as I have all the aha! moments, when I discover my fellow authors’ eloquent ways of describing something I struggle with. I invariably end up taking notes of key words and phrases that resonate with me, so I can use them in my own work.
That’s it! Those are my four ideas on how to write a great novel. And, since it’s finally stopped raining, it’s time for a quick walk with the dog!
What do you think? What have you found to be important to your writing?