How Do You Write A Novel?

JT Ellison

It’s a good question, isn’t it? One I’ve been asked more times than I can count, sometimes with genuine curiosity, sometimes with a sneering edge of "I can do that, you’re nothing special," sometimes with an air of absolute incredulity from a reader who gets it. More often than not, and remember, I’m talking about people who don’t read regularly, I get asked these questions with a sense of dismissal.

There is an overwhelming misapprehension among laypeople about publishing in general, about writing, about the realities writers face. People assume that you dash off one hundred pages and a publishing house says cool, we’re going to publish your book, and two weeks later it’s on the shelf. Oh, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

So the reality — the years of work, blood, sweat and tears that go into a novel, the marketing and promotion, the Internet presence prior to landing an agent, or a publisher — all that is lost on people who think books grow from the grocery shelves like so much hamburger or broccoli.

But how do you write a novel? How do you make the jump from fiddling with words, putting them in order, maybe even writing some poetry or short stories, to building a salable story, developing characters and plots, writing hundreds of pages of coherent prose that will be worthy of a cover?

I’ve been thinking about this lately. (As usual, I’ve been exposed to something new and I’m making sense of it, in my way.) The first was Stephen King’s ON WRITING, so highly recommended by Mr. Guyot some weeks back. The second was a comment made by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Both of these fantastic authors obviously have THE SECRET figured out, and do a great job explaining it.

Julia was speaking to our local chapter of Sisters in Crime and was being grilled by the audience, made up of mostly writers that night. The inevitable question of where do you get your ideas was put forth, and I settled back, fascinated, as I always am, to hear the answer. No doubt you’ve noticed that no two authors can give you the same answer. Some dream, some plot, some are struck by things they see on their morning walk, some just have wild, creative minds. It wasn’t the idea answer that captured my attention, it was what she followed with. The ooga-ooga.

We all have ideas. We all have the facilities to turn those ideas into stories. But HOW do we do it? Yes, yes, we sit at the computer and write them down. We’re disciplined, and work hard. We know the rules, we understand the grammar and punctuation, know how to spell and use dialogue tags. But can we really explain HOW we turn that knowledge into a novel?

Julia calls it the ooga-ooga. I had a vision of cannibals standing over a cauldron, sharpened bones piercing their lips, tossing various bits of vegetable matter into the stew, a dash of pepper, a pinch of salt — Ooga-Ooga, dinner’s ready. And I felt every constraint I’ve ever been saddled with disappear. Oh, you mean we’re allowed to admit that there might be an element of writing we can’t explain? That it’s not wrong to look at our extraordinary ability to manipulate words as a gift? As Julia pointed out, could Beethoven explain how the notes came together in his head? 

I was trying to explain this to a new friend at a party this past weekend. At a loss and knowing ooga-ooga wasn’t going to cut it, I fell back on another analogy I’ve used. Do you cook from a recipe or from scratch? Have you ever watched a cook who uses recipes as a suggested guideline? They season to taste. They toss in the pepper and salt, oregano and onion, garlic and basil, stir, add, taste, stir, add, taste until their face takes on that triumphant glow. It’s perfect. Can they tell you what ingredients to use? Yes. Can they tell you how just one extra dash of oregano and a pinch of salt makes it perfect? Well, yes, they can tell you, but you need to taste the finished product to understand.

That is how I write a novel. I build the story with words, toss in the spices, and season it to taste. I can’t necessarily explain HOW that happens, but I know when it’s ready to be read, just as a master chef knows when it’s time to turn off the heat and serve their dish.

In ON WRITING, King says:

"At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we’re also talking about magic."

Magic. Ooga-Ooga. Call it what you will.

King also gave permission to do all the reading and writing my little heart desires. Of late, I’ve been up to my ears in the Internet — promotion, web sites, groups blogging, reading blogs, reading list serves, keeping up with sales and tracking books, MySpace and now Crimespace — and I feel like my writing, and reading, are suffering because of it. This break couldn’t have come at a better time. Last year, when I was in heavy book mode, I shut off my lists, didn’t play on email, and got the work done. I was happy when hubby got home from work because I’d accomplished so much each day. I’m about to go into that mode again. So if you don’t see me around as much, it’s nothing personal. I’ll be doing my blog here, but the rest of the time I’ll be focused on my writing, and catching up on reading. That’s how I write a novel. With a little ooga-ooga on the side.

Wine of the Week: Let’s do a 2003 Clos de L’Obac, a nice Spanish blend of granacha and cabernet sauvignon, with some syrah, merlot and carinena. Yum!

16 thoughts on “How Do You Write A Novel?

  1. billie

    Great post!

    I did so much ooga ooga fixing a complex sequencing issue in the w-i-p yesterday I came down with vertigo by the afternoon and had to cancel clients.

    I am *still* swirling.

    Love the thought of you digging in to write and read good books – looking forward to the end result. 🙂

  2. Rob Gregory Browne

    Shutting out the world for a short time seems like a good idea. I’m gonna have to do that. Especially since I have revisions to take care of…

    But the Internet keeps calling me. Calling and calling…

  3. Naomi

    How lucky for you to have Julia come to your SINC group! Julie–come to L.A.!

    As the juices are starting to come together for a standalone I’ll be working on later this year, I’m wondering this as well–

    How much is originality important to you? A few ideas have come in terms of the murder and the motivations behind it, but then I think to myself–that’s been done so many times. This is related to Pari’s post earlier this week, but does “DONE THAT” ever circle in your mind when you’re thinking of that new novel?

  4. JT Ellison

    Billie, that’s fantastic! Those vertigo afternoons are why we do this.

    Rob and Tasha, yes, exactly. But the writing wins, hands down.

    Wendy, thanks! Good to see you.

  5. JT Ellison

    Naomi, IMHO, part of originality comes from the characters and the setting. What is it, there’s only 7 original plot devices? If we’re all writing a variation on the same seven themes, the creativity of the writer makes the familiar unique. I’ve got an easier road because of the Nashville setting, but there are only so many ways a man can kill a woman. So the personalities, the writing, the setting, the tone — all that make it different from any other.

    Then again, I saw a movie trailer last night for a new horror flick that’s obvioulsy Rear Window remade with zombies, so what do I know?

  6. Louise Ure

    Before I started writing, I would have described myself as a literary gourmand — appreciate of that special recipe, but unable to cook.

    I’m no gourmet chef yet, by any means, but I’m beginning to cook without recipes — to replace the expected ingredients with something new, and flavoring it to suit my own tastes.

    Hopefully, that’s where the magic will come in. Great post, JT!

  7. pari

    Happy, hooty birthday to JB!

    Naomi asked if we ever felt like we’d “done that” before. Funny, you should mention it.

    Last night, I was explaining a plot point to my husband (who has never read my novels, btw) and he said, “Isn’t that awfully similar to . . .?”

    The bad thing was, in a way, he was right. But the telling of the story will make it different. That’s part of J.T.’s point, I believe. It’s the ooga-ooga (thank you, Julia) that takes the same ingredients and makes different, yummy dishes every time.

    Alot to think about in this post. Thank you, J.T.

  8. billie

    An aside – Pari, I am right at the end of The Clovis Incident – wow what a romp!! I LOVE it.

    I’d be upset right now except I have The Belen Hitch awaiting. 🙂

  9. J.B. Thompson

    I’m hopping on a couple days late after a crazy weekend … thanks for the birthday wishes, ladies. It was a great day!

    One of the things I love most about having this brilliant woman for a critique partner is that I know I can count on her for pearls of wisdom like this that will change my attitude toward my writing (for the better). Lucky me, she gave me a copy of ON WRITING for my birthday – told me it was going to change my life. Not even 15 sections in, I know she’s right (as usual).

    Thanks so much, JT, for your guidance and willingness to share your special gifts with me and the rest of the world. Yet another outstanding post!


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