What Is A Novel? And Why Does It Matter? And To Whom?

Originally published on MotiveMeansOpportunity.

According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a novel is “a long, printed story about imaginary characters and events.” I find that definition, while technically accurate, woefully vague. Dictionary.com, thankfully, has a more precise definition: “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Formal language aside, this is much better. Far more specific and comprehensive. However, neither definition concretely addresses what is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a novel: length. So allow me to synthesize parts of the above definitions with one of my own.   A novel is a piece of fiction that is 60,000 words or more.

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But what’s more relevant than the definition itself are the reasons why readers and writers alike should care.  So let’s discuss, briefly, what some of those reasons are, why they matter, and to whom they matter. First off, I’ve yet to come across a literary agent or a publisher that will even consider a manuscript that is less than 60,000 words, so length is paramount.  My guess is that’s to do with marketing.  Agents must sell manuscripts in order to make any money, and publishers big and small are not willing to spend the time, energy, and resources on any manuscript, regardless of quality, that cannot be labeled a novel, which is, by leaps and bounds, the most popular form of fiction read today.  It’s supply and demand. Simple as that.  That said, I love short stories and novellas, but generally speaking, people don’t read them. Truth be told, I don’t read them much, unless it is for a literature or creative writing class I happen to be teaching.  In short, readers read novels. Period.

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Money is another reason writers should be keenly aware of the definition of a novel.  Everything, in the end, gets back to money. Sad, but true.  And if publishers are going to go to the trouble of publishing a book, it needs to be of substance and of a certain length, i.e. novel-length. Quick hypothetical: imagine you’re a Kindle reader, and you purchase a “novel” that looks good, but then soon discover the book is less than a hundred pages.  You feel cheated, right? Betrayed, maybe even enough to not bother with the rest of the book.  And if you do read on, that sense of betrayal can and will color your opinion of the book in question, especially since you paid good money for it.  Now consider the cost of printing a hardback or paperback.  After paying editors and proofreaders and book cover designers, a publisher has to then send a typeset manuscript to a printer, and that costs even more money.  Publishers must be selective in what they publish. Highly selective.  It’s not just a question of money, but time as well. For all the time a publisher spends on one book, that same publisher is missing out on a whole slew of other books, all potential bestsellers. For you business types out there, you’ll know there is a name for this: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.

Bottom line, writers need to be aware of what publishers and agents mean when they ask for novels, and act accordingly. Because if writers don’t, they’ll get something even worse than a boilerplate rejection notice in their inbox: they’ll get no response at all.

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So what’s your definition of a novel? Why do you think readers prefer novels over other forms of fiction such as novellas and short stories? I’d love to hear what you think.

Advice to Unpublished Novelists

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Dear Unpublished Novelist,

Stop what you’re doing. Immediately. Paying attention? Good.

Now read the following letter (in its entirety) before you decide what to do with that first manuscript you spent so much time on your posterior writing. Trust me, it’ll only help. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

A Writer’s Goals

So you wrote a book, eh? Good for you. A major accomplishment. You should be proud as punch. After all, there aren’t enough novels in the world.  I kid. Congrats, for sooth.  Now, an important question: should you send your book (your precious baby that you slaved away on) to an agent, a small press, or self-publish?

My answer: depends on what your goals are as a writer. Here’s a breakdown of my thoughts on the subject. Bare in mind these are just my humble opinions based on my experiences in the biz.

Agents/Big Publishers

There are exceptions, of course, but if you want to earn anything even close to a living, then you definitely need an agent and a big New York publisher. Agents and big publishers have the resources to get your book into bookstores and libraries around the country; they can get your book reviewed in a variety of influential publications; they can set up book tours (although those are becoming less and less frequent unless your name is James Patterson or Nora Roberts). And agents, the good ones anyway, are advocates who help your career in ways that you on your own would never be able to do.  Do you know anything about contract law? Do you read and understand legalese? Do you have experience negotiating? No? Me neither. Those are just some of the many reasons you need an agent in your corner.  Bottom line, if you want to make some money writing, your best shot is with an agent and a big publisher. Period.

Small Presses

If your goal is to experience the thrill of having your work in “print,” then a small press is great. Nowadays, there are TONS of small presses out there, and some of them put out excellent books at reasonable prices.  Another advantage: small presses will take manuscripts directly from an author, whereas big publishers will only read manuscripts sent to them by literary agents. That’s the good stuff. Now, the bad: if you sign with a small press, chances are you will make little to no money (most DO NOT give advances on royalties), and you will be responsible for a majority of the promotions. Also, unless you happen to live near the publisher, or you are willing to travel (at your own expense) to their offices, you will never meet them in person, which, for some writers, could be a major problem.  (I’m not particularly fussed about that as I’m a borderline recluse and love to travel . . .all around MY HOUSE.) Most likely your communication with a small press will be through emails, and perhaps a phone call here and there, if that. I know of some small press writers who have never spoken to their publishers, at all.

I’d compare the experience of working with a small press to taking college courses online: sure, it is convenient and you’re still getting a decent education, but you have very limited access to actual human beings, and, as we all know, things can get lost in translation via email and phone.

My opinion: small presses do their best, but their resources (and time) are limited, so go into the whole process with your eyes open. . . and perhaps most importantly, manage your expectations.

Self-Publishing

As for self-publishing. . .well, I get tired just thinking about it.  Advantages: you do get to keep more of the money you earn, and you’re in total control, which, as a control freak, is attractive to me and more important than the money aspect even. However, it’s expensive because you’re responsible for everything.  Literally everything.  Writing, editing, book cover, promotions. . .the whole shooting match.  It’s a ton of work, and frankly, there are SO MANY self-published books out there that it will be very, very, very, very difficult to get yours noticed. It can be done. I know at least two successful self-published authors out there, but both of them had agents and big publishers at one time, which helped them build up a readership that enabled them, in my opinion, to be successful on their own. Plus, those authors hustle, man; they work their butts off, which a lot of us writers, myself included, aren’t willing to do. My take, the self-publishing route is a long shot, but hey, writing is a long shot, so do what you feel!

So there you go, Unpublished Novelist. My two cents worth. Remember to take all of my advice with a grain of Margarita salt.

Yours in wisdom (which is just a synonym for regret),

Obscure Mystery Novelist

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Advice for Writers

Quick word: I’m contributing to a new mystery blog called MotiveMeansOpportunity, so go check it out.

Be mentally-ill.  Believe me, if you want to be a writer, having a reasonable, manageable amount of mental illness is a God send. (Note: being neurotic can and often does reek havoc on your personal and professional life, but the fleas come with the dog).  Here’s why being afflicted with a mild to moderate mental illness is beneficial to a writer: because you suffer, you better understand the suffering of others.  Your suffering allows you to better understand human frailty, and that, in turn, fosters empathy for others, which will help improve the depth of the characters you write. Plus, do I really need to list all of the great writers, male and female, who struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other neurotic ailments?

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Have a toddler.  Or, if parenting isn’t your thing, then babysit a friend’s toddler for an hour or two.  Playing with a toddler is an excellent crash course in the art of improvisation, and there’s only one rule when it comes to improv: ALWAYS say yes.  This is important to remember, especially when writing a first draft. Don’t try to control everything; don’t dictate every little thing your characters say and do and think.  Allow your characters to surprise you, allow them to hurt themselves, make mistakes, say boneheaded things. In other words: improvise. You’ll be amazed what those figments of your imagination will get up to once you stop helicoptering over them all the time.

Listen to Rap music.  My old man forced John Prine and Jimmy Buffet and the Allman Brothers Band down my throat when I was a kid, and, eventually, I grew to love that music, too, but really my first love was rap. I love the rhythm and attitude in hip-hop, the bravado, and all of those things have helped improve my writing. I’ve been told my books have a pretty strong voice, that the words create a rhythm when read, and I credit my love of rap for that. Plus, whenever I write a hardcore villain, I try and channel the devil-may-care-attitude of classic rappers like Public Enemy and NWA.

letter

Handwrite letters. It’s a tragedy that people don’t write letters anymore. A real shame. I still write them though, and I love receiving them as well. Writing anything by hand helps you develop patience, the ability to slow yourself down and reflect before simply, for example, pecking away at a laptop or tablet. Letters are more personal, too, and the best writing, whether it’s a mystery novel or an email, has an element of the personal to it.

Read outside your genre. Yeah, I know: this is a mystery blog, and I like mysteries. I’ve written several. I’m writing another one as we speak (well, it’s sort of a mystery, sort of a meta-spy, break-all-the-rules novel of complications).  But anyway. Reading outside your genre: this will only improve your writing, expose you to new ideas, new styles, and new modes of storytelling, and that is always a good idea. Too, I get bored reading the same types of stories over and over and over again. Am I the only one?

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Watch TV. Before I get lambasted for suggesting something as crass as staring at the Idiot Box, let me clarify. Watch good TV. And actively, not passively, watch it.  Guess what, there’s plenty of great TV shows out there these days (movies, not so much). Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, and Silicon Valley are just a few of my current favorites. Watching good TV is a quick and easy way to improve your dialogue writing skills. Ditto storytelling. Good TV also teaches you to always, no matter what, focus on the story. No fat. No filler. Everything in a good TV show serves the story in some form or fashion, and the same should hold true for your novels.

Tell lies. Yes, I know: lying is bad. I’m not saying you should lie about anything important, but when you meet a stranger at a party, go ahead and tell a few whoopers. Why? Again: improvisation is a tool every storyteller should have in his or her toolbox. If you can tell a credible lie (or a series of lies) to a stranger, and they actually respond to them, that tells you you have created a believable fib, and, possibly, a fascinating character. That’s what we writers do, isn’t it?

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Be an introvert. My opinion, you want to be good at writing, you need to spend a lot of time alone honing your craft. Sure, workshops are. . .no, I can’t even tell that lie with a straight face. I don’t like workshops, never have, not even when I was required to attend them in order to obtain my so-called Master’s degree in English. But full disclosure, I do not and never will work and play well with others. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Period. Hell, that’s at least half of its appeal to me; I get to be alone for a few hours every day. You can talk to writers and readers and hang out at conferences, and all that’s fine by me. But if you want to get good at this tricky thing called writing, go inside, shut the door, and write. And you need to be alone when you do it.

Which reminds me, I need to be alone for a while, so the next sound you hear will be my door shutting.

Quick Writing Tips: On Shifting Perspectives

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Writing a novel with shifting narrative perspectives is good fun–for the author and the reader.  The author gets a chance to really develop characters and voices, while the reader gets to experience the story from multiple perspectives. Some really great novels have shifting narrative perspectives. . .Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, to name but three.

My forthcoming crime thriller Alphabet Land has three different narrators, and it got me thinking about some “rules” for multiple narrative perspectives. I came up with four, if ever you’re looking to try your hand at this.

  1. Stay with one perspective for an entire chapter. And when you do this, make sure to establish which character you’re following in the very first paragraph, the first sentence preferably. Otherwise, you risk alienating/confusing the reader, which is quick way to get him or her to give up on your book.
  2. Move the story forward with every narrative shift. This means, of course, that the plot should progress with each new chapter, but, perhaps less obviously, the characters–all of them–need to evolve right along with the story. Doing that will only serve to increase the tension, and keep the reader hooked.
  3. If using third person narrators, you must remain consistent. For example, if you allow the reader access to one of your narrator’s internal dialog, then you need to do that for all other narrators as well. Another example: if you include very little backstory for one narrator, and instead, rely on action and/or dialog to develop the character (which, as a writer, I recommend, and as a reader I prefer), then do that for all other narrators, too. Ditto style, tone, syntax, pacing, etc. (Note: if you’re using first person when writing with multiple narrators. . .all bets are off.

Bottom line, writing in multiple perspectives is a great way to challenge yourself as a writer, and it can be a deeply satisfying experience for a reader. If you have any other good novels that use this technique, drop me a line. Would love to hear from you.

 

Guest Blog: Robert J. Ray

Robert J. Rayweekend novelist

“Keys to a Dramatic Scene”

The key to the dramatic scene is an intruder penetrating a closed circle. In society, we form a closed circle when we have coffee with a friend, or invite people to lunch, or gang up on the schoolyard. There can be violence—a burglar with a Glock Nine breaking down a door—but the intruder can also be an unwelcome wedding guest crashing the party.

A good example in the mystery game is the Sleuth’s Reward Scene in The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie—the classical mystery used by Jack Remick and me when we wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, for Dell. Sleuth’s Reward is a modular scene. The word “modular” tags a scene that crosses sub-genres. In hard-boiled fiction, the sleuth’s reward is money or a kiss blown by an out-of-reach dame. In a Christie tea-cozy, the Sleuth’s Reward is admitting that the killer should die.

Jack Remick and I honed our scene-writing skills teaching in the screen-writing program at the University of Washington, where we developed tools for quick scene-building. One of those tools appears below, the Scene Profile. There, we display a template for creating your own scene profile.

Example: The Scene

Profile

Name: Sleuth’s Reward (The Body in the Library)

Character and Stage: Miss Marple recreates the crime for the last time in Conway Jefferson’s sumptuous suite at the Majestic Hotel.

In attendance: Colonel Melchett, Chief Superintendent Harper, Conway Jefferson, and Sir Henry Clithering.

Closed Circle: Upper World hotel suite.

Intruder: Miss Marple, invited inside because she’s the sleuth who solved the case.

Object onstage: Miss Marple’s best evening gown.

Dialogue‑Monologue: Motive (money, the scarce resource base) and method (knockout drug, strangulation, blow to the head, burning) and luring the victim into the trap.

Action: Using words as building blocks, Miss Marple erects a triumphant rhetorical edifice.

Climax: Miss Marple admits she’ll enjoy seeing Mark Gaskell hang.

Symbol/Theme/Ritual: Restoration of order by a proper recreation of the crime.

Summary of the Scene (Useful for submitting your novel to a publisher):

The place of this Sleuth’s Reward scene is Conway Jefferson’s suite at the Majestic, a room with an ocean view. The time is evening, a day or so after the apprehension and incarceration of the killers, Josie Turner and Mark Gaskell. The sleuth wears her best evening gown. The main dramatic device is a series of connected Marpelian monologues ‑‑ facts, motive, the marriage connection coverup ‑‑ climaxed by a ten step recreation of the crime and the sleuth’s admission that she wants to see Gaskell hang.

Analysis

In this scene, Miss Marple is rewarded by her position in society as sleuth triumphant. She solved the case. She saved Basil Blake from becoming a scapegoat. With shrewd sleuth magic, she saved the Bantrys from losing their social position in high society. The scene drips with a proper restoration of order.

Robert J. Ray is the author of seven novels: Cage of Mirrors, The Heart of the Game, Bloody Murdock, Murdock for Hire, The Hitman Cometh, Dial “M” for Murdock, and Merry Christmas, Murdock. A sixth Matt Murdock mystery—Murdock Tackles Taos—in process.  Ray is also the author of a popular non-fiction series on writing, The Weekend Novelist and he shares writing techniques on writing on his blog co-authored with long time writing partner, Jack Remick. Ray is a native of Texas and holds a PhD from the University of Texas, Austin. Tuesdays and Fridays, he and Jack write at Louisa’s Bakery and Café in Seattle.

 

Guest Blog: Jack Remick, author of TRIO OF LOST SOULS

trio of lost souls coverJack Remick photo

“The Sentence and Me”

When I wrote my first novel, like most writers, I thought books were made up of chapters and chapters were made up of paragraphs. Somewhere between book one and book two, it dawned on me that both chapters and paragraphs are just constructions built with sentences.

Big insight, right? One that everyone except me already knew but it changed the way I thought about writing. The sentence is the basic unit of everything. If you get the sentence right, you get the paragraph right and you get the chapter right.

So after I got the sentence I ran into trouble because the average sentence length in English is 14 words. Boring as hell. Am I doomed to write 14 word sentences for the rest of my life? Being a rebel, I said what happens if you do stuff to the sentence?

You rip it into fragments.

You run it out to a couple of hundred words.

You chop it up into short bursts.

You drop in a few rhetorical devices to make it dance.

The sentence is malleable.

After I buried the 14 word sentence in the cemetery of Useless Averages, I played around with this idea—what if you wrote an entire novel in sentence bursts and then worked the sentence bursts into “paragraphs?” What if you wrote sentences focused on Action and Image? Nobody will know what you’ve done because you’ve got your story in paragraphs. So I took a run at it in a short novel called Pacific Coast Highway. Here are a few “sentences” from that first writing, just as I put them down:

Palos Verdes Estates                                                                                              everything LA is supposed to be
jacaranda in bloom
eucalyptus lined streets that curve up                                                                           and away to white Spanish Neo houses
red tile roofs and wrought iron fences
Peacocks dance their fan dance for you
the smell of the eucalyptus is good for what ails your bank account
Later she tells me about the peacocks
How they were let loose                                                                                                       and took over                                                                                                                      and now perch on rooftops
and how they breed
and how much she loves them
and if anyone killed one of them                                                                                    she’d have him skinned alive
58 Via Campesina is exactly what it should be
A winding, palm-tree lined road
at the edge of a golf course there is a bridle path                                                     where Arabian horses are stabled
and just off the bridle path                                                                                                    a white Moorish castle towers right out of a fairy tale
its own shade of red tile and yard lights that turn the evening yellow

Here is that writing after a dozen rewrites, but now cast into fictional “paragraphs.”

Palos Verdes Estates is everything LA should be—winding hill-side streets lined with eucalyptus trees and jacaranda and on the slopes, neo-Spanish castles built of white brick and red tile roofs that glisten in the sunset melting down over the Pacific Ocean.

When you turn a close curve, peacocks with their rainbow fans screech at you like they own the place.

Later Bea tells me about the peacocks—How someone let them loose and how they took over and now perch on rooftops and how they breed and how much she loves them and how if anyone killed one of them, she’d skin him alive.

I pull into the drive at 58 Via Campesina, a curved drive big enough to hold a herd of German cars. I shut down the mill of the 850 CSi. I hear the birds chittering and the peacocks call and I hear the long slow whine of swimming pool pumps and somewhere, in another universe, a crow caws and for a second I forget who I am and where I am and what I am doing because for just that second I wonder how it would feel to come to a place like that every day with its peacocks on the roof and a swimming pool that hums and inside a woman who wears black and white and drives a big fast powerful rich German machine.

This is a technique I use now in every novel. Forget about writing in paragraphs. Write in sentences with all the variations in rhythm and cadence. Explore the infinite possibilities of the line, then construct those paragraphs using rhetorical devices, or tropes, and your writing will both sing and dance for you. And your readers will be love you for being the genius you are.

Jack Remick believes that writing is like method acting. The writer has to be all the characters. The story isn’t the writer’s creation, but something the characters create through the writer who becomes the chosen instrument for the stream of words. Remick also lives by the principles that the art is in the rewrite and that discipline is the writer’s obligation to the gift. He is a poet, short story writer, and a novelist. He is the father of several critically-acclaimed/award-winning novels and collections of poetry. He’s taught memoir, screenplay and understands Greek rhetoric like nobody’s business. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Writing Tips: On Opening Paragraphs

TIP: begin the first paragraph in each new chapter with an interesting image, bit of dialogue, or memorable line. Your English teacher, way back when, was absolutely right when she said you must have an “attention-getter.” Readers want to be pulled into the story, particularly at the beginning of a new chapter, so make sure to keep them turning pages with engaging opening paragraphs.

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Quacking Writing Tips: On Villains and Heroes

TIP: reveal something good about your villain and something bad about your hero. Why? People are flawed and complex, and your characters should be, too. If ever you’re stuck, ask yourself the ultimate characterization question: what (or who) does my character want, and what (or who) is standing in the way?

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Quick Writing Tips: On Routine

TIP: always stop writing for the day in the middle of something. 

Never finish writing a chapter or a scene or a piece of dialogue without beginning another one. A writer should always leave himself or herself something else to write for the next day. This, I’ve found, is a time saver as I don’t spend a frustrating amount of time at the beginning of a writing session wondering what I am going to write about that day. This also helps combat the dreaded Writer’s Block. Give it a try. (Oh, and I’ve discovered that this little trick helps my mood as well as I no longer brood throughout the day, speculating as to what my narrative and my characters are gonna do next).

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