What is your new novel about?
By which I don’t mean what is its genre, or what is the plot, but what is it actually about. Why do you want to write it; what do you want to say? Once that is decided, the novel becomes much easier to write. If you take my advice, you will write in some cosmic statement as the first line, and happily spend the next 80,000 words developing the theme, going back at moments of doubt -which always come – to that first sentence, if only to be reminded what the novel was meant to be about in the first place.
You can then simply delete it as a prop you no longer need, or keep it if it still seems to help your book.
By a ‘cosmic sentence’ I mean a sentence that sums up some universal truth, and applies to what you mean to write about. It also suggests the presence, otherwise unspoken, of an all-knowing writer whom the reader can safely trust to be interesting and thoughtful. It can be light and ironic or sombre and philosophical. It will set the tone and ensure you keep to the point for the whole book, so your last few pages are not so very different from the first. See it like the experiment you write up at school: an experiment to be proved. Your last page will be your Q.E.D. Quod erat demonstrandum. What was to be proved.
Take as an examples these famous beginnings, cosmic sentences, statements of the writer’s intent.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’ etc. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
‘All children, except one, grow up’ – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.
‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin’ – Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis.
‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ – George Orwell, 1984.
‘A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead’ – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.
In saying which Greene was reflecting on his own method of writing, trusting the reader with a glimpse of the craftsperson behind the work. In the End of the Affair he also has this to say ‘So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.’
The transition from writing ‘exercises’ for CW classes and novel writing can be difficult. The short exercise can be written from the left-brain – and so to a certain extent can any genre novel; the ‘good’ novel requires the intervention of the right brain, what is intuitive and irrational. Give yourself time to stare into space and write nothing.
But these particular hints are for writers of literary novels: those in which the writer’s ambition is more than just to make money, not just to entertain but to offer up an opinion as to the nature of the universe and the people in it. You can get to it young – Jane Austen wrote her Pride and Prejudice first line when she was 22, an age when she wouldn’t have had much experience of life, but at least she knew that much. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina’s opening when his when he was 50 and had a bit of experience. (I think he was wrong about marriage, but never mind.) All of the first lines listed above come from what I would call opinionated writers. I would not call Dan Brown an opinionated writer; just a very, very successful one.
How to write a very successful novel.
In the popular novel the lowest common denominator rules: that is to say plot. If you are writing a book and hope to get lots and lots of readers you will not attempt to follow any instructions from me: rather you will do the opposite. You will eschew cosmic statements in case they lead to unnecessary contemplation and you the writer will keep right out of it. You will use lots and lots of adjectives and you will splash adverbs about – all the sins for which I chide the aspiring writer. Importantly, you will not use the word ‘said’ if you can possibly help it. You characters will screech, whisper, yell, snarl, shout, gasp, yearn, argue, deny, or smile their words, but they will very rarely just say them. If they do there will an adverb nearby so the reader knows that the words have been said with some strong revealing emotion. He or she will say whatever it is angrily, caressingly, sagely, nastily, kindly, scratchily, benignly, acidly, savagely or despairingly. Interesting, though, how Lee Child, who is taken seriously as a writer as well as having hordes of readers, manages to avoid ‘said’ by seldom having more than two people in a room or space together, so you don’t have to specify which of them is talking. Make of that what you will.
It might be an interesting experiment, those of you who have had a novel rejected time and time again, to change its title and rewrite, adding two or three extra adjectives to every one you used in the original, and strengthening every verb so your characters e don’t walk but head for, don’t run but hurtle, don’t reach for but lunge, don’t cry out but scream, don’t frown but rage, don’t bite but savage, and so on. Resend to a less lofty publisher than you tried first and see what happens. You can always take your name off it.
The value of the Latin tag
If you know you want to write a novel and still have no knowledge of what you want to write it about – it can happen – you could do worse than study the Latin tag. Latin tags – usually phrases written by ancient Romans, and used by well educated-generations of Europeans for centuries since – were known to contain the concentrated wisdom of the ages, and they are more than likely to still apply to us today. Great civilisations rise and fall; human nature does not change. A Latin tag can be a good way of getting to your cosmic first sentence, on which you are to base the entirety of your novel. Here are a few examples:
exita probat acta – ‘the end justifies the means’. A mystery, perhaps, about a jealous elder sister who sleeps with her brother-in-law out of malice, only to discover the younger sister is even wickeder that she is. Title: A Justified Girl, bearing in mind how popular titles with ‘girl’ in them are doing on Amazon at the moment.
video et taceo – Elizabeth 1’s motto: ‘I see but stay silent.’ A CIA thriller perhaps, the fate of the man who sees too much. Title: The Witness.
video meliore proboque, deteriora sequor – ‘I see the better way but I follow the worst.’ An inveterate gambler marries an alcoholic – a moral tale. Title: Country and Western Song.
eheu fugaces, labuntur anni- ‘Alas, the fleeting years slip away.’ A Proustian novel.
Title: Remembrance of Things Past.
fallaces sunt rerum species – ‘appearances are deceptive.’ People pretend to be what they are not. Title: Gone Girl.
flat justitia ruat coelum – ‘Let justice be done through the heavens fall.’ A paranoiac detective follows a charming criminal. Title ‘Let’s Get Out of Here.’
Other sentiments that might inspire you, cosmic sentences all:
legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus – ‘We are slaves of the law so we can be free.’
mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis – ‘All things change, and we change with them.’
pessimum genus inimicorum laudantes – ‘Flatterers are the worst type of enemy.’
proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris – ‘It is human nature to hate a person whom you have injured.’
radix omnium malorum est cupidita – ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’
struit insidias lacrimis cum femina plorat – ‘ When a woman weeps, you can be sure she is plotting.’
And so forth and so on. If all else fails, go to your local newspaper, find a story which fascinates you, attach a Latin tag, and see how the story can be first universalised, then novelised. Hardy worked from a press cutting in Tess, Flaubert in Madame Bovary; don’t be proud.