Humans are born storytellers. Shortly after learning to string sentences together, we start sharing them: “Mommy, I did this…” or “Daddy, I did that….” We are eager to hear about others’ experiences, supposedly to learn from them and avoid their mistakes, and we like basking in the glory that our own stories give us (after being mentally edited, of course).
This trait can grow into writing them down, imagining stories that never happened and filling them with people who never existed. But there is a difference between a story and a novel.
When we first start writing fiction, we almost always write stories—organic concoctions, full of rabbit trails and overstocked with characters. We blithely fill pages, stringing along adventures and dreaming of what happens next. When we are in storytelling mode, we “hang out” with the cool people of our creation in whatever sort of world we make for them, artistically doodling our way down the page.
It’s an epoch of growth, when we experiment and play with things like plot, setting, narration, and so forth. We may create fan-fiction or change the ends of movies, or we may use original (more-or-less) characters, but either way, we let our stories take us wherever they (or we) want to go. But when we’re done, we haven’t necessarily created a novel.
Because a novel is structure. It’s a business commodity, written to satisfy a certain set of expectations, and there are rules we have to examine and a market we have to consider when we are writing a novel. We can’t just ream off a certain number of words, slap on a cool cover picture, and call it good. If we have too slow a beginning, potential readers may drop the book and move on. If we have too many characters, they may get lost. And if we have enough inconsistencies in grammar, spelling, or world building, we may get on their list of “never-to-be-touched-again.”
Pouring out our story like a liquid batter works well when we’re in the storytelling phase of our writing career, or even in storyteller mode, but eventually, we have to sit back and look at what we’ve written, as an author, asking ourselves some tough questions: are there too many characters? Does the plot make sense? Is there a theme? Does the plot underscore the theme? Is the story interesting and cohesive, hanging together by a neat collection of threads, or does it get snarled and convoluted as the pages slip past?
When we have really good beta readers (or agents and editors), we can get help with this. They can spot the story’s shortcomings and help us turn it into a novel. (One of the problems many self-published stories seem to face is that no one helps turn the book into a novel. They’re sometimes good stories—the raw material is there—but it hasn’t been polished into a sound, marketable product.)
This doesn’t mean we have to follow every market trend, even in our own genre, but we need to know what makes a good, reader-friendly story. That’s why there are so many writing rules out there: tips from others, trying to explain how to turn a story into a novel. Advice on how many main characters to have, how to keep a plot from turning stale, how to keep the characters interesting, the dialogue believable, and so forth.
Lately, I’ve been trying to approach my own stories as novels, and it’s hard work. There is a lot more strategy involved than I’d thought: how many characters do I want in this book? Which ones? How do I introduce them? What pieces of information do I tell my readers, like cards placed face-up on a table, and which do I hold back in my hand? I have to look at what my readers will expect in a story—how much action, how much (if any) romance, how much description—and make strategic, businesslike decisions based on this information. All this, without losing the art and magic of creation, the fun of characters’ relationships, and the poetry of good descriptions.
Writing a story may be an art, but crafting a novel is a business, and hard work. Those who would be published should not tread this path lightly, but put each foot forward, carefully moving closer to their goal.
The tie between me and my readers are words, ultimately as tenuous and fragile as a spiderweb and just as breakable. The greatest gifts I can hope to possess are enough perseverance to keep putting words on the page and enough patience to wait until my words are the right ones, before unleashing them on the rest of the world.
Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. See more of her great posts on all things writing and from an authors point of view. She offers advice, insider information, and even free ebook offers.
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