Your Brain is a Horse Named Clyde: Eight Novel Writing Secrets
February 26, 2012 § 40 Comments
Sometimes people ask me how I go about writing novels or establishing such fine and lasting relationships. Okay well they ask the first thing, and so here are some of my suggestions. Some of them I stole and reconstituted like an Iphone 4S. Some of them I made up. I really hope they work for you. Questions welcome.
1. Once there was a man, many years ago, who had a horse named Clyde. Apparently you could ask Clyde a math problem and he would stomp out the answer. People came from miles around to see this amazing horse. One day it was discovered that Clyde didn’t know dick about math. When Clyde reached the correct number, he could sense he had reached the right number just by how tuned in he was to his owner’s body language.
So Clyde was a failure. His owner sold him for glue. (This part I just made up in case you ever want to use this as a bedtime children’s story)
Your brain is a horse named Clyde. It responds to your tone of voice, diction, body language. So never say, “I could never write a novel,” out loud or to yourself. Clyde the brain will believe you, first of all. And secondly, Clyde the brain is lazy and loves orders where he doesn’t have to do anything. So if he hears: I could never write a novel, he’s like, “Right! High-five! We suck!” And he’ll rush right back to his barn to watch The Bachelor.
What you need to tell your brain, out loud, to yourself, in many words and gestures is that “You are a novelists and you are writing a novel.” Give your brain proof. A special pen. Books on writing. A candle-lit ceremony. A certain atmospheric place in the house. A bumper sticker that says, cryptically, “Clyde is writing a novel.” (Held on to your bumper with, ironically, glue.) Go to a pawn shop that used to be a Borders and stare at the pile of stolen speakers that used to be the best seller section and picture your book among them.
2. Much like Clyde the horse, pre-glue, Clyde the brain is easier to keep going when he is already in motion. So come up with a title for your novel, even if it’s not the one you ultimately go with. Open up a word document on your desktop. Print the title of the novel and your name. Close the document. Print it out. Put it in a folder and write the title on the back of the folder. This is physical evidence that your brain will know means it is now writing a novel. And now that task is in motion. Every day, put a little more – chapter headings, ideas, character sketches, lines, etc – into that document and print it out. Your brain is a spider (NOTE: THE PART OF CLYDE THE HORSE WILL NOW BE PLAYED BY A SPIDER) And even if you don’t know it, it is knitting the web that is called the novel as you sleep, eat, run, tell terrible lies out of kindness, and pee. Give it as much web material as you can.
3. Make the first sentence your best ad for the second sentence. Make the second sentence your best ad for the third sentence. And so on and so on and so on.
4. To outline or not to outline: I always outline because Clyde the Spider uses it as material for his web. Even if it’s just one sentence a chapter, to me outlining gives you a goal. You can always change the outline as you go. Some writers just like to dive in and let their characters take them wherever they may. I wouldn’t trust my characters to take me to a dogfight. But that is just me. Outlining or not outlining is a choice that has more to do with you. But be careful about refusing to outline in the name of artistic freedom. It might be you just fooling yourself because Clyde doesn’t want to outline.
5. Chapter 1: Extremely important. This chapter sells your book to the reader. Whether your book is fiction or non-fiction, this chapter should be compelling, emotional, intriguing, etc and have, explicitly or woven within it, some kind of mystery or question that can only be answered by reading further in the book. Readers don’t do anything for free. The other reason that mysteries, cliff-hangers, questions or the like are important in first chapters is that they compel you, the writer, to keep going. It is natural for Clyde the Spiderhorse to want resolve a mystery even if it comes from him, and he already knows the answer.
6. Keep yourself constantly entertained, compelled, motivated, flattered, bribed and blackmailed. (Recently I told Clyde: If you do a great job on this ad, I will let you watch Judge Judy. Clyde loves Judge Judy because she’s a bossy old gal in a bad mood who hates idiots.) Magical thinking is good, too. So is writing in a tent, or in the lowest branch of a welcoming live oak, or a favorite chair, or the lap of a bewildered, fragile stranger at a bingo game. Whatever works is good.
7. My favorite characters in my novels tend to be those who are not the main characters. (with some exceptions, like Persely, Alice and Boone from Absence of Nectar). The reason might be that sometimes I turn the main characters into workaholics. They are so busy carrying the narrative or symbolizing some deep theme or belief that I forget to make them quirky, interesting, surprising, entertaining, or lovable. Don’t let plot drown the personalities of your characters.
8. Don’t tell people you’re working on a novel. That sounds hard and your brain will hear you. Tell them you are writing a novel, or better yet, “finishing” a novel. Technically, once you write the first sentence, everything you write after that is finishing a novel. If you can’t sell writing a novel to yourself, chances are you’ll keep putting it off. Come up with any strategy you can to keep yourself going and beware the negative talk. If you are a novelist, that means that you wield words powerfully. Don’t unwittingly turn them against yourself.
Well, that’s it so far. If you like these I’ll post more. If not, there is always the story of the time I ran over myself with my own car.