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.


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§ 40 Responses to Your Brain is a Horse Named Clyde: Eight Novel Writing Secrets

  • Mal says:

    Just finished reading Prince of Lost Places. Loved it. Most favorite read. Thank you.

  • bridget says:

    Great advise many times i have remarked that i should write then discouraged myself back to more normal routine. My brain is clyde the inbred horse half mule. And yes i also want to know how you ran yourself over.

  • markmonteiro says:

    You’re right. I told myself “I am finishing up an email to Kathy” and, just like that it

  • Rohitash Rao says:

    More…MORE!!! You had me at “horse!” suddenly i want to write the world’s greatest novel about a horse since “the black stallion.” maybe i’ll call it the “the brown stallion,” because i’m, you know…WHATEVER…the point is, you made the idea of novel-writing seem easy and fun. so yes, please post more kath-isms about writing and how our brains work. can you also tell me why my brain makes me eat way too many cookies?

  • Julie says:

    Where can I sign up for your weekend intensive workshop?

  • You’re talking to me, aren’t you.
    And unless you’re a programmer living in a hexadecimal world, there should be 10 things. I feel cheated.

  • Kelley says:

    If we want more, do we still get to hear the car story eventually?

  • lori says:

    “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.”

    This is awesome.

  • Not only am I currently finishing five novels simultaneously, but I’m also taking down the Christmas tree.
    You’re tempting me to try one of those outline thingies mentioned in #4, because my characters once took me down a 250,000 word rabbit trail to a dogfight. Well, it wasn’t actually a dogfight, it was more of a starfish attack. They got up under everyone’s chainmail and… but I digress.
    What were we talking about? Oh yes, spider brains named Clyde. I think there are some of those up under my writing desk. Yes, I get you, I’ll start telling them I’m a writer before beating their legs off.

  • The Rabbit says:

    I’m not sure who I love more, Clyde the horse, or Clyde the spider! Wonderful advice, I loved it! Of course, in the interest of total transparency you probably should have mentioned that Clyde is also one of the names you call yourself when you’re having one of your ….”episodes”…

  • The Phoenix says:

    But Your Heart is a Rabbit Named Easter: Deconstructing the Writing Secrets of the K

    It’s been said that people ask a lot of dumb questions. There are no dumb questions, just dumb people asking questions they should know the answer to.

    But I digress, for this story is a cautionary tale about one rabbit named Easter, a sweet name for a girl but a boy, even one with a diploma from the board of rabbit certification of high testosterone count, friends still talked. And because of these hurtful rumors about his orientation, and not the GPS, I can’t find my car type but the other…and because of this, Easter constantly traveled nervously looking for answers to questions he didn’t know (notice the mysterious question found in all great narratives).

    Now as the tale goes (notice the play on words tail, rabbit tail for the thick headed), he was a very lucky rabbit because many of the religious inclined celebrated his birthday – why, he didn’t know for sure but speculated that they were all nuts. To be sure he decided to travel to all the great religious centers of the world and seek an answer (the journey – it’s needed otherwise Easter might as well be in a coma and that would be as boring as reading an unending list of mind-numbing rubble from my kathy’s minions – please up your game people).

    His first stop, Rome, city of romance and some old man that thinks he talks to God. Easter had one question, “Pope tell me why people celebrate Easter?”

    “Oh, what a cute little bunny,” said the old man, who’s hand’s trembled, perhaps at the thought of bunny stew.
    “Bunny! I am a fierce MALE rabbit, not a bunny you #?!$#!” (fill in the appropriate word, remember profanity is the crutch of the feeble minded, unless of course I choose to poetically drop them like pellets leading my reader down the trail of heighten sensuality – keep the reader wondering what will happen next)

    Anyway, Easter realized dementia must be the tool to reach enlightenment in this religion and he would learn nothing here on his quest.

    Next stop, Tehran, (more journeying – keep it moving) for Easter had been told that a great leader of the most populous religion on Earth would surely know the answer to why the world celebrated his birthday.

    On announcing his arrival to the Supreme Leader, another old man (I thought that the Supreme Leader was that old man in North Korea – but I digress again) that cast his rat like grey dead beady eyes (metaphor, shows your literary quality) on the little varmint (foreshadowing).

    Unfortunately, being a rabbit, Easter didn’t grasp the concept of protocol and his next remark would stamp end to his quest.
    “Hi old man (poor social skills & a negative character arc – the protagonist doesn’t always learn), my name is Easter.”
    “Blasphemer! Vermin! Idolater! Cook this heretic!”

    The Supreme Leader found Easter a little stringy but secretly when confronted with a tough decision would reach into his robe and stroke his lucky rabbit’s foot. He learned all too late that if the foot didn’t help the rabbit it certainly wouldn’t help him (a little logic goes a long way). It wasn’t long before, another Ayatollah caught the Supreme Leader rubbing something inside his robe and accused him of self-defilement and the old Supreme Leader and his lucky rabbit foot was burned at the stake.

    And so Easter and the reader has discovered that a journey of a thousand steps can be cut short if one doesn’t understand the social-political realities of 21th century Earth. The reader has also realized a simple truth, that a rabbit, even one with an interesting name, has a small brain housing group and they make poor decisions (moral – if you’re a rabbit, you are only food to most of humanity, so keep a low profile – also writer don’t drag on your silly little story and bore your reader, end it when the reader begins to sense that you don’t know what you’re talking about).

    So the art of writing is very simple if you’re gifted as the K, but a treacherous cobweb to the rest of us mortals.

    Notice also, that I didn’t drag Saintly Mother into this sordid tale, even though like the Supreme Leader, she knew that she has never met a rabbit she didn’t like – to eat (Always kiss up to Saintly Mother).

  • Tez Miller says:

    “If not, there is always the story of the time I ran over myself with my own car.”

    A European soccer player did that recently. He forgot to use the handbrake when he pulled over to get petrol. Perhaps you did, too? 😉

  • edrevets says:

    The pawnshop scene was particularly moving.

  • “Readers don’t do anything for free. ” Good point. I shared this with my writing group. So thanks for all that, Kathy!

  • Kitty says:

    This made me laugh, and, as you know, inside I’m a cranky old spinster who never laughs. Give your Clyde a big carrot and some apples for me, and tell him it’s the math, not he that sucks.

  • Like most people, I find joy in the stupidity and suffering of others. I appreciate the writing advice and would like to read more, but most anxiously await your tale that will, by the sound of it, give me GREAT joy.

    • Richard I have a friend that starts laughing when I reach the part of putting my car in reverse on that gloomy Louisiana evening and is in full-on hysterics by the time the wheel goes over me. Even the staff in the inbred emergency room couldn’t stop laughing.

  • Question – When & Where do you and Clyde write? What time of day? And why do you do it that way?

    • Clyde and I usually start in the mornings, in the living room or some other quiet room. I don’t really like music playing or interruptions. I tend to write fast and try to get it done as fast as possible (in the case of a novel) and that way submerge myself in it long enough to get a good draft.

  • sarasmile101 says:

    Thanks Kathy! This is wonderful advice! I feel inspired and I wish I could join a novel-writing club where we meet regularly, dress like mad, fabulous, fashion-obsessed woman, drink champagne and chat about finishing our two-page novels (front and back page are done right?) it would certainly take the terror out of writing and make it almost a fun idea to tackle. In order to really move forward I think I would need the regular ‘kick in the pants’ to keep it going. Your posts are a SUPER idea I hope you keep sending them out – and a regular writing inspiration/therapy class with this type of advice would also be awesome & helpful. I have wanted to start writing for ages but I get overwhelmed instantly by my own negative judgements so I think the only way it can ever happen is to tackle it slowly it small pieces and keep cheering it on even if it sucks which it will unavoidably do for the most part. I’m opening a document and starting my title page now and I hope my inner horse doesn’t poo on my attempt! Awaiting further instructions….please keep ’em coming! xoxo

  • Rob Holliday says:

    Gold. This is gold. Stay gold, Pony…spider…brain Clyde, stay gold.

    PS. I’m a big fan of #6.

  • eric a says:

    there is so much wisdom and good advice and genuine wanting of others to do well here, that i may have to forego my usual m.o. of deflecting with humor, and take a chance at looking rankly sentimental.

    absolutely brilliant. it’s so good, i can’t even be jealous. and i’m jealous of shakespeare.

    these are lessons for success at any endeavor in life.

    the info is powerful. (i actually jumped when I read #3. I found the simplicity, craft and truth of the words physically shocking. and i was still jealous at that point.)

    the style is wonderful. (what is it, folksiness on acid? it ‘s like those kids books that really are for creative smart adults. you know, sneaky)

    i think all your commandments are extremely useful. i can’t wait to try them all. and read more.

    this shit is deep.



  • David Garza says:

    Do you have any recommendations on how to write a novel in first person?

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