I’m feeling particularly inadequate at offering writing advice today, because I write so slowly. I’m typing this from my house, where back injuries and shelter-in-place orders keep me in this chair 14 hours a day. But progress on my current novel is still barely a crawl. (*Sigh*)
Slow writers rock. Like a turtle on a croc.
Millions of other people are also under stay-at-home orders, because of a global pandemic. Some may be thinking it’s a great time to start that novel they’ve wanted to write, if they only had time. (Weirdly, few think they'd become a concert pianist if they only had the time.) So I’ll tell you how I did it and suggest a few nuggets of advice.
This is a round tuit.
If you ever planned to write when you got around to it, now you’re equipped!
There are three separate elements that you have to braid together to create a novel (or a play, or a screenplay) strong enough to move people—to pull them into your story world, and then haul them to a satisfying place in the end, where they say, “Wow. That was a story.”
Agents tell me it’s also nice to have that almighty hook, but that’s later in the process
The first is storytelling. Think of that as the shape of the story, or the structure, combined with the interesting premise. Often in commercial and genre fiction, that premise is, interesting character wants something for important reasons, faces obstacles, and something terrible (stakes) will happen if they don’t get it. An event sets things off, and then (usually) the character’s desire and choices drive them through the story, around or through those obstacles (or they have to change direction, and learn something in the process.) One thing, causally, leads to another, and then there is a climax (or a dark moment and then a climax) and a resolution. (And sometimes a brief denouement that wraps up loose ends and gives us a little emotional victory lap.)
You can study books on story shapes (Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them is excellent.) Or read books on structure (the books that break it down for screenwriting are excellent, and part V of Larry Brooks Story Engineering is as informative as the rest of that book is annoying—which is to say, immensely.) Or you can immerse yourself in stories, reading voraciously and thinking about them, and absorbing the principles of story-making organically. Stephen King says that discovering the shape of the story in what you’re writing is a like brushing the sand out of a fossil. The structure is there, whole, and you’re just finding it.
As a fossil myself, I can confirm: Yes, this is a fossil.
I learned the most about storytelling in the seven years after my daughter Alexandra figured out, as an infant, how to climb out of her crib. At the time, I was working days as a lawyer, and my wife was working nights as a pediatric ICU nurse, so it wasn’t ideal to have Alex wandering the house at all hours. So, every night, after she laid down in her bed, I would tell her a made-up story about her and her stuffed animals’ adventures in the Magic Valley with Nice Dragon Peter and Burglar Raccoon, and a revolving cast of other characters.
Each story ended in a cliffhanger, and she would only get the rest, on the next night, if she stayed in bed. The next evening, I’d resolve it and start another, also ending in a cliffhanger. I told her more than 2,000 stories over the next seven years, which was a lot of practice in putting stories together.
The second thing you need is craft—the writing part. Ooh, heavens is there a lot to that: Writing in scenes, point of view, how to handle dialogue, how to slip in backstory, scene and sequel, transitions, pacing, summary, openings that hook readers, etc. You can learn a lot of that by writing first-waffle novels—ones you toss, because they don’t come out right. I took up novel-writing as a second career, though, so I didn’t have a lot of time to learn on the job. Instead, I took classes and joined writers’ groups and learned craft the way I’d learned subjects when I was in law school: I read—and typed outlines of—about 40 books on writing fiction. Some of the most helpful were Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Mass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Elizabeth George’s Write Away, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Deb Halver’s Writing YA Fiction for Dummies, Cheryl Klein's Second Sight, James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book: A Primer for Fiction Writers. Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, and Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, but this Isn’t for Us: A (sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected.
And while my debut novel was under submission--because I wasn’t sure how much I didn’t know—I also went back to school and got an MFA in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, an amazing experience because it’s the closest thing the real world has to Hogwarts. (The magic they taught included how to make readers feel.)
Do you have to learn craft that way? Heck, no. There are a million paths. But one tip: if you’re ever in a workshop, and someone else gets feedback that is correct, but which you didn’t think of giving her—that’s a blind spot for you, too, so make note of it.
The third thing you need, which people don’t talk about as much because it’s harder to define, is passion. Passion for the story that finds you, or for the subject matter, or for the category of story. Or the kind of passion that comes from having the characters grapple with the same issues that you’re dealing with in your life. If there’s something in the story that comes from a wound in your life, the authentic jolt of that can find its way through your words to your readers.
It is a hard, hard thing to write a novel, and it takes a long time. Passion can sustain you through that process. As Raymond Chandler said, “You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.”
(Yes. I know these potholders are knitted, not embroidered. Work with me here.)
We live in uncertain times. A friend of mine is in the hospital. I don’t know how she is, and I haven’t heard in—too long. This year, some of the brightest lights in our lives may go dark. So, while we are here, my last piece of advice is to tell your story, the story only you can tell, the way only you can tell it. A.S. King is always going to write a better A.S. King book than I can, and Jandy Nelson is always going to write a better Jandy Nelson book than I can.
But it’s not my job to compete with them over that. My job is just to write the best Dean Gloster book that I can. And then to work on my skills so that the next time I can write an even better Dean Gloster book. So: Be yourself. As much of your unfolded, glorious self as you can.
Stories are powerful, especially when they're told with passion. For seven years, I told my daughter stories where she was the protector and defender of a magic valley and a forest of feelings and all the animals in it. Today, decades later she's an environmental activist, protecting forests and the animals that live in them. That may be a coincidence. Or not.
Anyway, also be kind and gentle with yourself, because we all wish we were further along.
And in these uncertain times: Stay home if you can and wash your hands. Good luck to us all.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.
When Dean's back is healed again, he'll be off studying Aikido or downhill ski racing, and in the meantime he's on Twitter: @deangloster