For anyone out there who is right at the beginning of their career as a novelist — so early in their career, in fact, that at this point in time, calling it something so defined and formal as a career seems distinctly optimistic and in no small way stupid — deciding which kind of novel to write is quite possibly the biggest dilemma of them all. In my experience, those unfamiliar with this spectacle of hard-working bum-numbing slavery — those who, through no fault of their own, can only speculate on what writing a novel must be like — think that the physical act of writing is the hardest part, and that the decision to write the novel in question is formed somewhat easily from some grand idea which has been long in the making; an idea which just seems right somehow…in the same way that we all pick up a good book and find outselves entirely immersed, as if this novel could only have been written in this very specific way by this one author. (Ahhh, the romance of it all.) Yet the late nights, the early mornings, the totally all-encompassing nature of it all and the way it takes over every single aspect of your life, including sleep, are, for me, nothing in comparison to the gut-wrenchingly difficult process of choosing one novel idea over another. It’s a cruel and necessary game that plays out for all of us writers, and the simple fact is that it doesn’t ever get any easier, because the rules are always changing and we’re always looking to create something better. The problem, I suppose, is that while you are writing one novel — that book which to begin with seemed so right, so your own making — your mind is also, by turns, working in another direction towards a different novel idea that very badly wants to make itself known. And this is where the danger comes in. For what it is worth, here are my tips for sticking and deciding upon one idea and all other related matters.
1) Can’t decide which idea you want to write about? In the past, when I have been in this situation and forced it — become so fed-up with the procrastination of it all that I have found myself frantically writing a novel, any novel, just so it could be done and I could move on — the result has been at times OK, at times awful. A forced novel — that is to say, a novel which is born of desperation to put words on paper and fulfill the outline of an idea which is more mechanics than emotion — is a bad novel which will likely go nowhere. Whatever you want to write, a burning ambition to complete the project is the only common thread that links us all. Write that novel because you simply must do it. Write it because whenever you should be doing something else, the idea plays on your mind and just won’t leave you the hell alone.
2) A novel is not a loose outline of events without an ending, or a concept floating loosely between copycatting someone else’s work and two forged ideas. Never forge ideas together — what do I mean? I mean don’t take two or more novel ideas you have had and chuck them together as one, pretending that this might somehow work. Just because there is a beginning, middle and an end, does not mean that those ends go well in company of one another. Keep on point and you’ll be right.
3) Stop worrying about how people will react to the idea of your novel, and don’t be alarmed if you don’t see that idea already in print somewhere on Amazon. While it’s always good to know that there is a similar work of fiction out there — something of familiarity is welcome in such a lonely pursuit as this one — the fact that there isn’t can be a special, magical thing. It could mean you have stumbled across a concept which is unlike most and therefore impressive! Always remember that at some point in history, an idea was revolutionary and new and that author — think Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita — was condemned for creating what is now considered a masterpiece. Bravery does pay, so forget what others are saying and doing, because that’s a waste of time. If you believe in your concept and believe you can make it reality, then you can. There is no doubt about that. Words are oganic, and it can be done.
4) What are your strengths? I love reading thrillers. The Bourne Identity by the now deceased Robert Ludlum is a classic in my opinion. Yet, much as I adore reading this book and others like it — I just finished Drive by James Sallis which was different but similarly fascinating in form — I know that my strengths do not lie in the thriller-writing field. What a pain, would be so much easier if they did. The reason why: I find it difficult to be serious for that long, and my job as a freelance writer already commands enough of my time to be spent seriously. The up-shot of this is that after work I am glad to write in a way which feels completely unshackled. So, if you enjoy writing humourism, write comedy, or something with a comedic thread. If you enjoy writing romance and you are a man, do not be put off. If I were you, I’d just write whatever you enjoy doing and say bollocks to everyone else. You’re going to be spending one hell of a lot of time doing this, remember, so you want that raw enthusiasm to be present always. More importantly, if you ever expect a reader to pay for your work and spend many hours voraciously consuming it, you have a moral and intellectual obligation to them to produce work which is a direct representation of your most natural abilities.
5) Be careful about inserting religion, your own moral values and ideas into your novel: for me, this is a critical point. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter if you are religious or not, what you believe or don’t believe, or what you think is great about the world. Just remember that your characters should — I think — begin life as people in their own right. This is not a crusade. They should develop their own voice, their own moral out-look in life and be capable of being in direct disagreement with everything you stand for. If you only ever write characters which feel like you and act like you do, how do you expect them to outgrow your own limitations and expand into something big, scary and influential to the reader? If writing about characters who are so different from you feels wrong or immoral, then perhaps this is the wrong genre to be writing in?
If you do have a cause to further, though — you want to write about something to further awareness, rather than to ram your ideas down the reader’s throat — go ahead. Write about what matters to you. I know I did with my debut novel, and it was the best decision I have ever made.
6) This could go on all day, but I will end here on this important point: sometimes, just sometimes, you will be in a strange mental place where 3 or 4 or 5 ideas all seem like the right novels to write at this very moment. This is, quite possibly, the cruelest game for the intellectual spirit to play, and it may just mean that yes…you are cursed: you must write all these novels one after another. Bummer. Bigggggg bummer. But, oh well, things could be worse. At least you have ideas. Right?