By Lisabet Sarai
Many erotica authors get their start publishing short stories. Anthologies, webzines and more recently self-publishing offer many opportunities for selling short erotic fiction—possibly more than in any other genre.
I’d argue that it’s far more difficult to craft an exceptional short story than to produce a longer work. With only a few thousand words available, you must choose each one with special care. Short stories leave no room for sloppiness. The stories I love most are jewels, masterpieces of symmetry and clarity that shine with inner light.
For some reason, though, many erotic authors I know believe that writing a novel is somehow a more worthy endeavor than crafting short stories. Again and again on writers’ lists I’ve heard my friends and colleagues lament that they can’t seem to spin a story longer than a few thousand words. They feel inadequate, unfulfilled, second rate. Only when you see your name on “real book”—a novel—can you truly call yourself an Author, or so they seem to think.
Well, pish tush to that. Anyway, if you can write an effective short story, you can create a novel. You just have to go about it the right way.
Before you close your browser in disgust at my arrogance, let me reassure you that the title of this post is intended to be facetious. I do believe that if you want to write a novel, if you have a story deep and complex enough to support 50,000 words or more, you can do it. However, there’s no one right way to go about it. Different authors use different techniques. My goal in writing this article is to introduce some of the approaches I’ve encountered in my 15 years of publishing, and encourage you to explore them.
You can write a novel. You just need to figure out the method that works for you, personally.
When I went to Amazon, chose “Books”, and typed “How to write a novel”, I got 2,859 results, with titles like “How to write a best-selling book in 21 days!”, “How to write a novel: simple and powerful 4 steps to your first novel”, “Write good or die”, “How not to write a novel: 200 classic mistakes”, even (egads!) “Fiction writing for dummies”. It seems that if you really want to make it big—write a how-to book about writing novels.
I haven’t read any of these books, and I’m not likely to. Still, I’ve published eight novels and I’m halfway through writing my ninth.
I’ve listened to lots of successful novelists discuss their methods, and I’ve introspected on my own. That’s the main source for the observations that follow. I’ll talk about six approaches to novel writing: the Jigsaw method, the TV Serial method, the Character-driven Random Walk, the Dump and Sift method, the Snowflake method and the Dissertation method. In reality, these are abstractions. They’re not monolithic methods, but rather, points in a multidimensional space. What are the dimensions?
– Analysis versus intuition
– Linearity versus non-linearity
– Continuous editing versus staged editing
You may well find a method that works for you in some other region of this space.
People who write novels using this method write scenes as the story inspires them, without worrying about temporal order or connections. When caught up in the fever of an idea, they write furiously, trying to capture the images and events playing out in their imaginations. Often, though maybe not always, jigsaw people tend to visually oriented. They see scenes from their book, as if played out on an internal movie screen, then work to describe those inner films in words.
Creating a novel from these disparate chunks of prose involves fitting them together (like a jigsaw puzzle). Indeed, it can be quite puzzling trying to determine the relationship among the different segments of the book. Unlike a real jigsaw, the author may need to alter the shape of the pieces to make them mesh, or create new pieces to mediate the fit.
The Jigsaw method is located at the extremes of all three dimensions. It is highly intuitive, very non-linear, and requires staged editing to achieve consistency.
My good friend and crit partner C. Sanchez-Garcia mostly writes this way. He calls this the “clothesline method”, another apt analogy. There’s no way I could use this method, but for him (and for many other authors I know), it works.
TV Serial Method
This is the method I’ve used for most of my own novels. The TV Serial method is highly linear and uses continuous editing. It’s mid-way between analytical and intuitive.
This method builds a novel chapter by chapter. Chapters are like episodes in a TV series, each one featuring a minor conflict and resolution, and often, ending with something of a teaser to bring the viewer (reader) back next week. Each chapter gets polished (at least to some extent) before the author moves on to the next.
When I begin a novel I’m writing this way, I have in mind a set of characters, a premise, a setting, and a rough trajectory for the overall book. I will usually have some notion of how the book will end, but I don’t necessarily know how the characters will get there. I’ll also have a scene list (sometimes written, sometimes in my head), high points I want to hit over the course of the book.
I then sit down to write the book, from beginning to end. I try to finish each chapter in one sitting or at most two. I polish and edit as I write. Then, when I start my next writing session, I first reread and do further edits on the previous chapter.
If I finish a chapter with time left, I often will move to some other project rather than starting a new chapter, in order to preserve the structural integrity of the units.
As I write, my imagination fills in the details. I learn more about my characters. Occasionally, I have flashes of inspiration that dramatically change the course of the story. The final result is never exactly what I’d envisioned. It’s almost always better.
I suspect that this is the way Joss Whedon wrote Buffy. He began with a fairly superficial high school girl killing vampires. He ended up with a dark, twisted world where the characters lose as often as they win.
Character-driven Random Walk
When I ask many of my author friends how they approach the process of writing a book, they respond, “My characters talk to me. In fact, I can’t shut them up.” It’s an old joke—we writers are crazy, because we have voices in our heads. All humor aside, though, many authors’ process is completely driven by their characters. They don’t have an outline or a scene list. They simply listen their characters, following where they lead.
Of course, to do this, you need a pretty clear vision of who your characters are and what they want. Still, I gather from listening to my colleagues who use this method that characters can be a surprising and ornery lot. One friend had the experience of starting an erotic romance with a hero and heroine, only to discover a quarter of the way through that what she really had was two heroes.
The Character-driven Random Walk is almost totally intuitive, but unlike the Jigsaw method, it is usually linear. Characters act and react, while the author writes everything down. Gradually the story unfolds, from start to finish. The story line corresponds to the characters’ life lines.
I’ve been experimenting with this method in my current WIP. I’m not sure how effective it is for me. I seem to be having a great deal of difficulty moving the plot forward. My characters keep stopping the action to have more kinky sex. At some level, that’s what the novel is about, the development of their D/s relationship as they come to know and trust one another. I know that I need conflict, though, something that challenges that trust. While I have some ideas, my hero and heroine are resisting.
This method can be used with both continuous or staged editing. As usual for me, I’m on the continuous side. However, one could also write the whole book, following the characters without editing a word, then go back to revise.
Dump and Sift
The Dump and Sift method is just what it sounds like. You sit down and write whatever comes to mind, freely and uncritically. You stop when you’ve reached a pre-decided word count. Then you go back to select, analyze, polish and rearrange the raw material from the “dump” stage.
Dump and Sift is the model behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s an antidote to over-thinking and perfectionism, and can get you past bouts of writer’s block.
I’ve occasionally used the Dump and Sift method (sometimes known as Write or Die, supported by a fun application that forces you to do so), but only for short sections of prose. I’m too analytical a person to just let the words flow without some selection or editing. The Dump phase of this method requires a level of intuition that comes hard to me. Dump and Sift is usually linear (though it doesn’t have to be—you could dump your scenes in any order). And the method is pretty much defined by its staged editing, where stage 1 involves no editing at all.
The Snowflake Method was introduced by Randy Ingermanson. I haven’t read his book. What I know about the method comes from an excellent blog post by Kathleen Bradean, about her attempts to apply this method. (A post, alas, which I now cannot find!)
As I recall her discussion, the method is hierarchical. You begin with a single sentence that summarizes the point of the book. You then expand this to a paragraph, something like a blurb. Next you write brief character profiles, focusing on goals, motivation and resolution. Eventually you get to the level of an outline. You then expand the outline into chapters. And so on. You iterate back to earlier levels as necessary, when your explorations lead you to the conclusion that some change is required.
You can find Ingermanson’s own description at his web site.
Ingermanson is a scientist by training. He treats the process of writing a novel as a process of systematic design. As a software engineer, I find this process very familiar. However, I’m pretty certain I couldn’t manage to apply it to my own writing. For me, when it comes to fiction, discovery trumps intention.
However, for some authors, it may be the perfect approach. Indeed, this fairly simple breakdown of steps might be useful to two very different types of authors: authors who already take a highly analytical approach to their work, and authors who crave discipline and structure but don’t know how to get it.
The Dissertation Method treats a novel like a doctoral thesis. It involves extensive research, copious notes, pages of character profiles, multiple level outlines and chapter summaries. Authors who favor this method may create timelines of their fictional world history, glossaries of terms, genealogies, maps, and a raft of other documents to support their writing.
For some books—I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy—creating this level of background documentation may be necessary. And I know some authors really enjoy investigating period details and assembling supporting material, almost as much as the writing process itself.
That isn’t me. I’ll do the research that’s required for a particular book, but no more (although I have sometimes spent significant time doing research for books I decided not to write). I’ve tried once or twice producing detailed character profiles. I found it an interesting exercise, but once I began the actual story, I pretty much ignored the profiles.
That’s just me, though. You may be the kind of writer who gains confidence and clarity from having a wealth of background material and supporting detail at her fingertips, should she need it.
I do appreciate reading books set in a historical or fictional world so fully imagined that it feels real. Frequently something like the dissertation method will be required to create such books.
I haven’t covered all the options here, but I hope that I’ve accomplished three things.
First, I hope I have demonstrated that there are a wealth of different alternative techniques for writing a novel.
Second, I want to emphasize that there is no one “right” way to do so. You need to find a method that matches your cognitive and emotional styles and that fits with your available time and writing schedule. If your current method isn’t working, though, perhaps you should experiment with something different.
Finally, I want to encourage you to write that novel you’ve been turning over in your mind, if that’s what you really want to do. If you have a story to tell, don’t be intimidated. Let it expand to fill the pages, in whatever way is most natural for you. Then send it out to the world.