A novel is a commitment.
Most authors can toss off a short story – a couple of thousand words – in a few writing sessions. I’m not trying to minimize the difficulty of creating a truly stellar short work, but even the most obsessive perfectionists will find themselves running out of edits in a matter of weeks.
A novel, in contrast, is something you live with for months, or maybe even years. It demands a sort of continuous and concentrated effort that can be exhausting, frustrating and demoralizing.
It’s not just the length that makes novel-writing difficult, though that’s obviously part of the challenge. Writing sixty or seventy thousand words – any old words at all – is going to require significant time and effort. Making them be the right sixty thousand words, though… well, let me say that when you’re in the middle of the process, it can feel well-nigh impossible.
What do I mean by “right”? Alas, a novel is multi-dimensional, and as an author you need to consider all those dimensions simultaneously.
Let’s start with the characters. For many readers, the characters are the sine qua non of the reading experience. They’ll willingly put up with grammar errors and plot holes if an author gives them characters they love, people with whom they can empathize and identify.
In a novel, though, it’s not sufficient to introduce the reader to original and engaging characters at the start of the book. Those characters must also change over the course of the novel, in interesting and believable ways. To keep the readers’ attention, characters must learn and grow as they are subject to the events of the plot.
The plot provides another challenge. In general, a novel will have a more complex narrative arc than a shorter work. There may be multiple conflicts in play at the same time, or subplots involving different characters. You’ve got to hit the sweet spot. Too complicated a plot and you’ll confuse people. Too simple, and you’ll bore them.
An effective plot needs to be both plausible and surprising, balancing sense with suspense. Nothing is worse than a completely predictable novel… unless it’s a novel with a thoroughly ridiculous premise.
The lengthy time required to create a novel introduces another serious issue: consistency. Do you have some details in Chapter Fifteen that conflict with Chapter Five? When you wrote Chapter Five six months ago, that can be hard to remember. Of course you can go back and reread the earlier text, but only if you realize there might be some consistency issue in the first place. Alas, readers can be quite sensitive to things like characters changing their hair color, or last names, or number of children. When I encounter this sort of issue in a book, I’m immediately critical of the editing. But of course I’m probably making similar errors in my own novel.
Speaking of consistency, an author needs to worry not only about factual consistency but also stylistic consistency. I wrote the first chapter of The Master’s Mark back in January of 2022. When I re-read that chapter, I worry a bit that the tone is quite different from Chapter Twenty, which I finished today.
Because yes – the occasion for this blog post is the fact that I have finally written “The End” on the novel I’ve been working on for the entire year. I’d hoped to publish the book in 2022, but that’s not going to happen. I still have several weeks of editing ahead of me, not to mention creating the cover, the blurb, the keywords and all the other ancillary material associated with self-publishing. My goal (which I believe is realistic) is to release the book at the end of January 2023, on my birthday.
And then, I’m going to focus on shorter work for a while. Because to be honest, I’m pretty burned out by The Master’s Mark, even though I’m more or less happy with the way it turned out. I’ve also totally fallen off the Amazon cliff, because in giving the novel priority, I haven’t had the time to write and publish anything else.
So, if you’re considering writing a novel, be aware that it has something in common with a marriage. It can be exciting to see a rich, compelling story take shape over the weeks and months, but it’s not all roses. Sometimes it’s brutal. You get angry. You get frustrated. You may have days of despair, when you want to pack up and move out, abandoning your commitment.
Like marriage, however, writing a novel is worth the work. It’s a true accomplishment. If you manage to get to the point where you write “The End”… be proud. Not everyone has the necessary fortitude.