Why Write a Novel?

Have you ever dreamed of writing a novel?  I have since high school.  Evidently tens of thousands, if not millions of people, also have that fantasy.  But just what does it mean?  Why write a novel?  For the third time in my life I’m trying to write a novel and it’s been a very revealing experience.  Novel writing is hard.  Oh, it’s easy enough to crank out the words and keep writing until you have a novel length manuscript, practically anyone can do that if they persist.

Is 100,000 words of fiction a novel?  By the least common denominator definition maybe, but a novel is a story with certain elements like characters, plot, conflict, epiphany, etc.  Let’s say we have a gadget that measures the power of each of these aspects in a novel and you can run your draft through it and get a readout, with ratings of 0-100 for each element.  100 represents what the best novels ever written would measure.  Unless you have a lot of talent, or have a lot of practice writing short stories, more than likely your first attempt at writing a novel will barely register 1 or 2 on any scale, and maybe if you have a knack for a certain element, hit a 10 or 20.

I’m working on NaNoWriMo and even though I’m able to crank out chapter after chapter I’m not sure if any of them have value to readers, or would register very high on our novel analyzer.  In my head I fantasize about writing a novel of the future where humans and robots fight over politics, philosophy, science, religion and the environment – but making that real is hard.  Yesterday I saw a movie, Martha Marcy May Marlene, that was so intense and bleak that it made me emotional sick.  Why did they tell that story I asked myself leaving the theater.  That make me ask myself about the story I’m working on:  What am I telling my readers.  Would it entertain, inspire or depress?

I’m not sure most bookworms ask themselves why they are reading a particular novel – they just hear about a book and get it.  I’m sure every reader hopes the next book they buy will be a page turning wonder, but generally they’re not.  Often we have to push ourselves to keep reading, hoping we’ll “get into” the novel.  To get hooked.  That’s what readers want – they want to get hooked – the more addictive the better.  Bookworms love finding books that compel them to read all night long, or even all weekend long.

Then, is the primary reason to write a novel to hook readers?  The movie I watched yesterday hooked me but ultimately it was extremely dissatisfying.  The story was about a mentally ill young woman who had gotten caught up in a Charles Manson like cult.  The review I read said the film was about a young woman readjusting to life after leaving a cult – so I assumed it was a religious cult, and expected  a film about a person coming to grips with reality.  That sounded fascinating to me and I went to the movie with great expectations.  If I had known the cult was of The Family kind I wouldn’t have gone.  In other words I wanted a story that had a positive outcome.  This story was very realistic, leaving viewers with an implied ending that would be horrific and nasty, but very real-world.

I bring this incident up to make another point about why write a novel.  Are you writing escapism or are you saying something about reality?  Martha Marcy May Marlene was saying something about life I didn’t want to experience, but I have to admit that it was deeply perceptive about reality.

If you think about all your favorite books and movies you’ll probably realize you admire the ones most that have lovable characters that you identify closely.  It’s very hard to tell a story about truly unlikable characters.  It takes great talent to create a Hannibal Lector or Dexter Morgan, where the readers learns to like evil people, but people would rather read about a likable serial killers than read a book where all the characters are realistic and depressing.

When most people dream of writing a novel they do so because they imagine fortune and fame.  Few writers get rich, and even fewer gain any kind of fame.  Writing is a lonely business demanding huge amounts of time creating black marks on white screens.  It’s a painful process giving birth to story that people will want to read, and I’m talking about anyone wanting to read.  Few would-be writers produce stories that get read.  Sure they might coerce a few family and friends to read their story, but that’s about all.  Even the successful ones who actual sell a story to a publisher, most of those books never recover their advance and fewer than a thousand people buy them, and its doubtful that even those books get completely read.  It’s just a huge task to compose a story that requires ten, twenty or even thirty hours to be read.  It’s a monumental task to create one that many people will actually read, and its even a winning a Powerball kind of event to write a story that millions love to read.

Why write novel?  Many people believe if they write something they will love to read themselves, others will want to read it too.  That’s the first goal of writing – to please yourself.  I believe this, but I’ve got to ask:  How many people can write something and have the objectivity to know if it’s something they would want to read?  And furthermore, and I think this is even a greater philosophical question:  How many people know what they like to read?  I even wrote about this in “My Kind of Story.”

My guess is few writers ever ask:  Why write a novel?  Just as few readers ask:  Why read a book?  I’m pretty sure Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Stephen King and J. K. Rowling all knew or know what makes a good novel and why people will want to read it.  (I’m a bit doubtful about Rowling since she’s only had a one-hit-wonder.)  Most other writers I believe write something they throw at the wall and hope it sticks.  If understanding how a novel works equals the ability to produce a novel that readers will love, then we should be able to write computer programs that churn out bestsellers.

Now the question I have to ask myself is:  Why do I want to write a novel?  I’m not driven by fame or fortune.  So why torture myself to write one?  Coming home every evening after work to write on the novel for NaNoWriMo takes quit smoking kind of willpower.  It’s worse than dieting, at least when I’m not eating I can go do something fun.  Writing is all consuming.  It eats up time like crazy.  And like the robots in my story, I have to ask where the base programming comes from that provides my motivation.

This now brings me to the nitty-gritty of the question: Why write a novel?  For me it’s because I have two characters I want to bring to life.  What I discovered writing for NaNoWriMo is I have no plot for my two characters to exist in.  Now I could write a literary story that has no plot, like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, or I need to find my inner Steven Spielberg and invent a story for them.

And I think that answers my question, you write a novel to tell a story or create a character, or hopefully both.  I can’t even tell jokes because I never remember the plots much less the punch line, so creating a story for a novel is very hard for me.  Rowling spent years imagining her story and characters.  She saw it in her mind so well she could draw scenes from the story.  Now that’s a vivid imagination.

Well, I need to get back to my NaNoWriMo work – this essay is almost as long as my word quota for the day.  But I took the time off from the novel to think about why I want to write this novel and that is helping me with the plot. October should’ve been NaNoPloMo – National Novel Plotting Month.  Writing a novel is a soul searching endeavor.   Can you imagine a story that takes ten hours to tell and one that people will want to read?  Try doing it sometimes.  It will teach you a lot about reading and watching movies and television shows.

Writers obsess over their opening paragraphs because they know its  the success or failure moment as to whether you can get people committed to reading your work of art.  Why write a novel?  Because it’s a challenge to dazzle readers with a beautiful feat of imagination.

[Aside to myself:  Now that should make you try harder!  Go write!!!  Sorry to everyone else for having to read my pep talk to myself.]

JWH – 11/13/11.

6 thoughts on “Why Write a Novel?”

  1. I write because I love it. It’s something I believe I’m meant to do in this life, whether or not it gets published.

    1. Sally, maybe you are a natural born storyteller. I’ve always envied people who’ve been writing stories since childhood, and write because it’s natural for them. For me, it’s work like practicing on a musical instrument to get better and better.

  2. Every story probably reflects reality in some way, Jim. But, of course, we all see reality differently.

    I’m reminded of this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: “For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more… and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words.”

    To my mind, that wouldn’t be a bad philosophy to show in a fictional story. My point is that both pessimism and optimism are meant to reflect reality, but I prefer optimism. Like Tolkien, I don’t think that people are usually as bad as their words, or even their acts.

    Good luck with the novel!

    1. That’s a very positive outlook from Tolkien. But I’m afraid I might become more like Mark Twain – he became very bitter and cynical as he got older. I used to read a lot of Twain when I was young, and I loved biographies of Twain. However, the one lesson I learned from him was to fight the negativity I expected to see as I aged. That’s very hard to do, and now that I’m getting older I see why Twain’s cynicism grew. Following in Tolkien’s lead will be very hard.

      And Bill, do you believe Tolkien? Your blog chronicles all the reasons to feel bad towards my fellow man, and think their hearts are the source of their deeds and words.

      1. Jim, I feel more like Mark Twain, but I think more like J.R.R. Tolkien. Hey, as I get older, I certainly understand the stereotype of crabby old men! As you say, on my blog, I rant and rave with the best of them.

        Yet as disgusted as I get with people, I generally don’t think that they’re bad people. Most people believe what they want to believe, and it’s human nature to be both greedy and fearful. It’s easy to hate, because we tend to fear people who are different. And we’re oh, so gullible! And not particularly smart.

        But in general, we try to do our best. We love our children. We’re kind to our pets. We donate to charity. We want to have friends, to belong. Even when we do evil, we tend to think that we’re doing good. We do try.

        So yes, when you get right down to it, I agree with Tolkien. Our hearts aren’t often as bad as our deeds and very seldom as bad as our words. That doesn’t keep me from being pessimistic, but it might keep me from cynicism. There’s a lot of good in people, no matter how it seems sometimes.

  3. I’m doing NaNoWriMo just for the challenge of it. I’ve done a lot of writing, but never finished a novel. It will be something to put on my resume. Also, I’m trying to do all the crazy things I can before I’m a dad in a few months.

    But yeah, the story I’m telling has no deep meaning to me. Nor do the characters. And for all the thinking about it I did ahead of time I find myself changing it a lot as I go, because I realize, you really can’t tell how it will work until you start writing it. I’ve changed the ending too. I thought certain characters were going to be the villains and now I’m changing my mind.

    So general advice to people writing mysteries. Have a lot of characters that could be the villain.


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