What is a novel?

In this post, I will attempt to define and contextualize the word ‘novel.’

Novel, story, narrative: what’s the difference?

It’s probably unnecessary to consider this question because in contemporary terms, and for most practical purposes, the three are virtually synonymous. But, having a ‘legal mind’ forces me to start at ground zero.

First, I’ll summarize what I’ll be attempting to say throughout this post. A novel is a description of imaginary people and related events arranged in a logical sequence to reveal a particular point of view or set of values.

In other words, a novel is a story. And, you already know a lot about story. It’s simply the telling of an event to a listener and the latter experiences or learns something just because he heard/read the story. A story can be either true or false.

A novel is a particular type of story, one that is ALWAYS fictional (not true in the sense it actually happened). Whereas a story or narrative can be either fiction (false) or non-fiction (true). A novel is always made-up, mostly from the author’s imagination, or an actual event, one either experienced, observed, or learned via reading, hearing, or by some other means.

In my last post, as to what was intended as an actual event, I provided an example of a guy who got snookered by a friend. A novel can be built (via fictionalization) around this, or it can become a memoir (an account of the author’s personal experiences), or an autobiography (a biography of yourself).

Merriam-Webster provides a good definition for the novel: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” Notice that the word ‘narrative’ is used to define the word ‘novel.’

Before we look at ‘narrative,’ let’s flesh out Webster’s words. Invented obviously means it’s fiction. It’s made-up, created if you will. It’s made-up prose. Prose writing is ordinary writing, as distinguished from verse. Here’s an example of prose writing (the last sentence I wrote yesterday in my current novel-in-progress): “By twilight, with the goats fed and my impatience firing, I packed a bag and headed to Lillian’s vacant oasis.”

When I hear ‘verse,’ I think of poetry. Here’s a stanza of mine from a long ago poem:

“You melted my heart and mended my mind.
You gave me love and time,
a once in life discovery.
A unique couple, moonstruck but fiery.”

Not that good, but you get the idea.

One other thing about Webster’s definition. A novel is ALWAYS long—between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Compare that to a short story (another work of fictional prose) which typically runs between 5,000 to 10,000 words.

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

Lorrie Moore

A novel is normally “complex and deals especially with human experience ….” This means there is a lot going on: the characters (likely, many), most all with differing wishes, desires, and conflicts. Plus, there are usually one or more subplots that are happening, all necessarily related to the main plot. Of course, not all novels deal with ‘human experience,’ but I’d wager that most do. Likely, because most people read fiction for two primary reasons: to be entertained, and to learn from experience without the experiencing part (I’ll leave you to figure that out).

“A novel must show how the world truly is, how characters genuinely think, how events actually occur. A novel should somehow reveal the true source of our actions.”

Kevin Hood, Becoming Jane

And, yes, I know there’s a lot more in this component of Webster’s definition that needs attention but today, we just don’t have the time.

Now we come to the word narrative. Recall, a novel is a story, a made-up one. Narrative is simply how you tell this made-up story. It is, “a spoken or written account of connected events,” to quote Google. But, narrative is much more.

A quote from Guillaume Wiatr (Principal and Founder of MetaHelm) excellently encapsulates the difference between story and narrative: “People will pay for a story, but people will die for a narrative.” I think what Guillaume means is that a story can grab our attention, entertaining us for the moment, but a narrative (how the story is told) can change us for a lifetime, “[i]t shifts the way we think, for good or for the worst[,]” again quoting Guillaume. He also says this in different words: “Someone died, and that was very wrong[,] starts a narrative that can turn into a revolution.”

Reconsider my summary definition from the beginning of this section: “A novel is a description of imaginary people and related events arranged in a logical sequence to reveal a particular point of view or set of values.” The underlined portion is the heart of narrative. To me, narrative produces theme, it reveals the meaning the writer has explored throughout his entire novel. He’s done this “… [b]y using characters, setting, dialog, plot or a combination of all of these elements[,]” as K.M Weiland says in writing your story’s THEME, a book I highly recommend.

Now that we’ve laid a foundation for understanding the literary form known as the novel, we must look at story structure. Knowing the framework of the ‘building’ you are trying to construct is imperative for writing a novel worth reading. I wish I had learned this much sooner.

We will look at story structure in my next post, but first, you need to understand what you’re getting into (writing a novel) is a challenging but highly rewarding endeavor. With only minor inconveniences as described by one of the greatest writers of all time:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” ― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

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Why should I write a novel?

In my last Post I lightly addressed a number of reasons why people want to write a novel. Since then, I’ve realized that all I clearly did was dance around the issue. Unwittingly, my own example of why I wrote God and Girl, revealed the hardcore truth, but I failed to articulate it in its broader application. I’ll try to do that here.

Earlier today I reread a wonderful article titled, “The Why is Most Important,” by author and book coach Jennie Nash. She deftly captures, in two words, what I was attempting to say in my God and Girl example: ambition and rage.

Ambition, as you know, is desire and drive. You likely are an ambitious person. You can look back over your life—no matter how long or short—and find evidence that you have set and achieved many goals. With each one, you had a desire to do something, along with the vibrant drive to get it done. We could both list many examples, some likely would be the same. For me, at age 39, I wanted to go to law school. I did and it took tremendous effort but somehow I worked my rear off, stuck with it, and graduated in the top 10% of my class. This example represents universal principles. You can apply them to most anything, including medical school, starting a business, building a house (or home; two very different things), or possibly, finding the perfect mate.

No doubt, ambition is a necessary component of your decision to write a novel. I can assure you, it’s not going to be easy. You are going to invest a tremendous amount of time and effort, so you must have the desire and drive, or you’ll likely quit after a few days of solitude (let me assure you, ‘the muse’ is mostly a myth). But, and this is where the rubber meets the road, ambition alone, although necessary, isn’t enough.

In a sense, ambition deals with the external (it likely includes the desire to make a name for yourself). But the most important ‘why’ is to look deep inside and find the internal reason you want to write a book. This is where you will find the rage. More specifically, your rage provides the perfect reason to write a novel. Let’s see why by starting with the definition of rage in its use as a noun.

It is a “feeling of intense anger,” illustrated by “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It’s also defined as “something that is desired intensely.” Wow, wait, there’s that word again. Desire. The dictionary offers this example: “his rage for fame destroyed him.” Or, said another way, “his desire for fame destroyed him.”

“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger . . . To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit . . . Finally I write because I’m scared of writing, but I’m more scared of not writing.”

Gloria E. Anzaldua

In the context of, “Why should I write a novel?”, I encourage you to ask yourself another question: “what am I angry about?” Or, similarly, “what is the one thing that makes me the most angry?” Substitute passion if you like (something that is desired intensely). Whichever word you choose, your answer likely involves pain, both past, present, and ongoing, along with the desire to strike back, to get even with someone or something.

I’ll close with an example that comes to mind. Let’s say that several years ago you and your best friend started a business. For a while, things went great and future prospects were bright. In fact, the business did phenomenally well. At some point your partner/friend asked if he could buy you out. His offer was more money than you ever hoped to make. So, you accepted and the deal was closed.

A few months later, you learned your partner/friend stabbed you in the back. Unbeknown to you, there was a deal to be made with an international company that, if you’d been an owner, would have netted you a billion dollars. Instead, the partner (no longer your friend) wound up thousands of times richer than you, all because he desired money more than his friendship and duties to you. In essence, you got snookered. And, the years have ticked on by while the old partner’s net worth and community respect blasted skyward, while you have squandered away what now appears to have been a mere pittance of what you should have been paid.

Over these same years your anger has intensified but now, for many reasons, you have no legal recourse, and you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in an 8 foot by 8 foot jail cell. So, murder is out of the question. Or, is it?

“Oh,” some might say, “the balm of Gilead.” That’s the soothing physical and spiritual ointment your novel can provide. Yes, it’s fiction (the names are changed to protect the ‘innocent’), but yet, it’s true, or can be for you. This is why you should write a novel.

Find what makes you angry, and, along with ambition, you’ll find the powerful forces that will propel you to the finish line.

Get the ‘why’ right first. Then, you can eagerly pursue the ‘how.’

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

George Orwell

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Why should I read The Pencil Driven Life blog?

Because you want to write a book but don’t know how. This means you are a beginner.

That’s exactly where I was five and a half years ago. I’m still a beginner but I have learned a few things from writing ten novels, things you can learn by reading and digesting this blog.

Let’s pause a minute. I declared in my first sentence that you want to write a book. That was a little presumptuous of me. Maybe you would say, “no, I have no desire to write a book.” Although accurate statistics are hard to come by, writer Joseph Epstein says, “81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them — and should write it.” This of course doesn’t include you. Right?

I humbly request you humor me for a few minutes and seriously consider joining the huge percentage of Americans who want to write a book?

Thanks. Let me start with my reasons before moving on to more common, maybe universal, reasons. Succinctly put, I didn’t like the local (aka the heart of the Bible Belt) negative reaction to Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015), the landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not gay nor did I have a special interest in this subject. What I held sacrosanct was individual freedom, the right to choose one’s own actions absent government and religious interference, as long as the parties do no harm. As expected, the local negative reaction followed a predictable storyline anchored in Holy Writ: same-sex relationships are sin and thus abhorrent to the Christian God.

My idea was to dispel this notion, or more accurately, to explore whether two people of the same gender can truly love each other. It didn’t take long for my imagination to create Ruthie and Ellen, two teens who, well, fell in love, My book title, God and Girl, soon followed.

No doubt there were other factors that influenced my decision to write my first novel. I can think of two: a creative writing seminar over twenty years earlier I’d attended on a Saturday while in law school; and my frustration and tiredness from years of reading craft books on writing instead of actually writing.

That’s about me, and why I wrote my first novel. Now, let’s list (not in any order) a few common (universal?) reasons I believe are worthy of your consideration.

1) To create something from nothing. Actually, it’s not nothing. But, almost. Your imagination is not nothing, but that, along with determination, and a commitment of time, will get you there. No million dollar bulldozers required.

2) To prove to yourself (or others) you can eat the entire elephant. Said another way, that you can complete a complex and difficult task.

3) To leave a legacy. You can leave money and land to your descendants but how will your great grands know it was you, alone, who created that wealth? Nothing but a book is as personal as the story inside your head, or expresses your individual accomplishments.

4) To do something that only a tiny percentage of all people have ever done.

5) To fictionally murder your worst enemy without going to jail.

Personally, I think the following are poor reasons to write a novel:
1) to become famous;
2) to get rich;
3) to get on the New York Times Bestseller list.
These are too ephemeral. You’ll likely bale if one of these is your initiating force.

“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”

Barbara Kingsolver

Now, I assume you have at least a smidgen of interest in writing your own novel. If not, you probably wouldn’t have read this far. Let me restate my initial question: “Why should I read The Pencil Driven Life blog?” The answer is simple: to go from wanting to write your first novel to holding in your hand your first novel.

I admit, it might be easier and quicker to accomplish this goal if you availed yourself of my coaching services, but that’s not required. Ashamedly, until recently, I have done it the hard way, without hiring a coach, attending a conference, or enrolling in a course. However, this doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a few things during these five and a half years. That’s what I intend to share in my blog.

Things like what writing software to use (no, I don’t write my novels in pencil!), how to choose and develop an idea, how to outline your novel even if you are a pantser (you write from the seat of your pants, without outlining), and how to structure your writing. By the way, my software choice is Scrivener.

Writing a novel takes time, a lot. And it’s difficult. However, from what I’ve learned, it is completely doable even for the beginner. The key is to break the tasks down into bite-size pieces. And take as much time as you want: a year, two years, five years. You decide; it’s your novel. Write it for yourself.

It would honor me to have you Follow my blog.

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Ernest Hemingway
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