Hell, I had grown used to the constant five-page paper, two due a week. That was life. Sometimes three ten-page papers were due in one week. There’s even a formula for that kind of essay writing. It helps, of course, to know the exact parameters for the assignment, and it was always fun to adopt a little humor to help make the essay really sing, like a kitschy line dancer that a pimp could be proud of. I felt it was something to always work towards.
But that’s not what writing is. Writing is not just getting the words down on paper to satisfy some assignment. Writing is not a discussion on the inner transcendence, character growth, and symbolistic nature of the scenery in some classic novel. Writing is simply not some “thing” to get done for class before a night out with the buddies. Writing is not something done for school. It’s not.
Now, honestly, after much reflection, I began to regret ever thinking of writing in those terms because novel writing is something altogether different. In fact, the only way novel writing and writing assignments are the same is that they both require a bit of time spent at the keyboard, but after that, even the mental lucidity that goes into novel writing is vastly different from that required of an essay.
In fact, I’ve come to believe that true writing is only done for the writer themselves. To sit down and peck away at the keyboard for some unspecified amount of time to get some unfathomable number of pages done is something that can only be understood by a writer.
Friends, family, they all think they understand (because how hard could it be to sit on your ass and write?), but not one of them could ever actually comprehend what it takes to sit for hours upon end in front of a keyboard, hoping that the words flowing forth have some redeemable value and that the characters being crafted will someday compare to the ones we’ve all written about in flowery essays for class. And they’d never truly appreciate the total silence that consumes a desperate writer at the keyboard and the inner muse that springs forth when all hope seems lost. That alone, can bring tears.
Real writing is that profound inner silence that can only be achieved by letting go of all the previous assumptions, including those that make writing, writing. It isn’t a world of fun or excitement. It isn’t a world where every writer that writes something gets published. And it isn’t even a world; really, unless you call chatting with the cat on various plot points a viable social connection. But for a writer, the novel becomes their world.
On may ask, then, what is a novel? Well, simply put, a novel is a powerful tool used to reach into and touch the imaginations of every potential reader. And, as in all things, the novel is powered by conventions (of course).
Now, the conventions say that every novel needs a strong, believable heroine (or hero, but I’ve chosen a heroine). Check. Meet Dr. Samantha Hargrove, the somewhat average, superiorly stubborn, yet influential woman who finds herself a clone and struggles with the morality of her own humanity.
It’s also best if the heroine has a terrible past that she must learn to deal with and that will eventually explain much of what she needs to know later in the novel. Check. Samantha finds out she is a clone late in the story and thus, everything she knows about herself and her past becomes a falsity she must deal with. Samantha, of course, only finds this out at the end because she is called upon to make a very important decision regarding the lives and deaths of millions.
The conventions say that every novel should have a hero to play off the heroine and maybe provide a bit of that infamous forbidden-love that packs the shelves so well. Check. Meet Dr. Mark Clements, the tenacious, somewhat violent, yet completely “buyable” man who struggles with his decision to choose money over love, or anything like a normal relationship with a woman.
A novel wouldn’t be complete if the heroine didn’t live in an interesting town. Check. Welcome to San Francisco, California, circa 2018, after the New World Order has been established and the One World government, religion, and monetary system has enveloped society (this is true in my revised-revision, anyway).
And, the heroine wouldn’t have anything to fight for if there wasn’t a believable antagonist. Check. Meet Dr. Jones, the persuasive, impossibly evil, Head of Corporate who seeks to gain control of the world by sending out the biochip before the government can catch on to his plans. Since all antagonists need “helpers” to thwart the heroine along the way, Dr. Jones employs his bio-chipped army to seek out and destroy the dissenters who refuse to get implanted, including Samantha.
And, a novel just wouldn’t be complete without conflict to drive the plot. Check. Samantha loses her husband, Charlie, early in the story because Dr. Jones has ordered his murder. Then she comes face to face with the cannibalistic clones who have been implanted, and then she must run for her life or be captured and implanted herself. All in just a few days. Every step along the way, Samantha discovers more of Dr. Jones’ plot and finds herself with a pivotal decision (to destroy all the implanted people or let them live, when she herself is nothing more than a clone) to make in the end. And as we know, this is the mark of a true heroine: her ability to face despair and conquer it.
So do the conventions work? Before shrieking at the simple nature of the beast, let me explain. I bought and read just about every book on writing that I could find. Of those, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (I also hold favor for Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages) actually gave true meaning to the difference between “showing versus telling.” Writers say this all of the time, (and teachers preach it like it’s going out of style) but this classic reference was able to actually “show” a newbie (or veteran) writer how to accomplish such an enigmatic device.
Most of the books that I voraciously clutched to had much the same things to say, but never really explained why the conventions work, or how to make them work without the reader saying, “that’s so cliché.” And I’ve had problems with being a cliché…think back to the teacher that called me a cliché. Not my work. Me. Talk about “shell-shocking.”
In a very profound way, perhaps because I was forced to look directly at the obvious, I’ve realized that the conventions work extremely well, especially when the reader is presented with a sensibly “realistic” world. Real heroes have troubled pasts and can overcome great obstacles, and they usually have someone wise to guide them, or hamper them, along the way.
A real hero wouldn’t be a hero if he didn’t have an antagonist of some sort to piss him off and send him on the path that will bring him over that profound obstacle and through the murky waters of internal despair. Actually, the antagonist needn’t even be a person, in the real world; it could be a disease such as cancer, or the simple yet complex drive to succeed in academics. And without conflict, well, not many people would bother to get off of their couches.
If used correctly, and this will sound surprisingly “conventional,” the characters will/can/are able to take off on paths of their own that I definitely never would have expected. And they do so because of the very conventions that I created them from. Without the conventions, many of my characters never would have existed, my theme would have been a fuzzy blur (if that), and I probably would never have fleshed out a story that I could be proud of.
So, yes. The conventions work. Use them; abuse them. But above all, a writer must know them, if only to work around them and make them dance. Then, and only then, can a writer call themselves a writer. And that’s what separates a true writer (nay, a novelist) from an English student. For years I was an English student who thought that I was a writer, but now I see the difference with surprising clarity. And I like it.