Daniel I. Russell has been featured publications such as The Zombie Feed from Apex, Pseudopod and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Author of Samhane, Come Into Darkness, Critique, The Collector Book 1: Mana Leak, Mother's Boys and the huge collection Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem, Daniel was also the vice-president of the Australian Horror Writers' Association, special guest editor of Midnight Echo and associate and technical editor for Necrotic Tissue.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Of late, I’ve read a few blogs wherein the author discusses an aspect of their writing, in particular, the massive hurdle that is the first novel. Now I’ve read some fantastic first novels…and I’ve also read some stinkers, but regardless, anyone who has finished a full length novel has my utmost respect. As many have said, this isn’t really what I’d call a paying gig until you have that established readership, in most cases anyway. That troublesome first novel will, in all honestly, probably not see the light of day in regards to traditional publishing (although I have a bone to pick with that: if you continue to grow and improve as a writer, why not go back and apply that greater level of understanding to a somewhat flawed manuscript? After all, you did invest the man hours!).You have only your own drive to keep your bum in the seat and your fingers tapping those keys. And what do you get when you finish? The achievement not many people can enjoy. Your book might not be perfect, but you did it. Finished that bastard! Many, many fall at this (at times) seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
What my USB looks like inside my head. Wanna buy a manuscript?
So first novels. Adrian Chamberlain covered in his blog that he struggled with putting too much of his own life into his first book, that writing what you know (I admit I usually pass on this nugget of advice) wasn’t always what’s best for the story.
Every writer has his or her approach to that first novel. I think the relatively common feeling is: knowing that writing a novel is a huge undertaking, it might destroy aspirations, even if the book is eventually finished. So basically…you might write a book and never want to go through that nightmare again! If you’re possibly only going to write one book…ever…how do you plan on tackling that once in a lifetime experience?
At twenty-four, I had these thoughts going into my first novel, Samhane. I’m a big fan of the works of Richard Laymon, and I wanted my book to be similar in technical style: nothing too literary or artsy fartsy, just a thrilling and gory horror novel with an eclectic pace. But again, if this was to be the only novel I ever wrote…shouldn’t I enjoy the experience? I went into the project determined to not only finish it, but to have fun. It’s also quite a brutal book. If this was to be my only novel, I wanted to make an impression.
Samhane. First novel and still doing the business.
I learned a lot and made many mistakes with the actual writing part (such as, if you have two main story lines, don’t write them separately, write them chronologically. In fact with any novel, write it in the order it should appear in the final manuscript). Obviously it didn’t finish me off as I have carried on and written many more books since.
But here’s the crux of my thoughts on novels.
Okay, so you finish your first book (again, respect due), time to ride that momentum and leap into novel #2!
What are your thoughts going into this one?
Surely, pressure to actually finish a novel is gone, as you’ve already achieved that. If that first novel was a commercial success, welcome to another world of stress. I’ll go into this in more detail when I actually have some commercial success (!).
Some second novels I’ve read are a little blander than their predecessor, like the author had only a handful of ideas and used them all up already. Others have read rushed; the author having too much confidence that they’ve cracked this writing lark and didn’t spend the time sweating over their plot and characters like they did with their first baby.
So how would I recommend you approach a second novel? Remember your past mistakes and plan a little better in light of them. Be aware of your abilities and enjoyment (I think if we’re honest, we know where we’re at. For example, even now, if a publisher emailed me requesting a 500 page hard science fiction novel, I’d turn it down. I don’t enjoy writing that genre and I couldn’t keep a story going for that long in that field. I’m experienced to know my limits despite the $ in my eyes).
Rip off the latest big thing? WHERE DO I SIGN?
Most importantly, try something different.
I see too many novelists churning out the same stock characters, the same storylines. If I’ve read a couple of your zombie novels, I probably won’t read the other seven. What? Your latest one isn’t about a bunch of trapped survivors fighting off zombies? It’s about a bunch of trapped survivors fighting off werewolves? Well that’s a world of difference…right?
And this isn’t just new writers or in the small press, some more established writers do the same thing. It puts me off. While the respect is there that the work is still being done and the books are being finished, I see a writer that is either burned out, can’t be bothered anymore or afraid to test their abilities.
Always try something new. Hell, it might not work, but you’ll learn from it.
With The Collector, I experimented with claustrophobia. If I have these multiple POVs, can I write an engaging story with them spending the majority of the book in a confined space? Can I pull that off? With Come Into Darkness, could I have an entire book stay in one POV in real time over a single night? What if none of the characters are likeable? That one was a real challenge, trying to coax the reader into investing their time to follow the exploits of a bunch of generally horrible people. Reviewers have picked up on that element. Did it work? Read the reviews or pick up a copy yourself!
Critique presented a whole heap of personal challenges. Not only did I engage in lots of research regarding high dining and unique ingredients, but the book features a character struggling to come to terms with his sexuality within his world where religion suddenly plays a key role. This was as far away from writing what you know as possible! Yet, I feel this is one of my more accomplished works.
Tip of the culinary iceberg.
Currently I’m working on a lengthy psychological horror called Charlie Says. My self-imposed test going into this book is to write a horror built on atmosphere and suspense alone. That’s right. There will be no blood or more traditional action scenes. Will it get the goosebumps going…or simply be a snoozefest? Time will tell, and even if the book is a failure, never sees the light of day and is doomed to live on a USB forever, at least I will have tried some new. I’d rather this than write stock zombie novel #8.
I guess it depends on your outlook. Do you want to achieve artistically or financially? You’re never guaranteed to make sales, but you ARE guaranteed a level of satisfaction from pushing your abilities and always trying to add to your writer’s box of tricks.
So in summary, I guess my advice with writing a first novel is to simply get it done and learn along the way, and invest that knowledge and experience in your second novel. But then veer off the path. Push yourself. Try a new plot element or major character trait. Rock the boat. And keep doing it: build your skills and stretch your limits with each novel and novella.
Otherwise, you might find it hard to write out of your self-imposed comfort zone in the future.