The Xacto Knife

So you’d like to write a good novel? As arrogant as it may seem, I’m confident I can tell you exactly how to do that.

First of all, the writing part is easy. Any idiot can do it. Write a thousand words a day for 90 days and you’ll have a 90,000 word novel.

The “good” part is where it gets interesting. Here, in a nutshell, is how to make sure your novel is good:

Ask yourself the hard questions about your story, and don’t be satisfied with easy answers.

That’s really all there is to it. Of course, the actual content of the hard questions will depend on the nature of the particular story you’re hoping to tell. You may find some fibrous and chewy questions to ask in your collection of how-to-write books. (You do have a shelf bursting with how-to-write books, I trust.) But ultimately, it’s up to you to challenge yourself with as many questions as you can think of.

How does Janet feel when Bruce doesn’t phone her? Does Herman think to bring his pistol to the meeting with the mobster, or is he too sure of himself? What is the phase of the moon in this night-time scene, and what time does a moon rise when it’s at that phase? Does the word “escarpment” mean what I think it means? (Yes, I did actually open the dictionary the other day and look up “escarpment.”) The list of questions is never-ending.

There may be several reasons why aspiring writers (or even experienced writers) fail to engage in this process, or start asking questions but bail out too soon.

It may never occur to them that a given question needs to be asked. We all have blind spots! Writers who haven’t read widely are in the greatest danger of not knowing what questions to ask.

Or they may ask the question but let themselves off the hook by being satisfied with a too-easy answer. Some questions (such as the meaning of “escarpment”) are simple. Others are not nearly so simple. Failure to look for the obscure but satisfying answer can happen due to laziness. Maybe you think finding a good answer doesn’t matter because your readers won’t notice, or maybe you know you’re slipping in a too-easy answer, but you’re tired or in a hurry.

Being satisfied with a too-easy answer can also be due to creeping insecurity — the fear that if you look that hard question straight in the eye, it will defeat you.

Or maybe you just want to have fun writing. Finding good answers to difficult questions is not always fun. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s just a long slog.

As I tell my cello students (with respect to playing the cello), “If it was easy, everybody would do it!” Of course, in the age of the Internet and self-publishing, pretty nearly everybody is writing novels. Fortunately for grinds like me, most of those charming and passionate self-published writers try to tiptoe or tapdance around the tough questions.

Do you really think nobody will notice?

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