Douglas College instructors offer novel advice
By Cheryl Minns, Arts Editor
So you want to write a novel? Then now is the time to do so as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an international movement to get writers to produce 50,000-word novels during November.
But a novel can be difficult to create in a 30-day timeframe with a cohesive plot and well-rounded characters. That’s why the Other Press interviewed three Douglas College creative writing instructors about their thoughts on how to approach a NaNoWriMo novel.
On the NaNoWriMo website, writers are encouraged to start writing on November 1 even if they don’t have a plot in mind or an outline developed. While it can be interesting to see how a story that started out of nowhere can end up, in the long run it helps to have a plan in mind.
“Process is personal, but I know I have to have at least a general plot outline before writing a proper story,” Shashi Bhat says. “I suppose I’ve written isolated scenes without having outlined, but even that is quite rare. Because how do you know what details to emphasize if you don’t know what’s going to happen next?”
However, an outline doesn’t have to be overly detailed to be useful. In fact, too many details in an outline can hinder a story if it doesn’t allow for deviation.
“If you know what’s going to happen, how are you going to surprise yourself and, by extension, the reader?” Rick Maddocks says. “Sometimes you can plan something out so specifically that you don’t end up writing the actual story because you already know what’s going to happen.”
While outlines aren’t for everyone, it is important to have some clear details in mind in order to create a story.
“If you’re able to head off into the dark of possibility without a map but with solid characters and a sense of the theme, you might not need an outline,” says Calvin Wharton, chair of the creative writing department.
Characters are a crucial part of an interesting novel since they propel the story forward, instigate the action, and provide dialogue, to name a few of their many tasks. This is one aspect of novel writing that writers should take their time with, so they don’t create unbelievable characters that unexpectedly change their motives halfway through a story.
“A writer needs to have a good sense of her or his main characters. Spend some time getting to know them before you get too far into the writing,” Wharton says.
“The more a writer knows about their character the better. Character details in a story are there to convince the reader that this character is a real person,” Bhat says.
“In fiction classes, I have students complete rigorous character exercises, creating online dating profiles for characters and answering questions such as, ‘What does your character keep in his medicine cabinet?’ and ‘What does your character wake up at 4 a.m. thinking about?’” she added.
Well-crafted characters can even take on lives of their own, going in new directions you never expected and behaving differently than how you intended them to.
“Just keep writing them, see how they move, sound, think,” Maddocks says. “Sooner or later, they’ll get tired of you bossing them around and start to make decisions themselves.”
If you’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo and committed yourself to completing a novel this month, it’s good to keep in mind that what you take away from the writing experience can be more important than meeting the word count.
“One of the main values in taking on the challenge of NaNoWriMo is to be found in writing every day for an extended time,” Wharton says.
Bhat suggests that the focus of a NaNoWriMo writing project shouldn’t be on finishing the novel but on coming up with new ideas.
“Students of mine have participated before and have found it most useful as a free-writing exercise to generate material that they will later cull and develop into cohesive, structured pieces. NaNoWriMo creates pressure to produce, and that pressure can encourage creative experimentation,” she says.
For more information on National Novel Writing Month, check out nanowrimo.org