Novel Lessons 1: The Desert of Souls

I’d like to think that I learn a little more about writing with every book, and I thought that it might be useful to my fellow writers if I shared what I’ve learned… often the hard way.

Before I ever got to the first published novel I had at least five others that didn’t make the cut. I write “at least” because three of those five were rewritten numerous times, sometimes nearly from scratch, so maybe the total is more like ten or twelve. Yeah, that many.

I am reminded of what I heard as a creative writing minor in college when a published author dropped by to talk to us. He said that it might take us multiple novels before we got published, and he cited a figure close to ten, because that’s how long it had taken him. I remember thinking to myself that I would certainly figure things out faster. Hah! The arrogance and optimism of youth. I sure thought I was special (even as I was brimming with insecurities that I really wasn’t). Would I have stuck with it so long if I’d known success wasn’t waiting around the corner? What if I’d known the advice I later heard, about having to put in about 10,000 hours before you were good enough to be professional with a skill? I think that little gem is probably pretty accurate for most of us, as it turns out.

Probably I’d still have kept at it. I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, even if I thought I had more of a natural knack that wouldn’t require quite so much time to get right. Of course, some people get it right the first time out of the gate, like Lynch and Rothfuss. That wasn’t me, alas. Maybe to write your first one it helps if you’re a more seasoned human being, because some of my challenge was that I hadn’t experienced enough life to write a convincing novel when I was in my teens or early 20s.

So what did I learn in the writing of my first published novel, The Desert of Souls?

A number of lessons, really, and some I didn’t fully understand until I completed the second published novel.

First, I learned that I should write what I was most excited about writing, which at that time was about my characters Dabir and Asim. I’d been crafting short stories about them for nearly ten years, reading all about the time period (8th century) and region they were from that whole long while. But I’d been putting off  a novel about them because I thought no one would want to read a historical fantasy novel with Arabian heroes. It turned out I was right, sadly, for not enough people read it to keep the series going, but I was wrong in the short term, because my passion and skill showed through and got me that book contract.

Second, what I didn’t understand was that because I knew the characters so very well that the writing was easy. In my spare time I ended up writing a novel in about a year, with very few revisions. At least one of the chapters reads almost exactly as I wrote it in the rough draft. That was deceptive for me, because I thought all novel writing would be like that. Later I understood that that ease came from knowing the characters and their reactions like the back of my hand.

Third, I thought all I needed was a simple outline, because writing that book was so easy. I was wrong there, but that outline was just right for that book, which went exactly where I wanted it to go even if it still surprised me sometimes. I trusted my instincts, which is something I lost sight of for a little while in later books.

I guess a related lesson is that if you know your characters and their motivations (not just the protagonists, but the villains as well) everything else falls into place. I think that’s the way Harold Lamb wrote. I wish more record of his writing process survived. All we have are a few comments here and there that he made, stating that he really didn’t like redrafting very much. As his plots rely upon collisions between motivations, I’ve come to think that his secret relies upon knowing his protagonists and antagonists, and their abilities and failings. He then set them against each other. Partly unconsciously, that’s exactly what I did in The Desert of Souls.

It would be a little while before I figured out how to write another as efficiently. Next week I’ll look at things that went right and wrong with Plague of Shadows.

6 Comments on “Novel Lessons 1: The Desert of Souls

  1. What a great idea for a series of articles, Howard. Thanks for taking the time to relay some of the lessons you’ve learned from your own writing. It’s always helpful to those of us who are as yet unpublished to hear about all the challenges and doubts those who’ve been published have dealt with, and still struggle with to varying degrees.

    • Thanks, AJ. I really hope that they’re useful to somebody. I wish that I could have learned these lessons more quickly, and without so much pain.

      Of course every writer has different struggles and issues that crop up, besides the obvious common ones, so there are few universal answers. But hopefully some of what I’m talking about will help.

  2. Absolutely! It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said “Plot is character, character is plot.” Know what your characters want, and you know what they will do. Then you can set ’em free and watch ’em run. And that’s where fun lies. 🙂

    • John, I’d forgotten that Fitzgerald had said that. It’s dead on. And so are you when you say you can set ’em free and watch ’em run and that’s where the fun is. Amen. It’s really neat when they begin to do things you hadn’t anticipate that improve the book.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I think you’re totally right. If you know the characters, you know how they will behave, and they mostly write the story. The rest is, as you say, trusting instincts, and I think for a good novel, trying to trust the subconscious process and not try to control things too much.

    • Robert, I think that’s absolutely right… except when it’s sometimes absolutely wrong! Sometimes I’ve trusted my instinct and went wildly off course. It turned out that I’m not a very good seat-of-the-pants writer. I need at least some kind of outline, as as I’ve learned in the last few years, I need a well-developed yet flexible one.

      Others may succeed better with other methods, of course. But if by being in touch with your instinct you mean being in touch with the muse, then I am fully in agreement with that sentiment, which is a must.

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