Frame Your Story Appropriately
A rule of thumb is this: If your story has a single “arc” or plot line, it probably isn’t a novel. Novels are complex and multi-layered, like life. Which isn’t to say that they’re in any way better than shorter forms of fiction, any more than a symphony is necessarily better than a string quartet or a sonata. Just apples and oranges, for the most part, although stories, novellas, and novelettes can grow into novels. J.D. Salinger’s iconic Catcher In The Rye began life as a short story in a magazine.
This is a good way to solidify a plot you’re uncertain about, too. Write it as a short story first, then see if it cries out for expansion.
Many writers write in a number of different forms. Finding the right one for your idea can mean the difference between success and failure. A woman at a writing workshop I taught some years ago submitted an idea that I thought would be too limiting for a novel. When I told her that she really ought to try it as a short story or else expand it to include more plot elements, she got angry and stomped out. I hope I was wrong, and that she went on to craft that idea into a bestselling novel, but I kind of doubt it.
What’s that expression about truth sometimes requiring the dissolution of one’s dearest beliefs? The fact is, sometimes your idea just isn’t a novel. That doesn’t mean it’s no good. A great short story is always better than a thin novel.
Find the right form for your work.
A corollary to this is: DON’T TAKE SOMEONE ELSE’S IDEA.
I’m not talking about STEALING ideas, although I’ll touch on that in a minute. I’m talking about people telling you about the fabulous idea you’ve got to write because a) it’ll make you a million dollars b) no one’s ever written anything about it before c) everybody’s writing about it. The real reason people want you to write their idea is because it’s their idea. And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t.
This may not seem like a very big problem, but it happens more often than you think. You submit a novel to an agent, and the agent tells you that he/she would have an easier time selling it if it were set in a different time, or had more mystery elements, or if the romantic aspect were enhanced. So you basically rewrite the book to please the agent, and then he can’t sell it anyway. This has happened to countless writers.
Agents didn’t used to be critics. They just sold your book to whoever wanted it. But things have changed. Books are harder to sell than they used to be, so agents are getting pickier. But a lot of them don’t know any more than you do.
It’s difficult to know when to draw the line, but I say if they want you to eviscerate your book, maybe you’d better look for another agent. I know, they’re hard to find, but unless you agree with their suggestions, you’re ultimately going to feel used.
The same goes for editors, unless they’ve bought your book. If they have, they deserve to be listened to. I will basically give my editors anything they want, because they have committed to me by buying my manuscript, and I will commit to them equally. But if it’s a case of “Maybe if you made the main character a man instead of a woman, I’d be willing to give it another read …” or some other cavalier suggestion that will take a year or more of your life with no commitment from them, I’d say keep looking.
The other time this happens is with writing partners. I once researched and wrote a novel about a subject I had very little interest in because my partner (read my bio if you want to know who that was) suggested the topic. I hated writing this book. I didn’t much like the end result, either, although that was negligible compared with the fact that I’d given a year of my precious time to something I wasn’t passionate about.
I never made that mistake again. Not all my books have been big sellers, but they have all – with the exception of The Hand of Lazarus – been the darlings of my heart. (A prime example of this is The Temple Dogs, which never had a chance to be a bestseller, since only 7,000 copies were printed. It is nevertheless one of my personal favorites, and I’m going to try to post it somewhere on this web site if I can, so that you can read it – for free!)
Oh, yes, a word about stealing: It’s really hard to steal a novel. So you’d be surprised how many (amateur) novelists have complained to me about someone or other “stealing” their book. To those paranoid enough to believe that agents or editors are going to take your material and do whatever with it, I have only two things to say: 1) Your story must have been awfully simple; and 2) if you can’t trust anyone to read your material without pilfering it, then don’t show it to anyone. It can be your big secret. The world will be the lesser for it, but we’ll carry on somehow.