Once, in a university course on modern Canadian literature, a successful Canadian novelist explained how he had started writing his latest novel. “I was doing the dishes after supper one night,” he said, “and I heard the voice of the main character in my head.” After he finished washing up, he sat down and wrote what the voice had said. He also heard the voices of the other characters in the novel, speaking to each other.
This, apparently, was how all his novels came about: during his daily routine, a monologue or conversation would start in his mind, and all the author had to do was transcribe it. Eventually he would create a narrative structure, re-write the manuscript a few times and consult an editor. But the whole process began with an imagined, disembodied voice.
I could sense all the aspiring novel-writers in the class sigh in despair as we heard this. “I don’t hear voices in my head while I’m doing the dishes. I have a dishwasher! How am I supposed to write the Great Canadian Novel?”
If only Ottawa-based writer Kevin Johns had been around to help us. His new book, The Novel Writer’s Blueprint: Five Steps to Creating and Completing Your First Book, is a quick, breezy, fact- and advice-filled guide to defeating the inner – and outer – demons that keep most of us from realizing our literary ambitions.
When faced with a blank page, many of us are hesitant to the point of inertia. If we manage to brainstorm a few plot ideas, or sketch out a protagonist or a bit of dialogue, we quickly lose the impetus to press on. We get busy with the many other things in our lives, or we get writer’s block; there are too many distractions, and the ideas just won’t flow.
The first crucial point Johns makes is that writer’s block doesn’t actually exist. An inability to set words down on a blank page, he says, is not the result of psychological or intellectual dysfunction. (Phew!) It’s the result of poor or incomplete preparation and organization — problems that are relatively easy to fix, without resorting to medication or therapy.
Johns’s book is mercifully free of talk about “the muse” or “the creative spark.” The implication is that everybody possesses the creative spark. The difference is that some people know how to take that spark and pour enough fuel on it to turn it into a strong, self-sustaining fire.
Reassuringly, Johns says that a budding novelist should not be overwhelmed by the limitless story possibilities when sitting down in front of a blank screen or page. Instead, she should determine the constraints within which the book will be written: she should pick a genre, study it, and fit her story within that frame. The decisions made at this stage will go a long way towards deciding what kinds of characters are in the story, as well as the setting, narrative tone, and key plot points.
The final section of John’s book is about “running the marathon” — that is, developing the motivation and the energy to work the long hours to see the novel-writing process through to its completion. Even after the frame of the plot has been filled in with sketches of various scenes, there is still the challenge of filling in those sketches: writing dialogue, adding details about setting, characters’ back stories, and so on.
Throughout, Johns offers personal anecdotes, examples from well-known books, movies, and TV shows, and strategies for how to make these decisions for yourself. He argues that this approach does not mean you’re taking short-cuts or becoming a hack. Shakespeare, for one, rarely came up with an original plot: he borrowed stories from popular history books, or from someone else’s play. What made him a genius was the way he structured those stories, and the characters and language he employed in telling them.
The most valuable part of Johns’ book, however, isn’t the writing tips scattered throughout. Rather, it’s the chapter near the beginning, in which he discusses why it’s important for writers – for all of us – to put our efforts into producing creative work.
“Making art is immeasurably important,” writes Johns. “Art, when we create it and especially when we take it in, is what keeps us going through our darkest days…what we turn to for aid in our most desperate hour,…what shows us why life is worth living, despite the despair threatening to crush us into dust.”