Recently, I was invited to speak at an International Baccalaureate Lyceum Speaker Series at my son’s high school. The proposed topic of his English teacher, Mr. Ed Booten: “How To Craft a Novel.” Both the English and History senior and junior classes were combined for the event.
For those of you haven’t heard of it, the IB Diploma (and I borrow) is an English-medium university preparation course based on an approach to learning involving critical inquiry and is aimed at the education of the whole person. Every year more than 130,000 young people at schools all over the world take the IB Diploma examinations.
In other words, these are sharp kids – on the ball.
Mr. Booten had read my second novel, The Lost Lantern, and enjoyed it enough to request my insights, which I very much appreciated. I will say, as an independent writer with my last book in its second year of release (available on Amazon.com along with my first, The Long Shadow of Hope), speaking opportunities are few and far between.
I prepared my remarks to include my background (and knowing how a high schooler will cringe at a 500-word assignment): as a former sportswriter required a minimum of 500 bylines a year (my totals were more like 700) I was cranking out at least 400,000 words a year. An average novel is 70,000 to 120,000 words. Thus, a work of such length was attainable in my mind. The Lost Lantern has 143,000, or 505 pages.
I hit the usual topics: Write What you know; Point of View/pros and cons of First Person versus Third Person omniscient; Genre; Plot; Character Development; Tone; Choosing a Title.
I did have to contradict myself – and this is the beauty of the imagination and the fun of writing – because my next novel is about a sexual-serial killer within a gated community on a southern coastal island, and the female police detective who goes undercover to try and catch him. I promise, what I know most of these three topics is the island.
And it is from this contradiction that many of their insightful questions emerged. We laughed as I paced back and forth coming up with answers about creating literary monsters, men willing to go a little further in their crimes and deception then they had previously, the aftermath causing mayhem.
I will say now, one young lady got me. These students in addition to spirited novels are assigned interpretive books such as How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Her question was on my style of writing. I had (at least in that moment) completely forgotten about the four types of writing so often brought up in college courses: Expository, Descriptive, Persuasive, and Narrative, and went on to her about how my style was dialogue-driven, conversational, and that I used my dialogue to create tension. That’s all true, but I completely whiffed on her question. While some authors’ novels might be considered Descriptive in style, most novels – my novels – are written in the Narrative style.
But style goes much deeper than the above literary categories. Writing to your audience is always the key. J.K. Rowling doesn’t write like Ernest Hemingway, nor should she. Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory (or theory of omission) strips stories to their bare bones, leaving the reader to interpret his meaning. The voice of Hunter S. Thompson will never be found in a John Grisham tale. Pat Conroy and Cormac McCarthy are in another stratosphere, but hardly similar, nor did they ever mass-produce in a Pattersonesque fury. My goal is for my murder-suspense novels to become page-turners with a surprising twist or two. I don’t use my thesaurus to find big words to enhance my meaning or bog down the reader, nor do I enjoy reading with a dictionary by my side. That’s my style, and for now I’m sticking to it. Thanks for reading, A.S. (Photo courtesy of Ed Booten)
© – 2019