2 Writing Teachers Talk About Giving Your Novel a Great Start

Jan 9, 2017 | Novels

What a team! Writers and teachers K.L. Going and Clara Gillow Clark interviewed each other about their writing process, what they wish they would have known when they started out, and what to expect at their workshop, Novel Beginnings.

Clara Gillow Clark

Clara Gillow Clark

What makes the start of a novel so challenging?
Clara Gillow Clark:
Before I begin to write a novel I go through a spell of what I call “dream time” when a character has caught my attention who has a story that wants to be told. Dream time is sweet, the sweetest part of the writing process for me. I always walk my stories, and that’s when scenes come to life and characters tell me things. What a shivery sort of thrill it is when that happens. The opening pages start to take on shape as I jot down notes. But, still I wait. And I wait some more, waiting for the character to share her secrets with me. And still I wait. Images come. Maybe they’ll turn into a symbol or a metaphor, but it isn’t until I can see where my character will be at the end of the book, that I sit down to write.

Usually, some of the first chapter comes out smoothly and fully formed, but there are always hard places where the writing is a struggle. Likely, it’s that unwieldy back story that begs to be included in the very beginning, because I really MUST put it there. Or I decide a prologue would be nice, which always seems a delightful way to begin and such a great way to slip in all the information readers MUST know. Kill the prologue. Give it up. Then I remind myself of Flannery O’Conner’s words to writers: Don’t worry about what to say; just make pictures and conversation. And that’s what I try to do.

K.L. Going

K.L. Going

K.L. Going:
Whenever I’m writing a new novel, the section I read and reread the most is the opening chapter. There is so much that has to be introduced right away, and all of it has to be done in an artful way so that readers don’t feel like they’re receiving an information dump. Key features of the characters and plot must *pop* enough to be memorable, but they’re competing with every other element that needs to be established from page one–like setting, tone, and the most important feature of the plot: what does this character want or need? That’s no small order, right?

Meanwhile, an author is also dealing with that feeling in the pit of the stomach that happens when you think about all of the blank pages ahead that haven’t been written yet. Ha. Suddenly, the great idea that seemed so amazing before you sat down to actually write it, can begin to feel like maybe it’s not so great after all. Especially when you read your first draft.

My solution? Recognize right from the start that the opening of your novel is going to take multiple revisions in order to get it right. It’s going to take work. Editing. Taking the time to think through those fundamental decisions about what makes your character and plot tick will make your book so much stronger later on. Planning pays off, and expectations matter.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
Clara Gillow Clark:
Everything changes. Everything. We write and over time we become confident and feel comfortable with our style and our writing voice; and at the beginning of our careers when we’re first published, we think it will always be that way. We do all the right things–study craft, practice craft, and read other authors’ works. One day we realize the industry is changing, and it’s not just a trend. The reality is that both publishing and language is influx and will continue to be so in the future. But know this: It has always been true that we need to be original and unique in our vision for a story that has a thousand faces already. That’s where I am now, reinventing myself and my writing, going deeper, but still always writing from the heart. Embrace change and don’t be afraid. Keep reading and your vision will adjust.

K.L. Going:
Marketing. Groan. Many authors feel like this is the bane of our existence. I’d rather just write books. That’s what I’m good at. BUT… marketing has become an indispensable part of an author’s job. I wish that ten years ago I’d understood the importance of gathering names and e-mail addresses for a mailing list, but at that time having a website felt like an achievement.

What is a common mistake you see when critiquing new writers?
Clara Gillow Clark:
Most new writers who are serious about the craft of writing have a pretty good grasp of story, because they’re readers. But often when we read, we zoom in on the action and read on to find out what’s going to happen next. We see the twists and turns, the pitfalls and setbacks, but seem to miss what’s really driving the cart over that cliff, which is emotion. Often aspiring writers skip right over the interior development of their protagonist and often tell instead of show their character’s emotion. Other things that are often problematic for new writers are deep point-of-view, verb tenses–especially if they’re writing in the present tense, and transitions.

K.L. Going:
One of the most common mistakes I see is that the plot of the novel feels episodic. You can have a strong character, a compelling idea, and clean prose, but if the through line of your plot isn’t strong and fails to connect each and every event in a meaningful way, the story will feel like a collection of events and it will fail to have that snowball effect which keeps a reader turning the pages because the story is building towards a conclusion, gaining speed and urgency as it goes along.

What are you most looking forward to about our upcoming Highlights Foundation Workshop, Novel Beginnings?
Clara Gillow Clark:
Meeting new writers, mentoring, but also experiencing that warm feeling of a kind of homecoming. That’s how I feel when I’m at the Foundation. I’m in a safe and nurturing environment with like-minded people who love to learn, love books, and want to be better writers. I’m looking forward to forging new friendships, but also seeing old friends who work there, like Chef Amanda. What could be better than that?

K.L. Going:
Having a span of time removed from the demands of my daily life (child care, laundry, grocery shopping!) to focus on writing. Even as a teacher, I always come away feeling rejuvenated and inspired to write more. Write better! I always learn new things. A friend of mine, Lisa Grace Byrne, founder of Well Grounded Life, talks about giving yourself permission and graces. Attending a workshop means I’m giving myself permission to pursue my passion, and the grace to try something new, even if that means making mistakes or taking risks. If I’ve given myself permissions and graces, I can enjoy focused, quality writing-centered time without judgement, and that is such an amazing gift!

p.s. just write

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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