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You never learn how to write a novel



All drama is conflict. Without conflict, there is no action. Without action, there is no character. Without character, there is no story. And without story, there is no screenplay.

The title of this article is from the novel American Gods’ Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman. He describes an encounter with Gene Wolfe, whom Gaiman describes as the wisest writer he knows, wherein he tells the older writer that he thinks he has learned how to write a novel because of his experience writing American Gods. Gene looks at him, smiling kindly, and says, “You never learn how to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.” I have written two novels in my career, and this was a lesson I needed to learn when working on the second.

In writing my first novel, I had settled on a technique that seemed to work quite well. I created a plot outline. It was to be murder mystery. I had gathered my research material. Being a doctor, I retrieved my pathology textbooks and decided on the details of murders the book would explore. I collected my grandfather’s police procedural handbooks—he had been a Provincial Police Officer during the immediate post-independence years. I was a fan of such books and films, and thought I had the cookie-cutter nature of the typical murder mystery plotline locked down.


I wrote to this basic plot outline—a body is found, the first suspect is not whom they are made out to be, the real culprit is, surprise surprise, not whom the readers expect. Before beginning a chapter, I would elaborate its plot. What was the conflict? Who were the characters in this scene? Where was this happening? What was the conflict’s mini-resolution? What had escalated post-conflict that justified the writing of subsequent chapters? There. This is what drama is. This is what plot is. What unresolved matter do your characters bring into the “chapter”, who are your characters, where are they, and how do they (if they do) settle the matter. Conflict.

Back to the writing of my first novel. When I was done with a chapter, I would read the plot outline again, cross out what had changed because the characters wanted to go their own way, or because I had discovered a better way to make the plot work during the writing thereof. Then I would, armed with this new information as to where my novel was headed, plot two chapters ahead. I repeated this process of plotting, writing, revising plot, plotting, and writing, until I finished the first draft. And I thought I had it. I was twenty-eight years old and I had discovered how to write novels. All I needed was scale and I could multiply this process and churn out longer and longer pieces. See me, see success, yes? No.

This is not what happened with the next book. My second novel was more mainstream. It was an organic process. I could not plot in advance where the characters were going, both metaphorically and physically, and what they would do when they got there. My characters took over the novel. I actually had to plot in reverse. I would plan a chapter, and then have to throw out all my plans when the chapter was done. I would go back three or more chapters and rewrite, justifying and cleaning up after these unrepentantly rebellious people I had created. It was a confusing mess. The typical character-driven novel as opposed to what I now understood to be my first plot-driven book.


But what to take away from all this? In both books I still had to, all my complaining notwithstanding, create close approximations of real people. And I had to know these characters well enough to anticipate what they would get into conflict over. The epigram that begins this article says a lot but does not say everything: Character is at the heart of conflict. Character is story.

I have to stop now. It has just been announced that my friend, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim just won the Nigerian Prize for Literature and I am going to call him so we can plan the celebration. A prize is an ever improving thing, and with this win, this prize is getting better at picking truly good writing. I think we should talk about literary prizes soon.

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