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How to Write a Novel: Borrow, Just Don't Steal

By Bluestalking @Bluestalking

How to Write a Novel: Borrow, Just Don't Steal

Plots, Plots, Plots!

When last I wrote we were discussing Freytag's Triangle, the classic framework for storytelling. At the end of the post I mentioned it's perfectly okay to borrow general ideas from other writers. In fact, all writers do it, if they realize it or not.

It's said there are only so many plots, anyway, right? Check this out, from Internet Public Library.  It gathers different opinions on how  many plots there actually are. Give it a study. See what appeals and take notes in the writing notebook I assume you all have. If not, I'll wait while you run get one. Yes, that one is good enough! And I like your sparkly pen.

Clearly, the answer to the plot question depends whom you ask but you can't copyright an idea. If you decide to write a book about face-eating zombies someone else can, too. They just can't steal your exact plot or characters.

However, you may get very close to character names and plot if you're writing a parody. The rules are much less stringent for that and you must also declare it's a parody in the title or on the cover, somewhere prominent. That you can do. Check the legalities for sure with an expert - a lawyer would be great - but parodies are exempt from a lot of the "rules."

You can also write an homage, or an updated version, of a work in the public domain - a work that's out of copyright. You may re-work the story, take the major plot points or framework, write a prequel or sequel, etc. Lots of writers do this with Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, etc. If that's your thing, go for it. It's there and it's set up for you. Dig out a minor character and re-tell from that person's standpoint. Or add that person's backstory. Whatever. If no one owns the intellectual property you can play in that sandbox.

But you better make sure that sandbox is public domain. If in doubt, ask a librarian or a lawyer who deals in literary matters.


This is a whole 'nother animal, a more complex study of other authors' works. But here's the general idea: 

1).  As you're reading - and if you're aiming to be a writer you'd better be reading a LOT, or give it up now - in your favorite genre or genres, choose a book you particularly admire.

2).  Deconstruct the book. If possible, buy a cheap copy you can literally pull apart.

3).  Using Freytag's Triangle, label the sections with the corresponding points from the triangle.

4).  Study how the writer has or has not followed the Triangle.

5).  If you believe the book could have been arranged better, switch around the sections.

6).   Skim or read back through the book.

7).  Mark up the book. Literally edit it for anything extraneous. Is there a character who contributes nothing to the story? Are there unnecessary digressions, is there too much description we don't need to know? Get out the red pen.

8).  Now that it's bare bones, read the entire book over. Study what's left, what it is you still love about the book.

9).  Outline the book, as if you'd been the author but with your own changes. Write down, in that writer's notebook of yours, all the strong points you'd like to use later.

 There's your example of how one specific writer wrote one specific book, how he or she sweated it out, what worked and what didn't. Now do it again with other books you like, with ideas you may want to blend to make your own book, ideas you already have, maybe.

Find a book you love for the characters, one for the plot, one for the style, etc... You'll need background in all these things. Combine the best of the best into something you can call your own. Then you'll have your formula. Your personal Freytag's Triangle for your own book or books. There may come a day you won't have to do that anymore, when you'll just do it all automatically. Or you may need to do this between everything you write. Doesn't matter. You only need to please yourself. Oh, and hopefully a readership.

When you've done this a few times, and feel more confident, you'll have essentially taken a grad school course in writing. Heck, you'll be on your way to an MFA, without the overblown price.

This is so simple it's simplistic, as far as the whole principle of deconstruction goes but unless you're an English Ph.D. or a philosopher, what do you need it to be?

All you want is to pull apart a book and study how it was constructed. It teaches you how an author's mind works, how books are written. If you want to go into it more deeply, by all means do. There are loads of books out there on the deconstruction of texts. You can go into it as far as you'd like, tracing all the allusions, the philosophical origins, etc. If you're bent on writing a complex psychological thriller that's a great way to go about it.

This is a lot of work but it's probably a lot less frustrating than starting five different novels, liking none of them, getting depressed and wanting to give up. Any of this sound familiar? It does to me and the four or five partial manuscripts I have on various computers. You're taking a proven formula that worked, pulling it apart and studying it, instead of banging your head against the wall trying to reinvent the wheel. What's there to lose?

And, you know, you can do this with novellas, too. Or short stories. Or creative nonfiction/articles/essays... Anything. Whatever you want to write, in whatever genre, there are examples. Limitless examples, all crying out "Study me...."

I hope I've given you a thing or two to think about in your own writing. Wherever you are - unless you're making money and have status - I've been there. It can be pure agony. Let's suffer together, shall we?

For my Great Writing Weekend next month I'm already planning to get moving on a novella - start short, I say. Make it compact, then either shorten it for a short story, finish for a novella or extend for a novel. Just get that framework and outline going and run with it. I only have a week; I have to consider the best usage of my time.

For my next trick, maybe I'll do an online deconstruction. I plan to do it anyway, for myself. I'll think about it. After all, it could just come in handy for my August excursion...

Photo credit: spikeyhelen via Flickr

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