Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Two Magna Cartas of Novel Writing

I was rereading some of No Plot? No Problem! this weekend, in preparation for November starting in just a few more days. One interesting exercise in it involves making two lists, which Baty refers to as the "Magna Cartas" of novel writing. In the first list, you write down what makes a good novel, in your mind. Items can be as vague or specific as you want. The second list is the opposite -- everything that bores you or that you dislike in novels. These lists are very handy to have when working on your own fiction. Chances are, the things you like and admire most about other people's books will be the things you'll have the best chance of doing well in your own book. And the list of negatives reminds you to keep an eye out for things which could kill your writing momentum if they start sneaking in.

Here's the initial version (probably subject to additions) of my "Magna Carta I," the good list:
  • Journal / notebook style (e.g. Any Human Heart, The Tattooed Map)
  • Supplementary drawings, documents, footnotes etc. (e.g. The Tattooed Map again, Off the Road, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)
  • Humor
  • Unusual, unexpected, but perfect descriptions (e.g. Douglas Adams)
  • Characters I can relate to, that exemplify or acquire traits or attributes I want for myself
  • Background stories / information (e.g. The Princess Bride)
  • Good first lines that hook you in
  • Magic interacting with everyday life (e.g. Charles de Lint)
  • Magical artifacts (e.g. the pensieve and Tom Riddle's diary from the Harry Potter books)
  • Self-aware main characters

It's evil twin "Magna Carta II," is a bit shorter so far. I think this is probably because I don't spend much time these days reading books I don't like. But here it is:

  • Dull or boring writing (I'd like to think of a way to define this better)
  • Obscure point (yes, this is relative to my analytic skills)
  • Inaccurate technical references (e.g. to music)
  • Characters who make things overly difficult for themselves (i.e. in ways that I think are too obvious)
  • Protagonists that die
  • Self-referential writing (possibly excepting fiction posing as non-fiction, as in A Series of Unfortunate Events)

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