I love this Ted talk by author Simon Van Booy for a couple of reasons. First, although he knows that all novels need a definite structure, but a good story can’t depend on any template or formula. It comes from the heart. Most online novel writing course reviews focus heavily on the formulaic approach to writing novels, so this is refreshing.
Second, Simon gives six steps to writing a short story novel. You can guess some of them, such as: get yourself a space of your own to create fiction, have a set time for writing, don’t be disturbed, etc. What is different for me is his attitude towards novel structure and the importance of passion in your writing.
John Grisham is of course a brilliant story-teller. When he writes a novel, he needs to know two things before he begins to write the plot – how it starts and how it finishes, often needing to write the last sentence first! Van Booy doesn’t do this. He advocates beginning with a passionate idea, something that intrigues or consumes you, and just see where it goes.
This approach seems very attractive to me. The idea of letting a novel grow, like an organic entity, makes complete sense. it allows the characters to tell the author where the story is going, making it more natural and surprising.
Simon Van Booy writes novels like The Secret Lives of People in Love, Love Begins in Winter, Everything Beautiful Began After, and The Illusion of Separateness. Enjoy the talk:
Simon Van Booy TED Talk
Before I teach you how to write a novel in under 20 minutes, I have to convince you that it’s worthy of your time, that you should indeed write a novel in under 20 minutes.
Why should anybody decide to write a novel? Well, there are many reasons. You may think when you imagine yourself holding a manuscript that it might make it onto the New York Times bestseller list.
You know, you make lots of money and you get invited to parties. People pawing at you. You can finally afford Chanel. You win prizes, and I don’t mean you know washer/dryers or holiday in the Catskills, I mean, you know, like very serious, dignified, intelligent prizes presented to you by very old people with puckered faces and medals across their chests.
So you could imagine this is certainly possible if you write a novel and it’s a commercial success. However, being a commercial success is not the same, not necessarily the same as being in an artistic success.
If you look at a lot of the geniuses we revere today, they were complete failures in their own lifetimes. What makes a true artist, a true writer, is as you probably know already, that you’ve followed that deep in a voice, that part of yourself which is your core, which a Greek philosopher said was unsinkable goods.
So your life falls apart, like a, you know, an old-fashioned ship sinking and out you float smiling away to be carried on to the next adventure. A voice guides you when you write, that voice becomes stronger, purer and more clear.
Jenifer, tenth grade high school. Imagine it. Kenny, gorgeous. I mean, really handsome – Tom Ford model, captain of the football team, but how does Jenny find out that Kenny really maybe isn’t the best boyfriend in the world?
He’s kind of a jerk actually. Well, Jennifer keeps a diary and so in that diary through writing she’s able to sharpen her perceptions of what her life is, what she wants, things that aren’t going so well.
In a sense, writing frees you from fear because it brings wisdom, and with wisdom comes autonomy, and that’s really success. Success in life is autonomy and freedom from doing things. Wasting our time doing activities just to please other people.
You want to please yourselves, and so writing is also a form of play. According to the child psychologist Erik Erikson, children play in order to consolidate all the emotional experiences that have happened to them. Although all, even the traumas.
A child sees someone get hit by a car and they go home, and they reenact that with their doll. It’s the healthiest thing they can do because it gives them a chance to sort of replay what’s happening in a way that they can sort of learn to integrate into their view of the world.
Let me give you an example. I brought a few of my friends here and if you’re wondering what that screen says it says “get your creepy dolls off the stage”.
So “oh my goodness, oh my goodness, Jay Gatsby”
“Is that you Daisy? Daisy, I’m naked.”
“Oh John” we’ve had such a wonderful life together, haven’t we?”
“Yes, I’ve really enjoyed these walks we take together.”
“Oh, so have I, yes”
“Tthere’s a reason I brought you out here today”
“Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some rather bad news – I’m dying.”
“Oh my god!”
“Yes, I’ve got a rare disease that makes me look like a stuffed animal.”
You get the idea, however and actually, before I came on stage, my cell phone was going crazy and it was my daughter saying “where’s my doll?” So I said “your doll will be famous” but however, you know the best relationships involve lots of playing .
When you play through language by writing, it won’t be an elephant and it won’t a be abominable monster. It will be you, when you were 10 years old and your grandfather when he died from, a you know, an aggressive form of cancer.
Writing allows us in the same way children use play to untie knots in our hearts to move forward with our life, to love and more importantly, to learn to accept love. So that’s the hard part done. Now all you have to do is write the book.
People who say “oh you can’t teach writing” what they really mean “is they can’t teach writing”. What they mean is, there is one type of way to write and somehow that knowledge is encrypted and it’s accessible only to a select few and of course that’s completely false. It’s totally wrong.
I learned to write quite late, in fact. My brother learned to write. Ben is a fairly good writer. You can all write. Most people in America can write, and if people can’t write, well let’s teach them.
Maybe what people mean is, maybe you can’t teach people to tell a story. That’s essentially what a writer, is a storyteller. You can’t tell someone to tell a story in an interesting way right but you can teach people to tell their story and that’s your novel.
That thing that keeps you awake at night. That thing that you just can’t talk to anyone about, that you’re thinking of right now. That’s your big secret, that uncomfortable feeling. That’s your novel, trying to be born and, of course, like every birth, there’s going to be screaming and maybe some blood and some drugs too.
But nothing more than Tylenol. So writing allows you to progress emotionally and and after a while you get into the swing of how to integrate your life and your emotional experiences with what’s happening in the world.
So how do you tell your story. Well, the first stage there are six steps. First step is place, time and conditions. You need to have a place that’s exclusively yours. Some kind of desk, or if you, you know, if you live in a very, very small apartment, or on a Samuel Beckett set, I mean just find a tray like, or a piece of aluminium foil.
Just find something that’s exclusively yours, that nobody can soil with all their emotionality. So if you share a dining room table with your family, then put a different kind of tablecloth. Take off all the spongebob toys, maybe put a nice dipped candle on there.
When you’re writing light it, so have a place that’s exclusively yours and no one else uses. Don’t use that space to pay bills or to surf the internet, or able to ,you know, look at Facebook. Treat that space, that tray or that folding table like the way priests treat all their paraphernalia.
You know, altars and, you know, things that babies are dipped into when they’re born, so the devil doesn’t come and run around with this giant fork. You want to treat it with the sanctity and the reverence of a holy object, because it is a holy object.
It’s where you’re going to give birth to your characters. It’s where you’re going to kill your characters.It’s where you’re going to exercise all your demons, and if you don’t think you have any demons, then after this talk there are million shrinks in New York. I’m sure we can find one and we can find you some demons that you can write about.
Once a week start off with maybe 3 hours, 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. trying to, and maybe no one else is in the house. Now, you’ve got a place to work. You’ve got conditions. You’ve got a time and then if you need energy drinks, if you need Gatorade, you know energy bars, tea wraps – anything that helps the ritual.
All writers are different. Some writers like to create while they’re naked Some like to wear suits. Some like to be extremely hungry. Find those conditions. Spend some money, if you have to, because if you don’t take your writing practice seriously, no one else will.
Step two is easy. Don’t read anything you don’t love. Don’t read books you think you should love, or you think you should read. Read books you genuinely love and excite you. Make you tremble at the sight of them.
If you have books on your nightstand that you think you should love, they’re not going to inspire you. Being inspired, it’s such an exciting part of life. I came here today because I was inspired to impart a few things that I’ve learned along my writing journey but if I wasn’t inspired I couldn’t write a single word.
I couldn’t write a post-it note. Don’t worry about understanding anything. Understanding is overrated. Ignorance is where it’s at. If you read sentences you don’t quite understand it’s okay, because your brain will fire at a miraculous rate trying to understand. That will prepare you for a fertile bout of wrestling with your demons and creating your own novel.
Step three. Sketching artists usually have little sketchbooks. They’re always doing something, you know, sketching a bird or the clouds. You know, they’re always busy with their pencils or drawing, or drawing on their hands.
They’re constantly moving and that’s we can learn from them. Artists feed off each other. Great artists revere the people who inspire them, so take a notebook with you. Use an iPhone, whatever works. Move with the times. If books are going to be on iPads in the future, so what?
You know, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, there was probably someone who said “if it’s not engraved in rock, I’m not reading it” so just adapt otherwise you’re going to get left behind.
Sketch things with words. Ride the subway. Ride a New York City public bus. Go into the woods. Visit thrift stores. Do anything you like. Go nowhere, for no reason and write things down that move you here. [Puts hand on heart]
If it doesn’t move you ‘here’, don’t write it down because it’s useless. Remember, writing is this [hand on heart]. You want to write an essay you know or become an academic use your brain. To be a writer, this is what you need. You need faith.
Of all the millions of things you could observe you’re going to write certain things in that little book. Part of the step 3 sketching step is taking what you’ve written in that book to your computer and during the time you’ve agreed to sit and write, you write from that little book.
Transcribe one thing. Every now and then, one thing is going to catch fire and that is the beginning of your novel. You don’t need to know what’s going to happen. Just like when a child plays. They may not know where the play is going to go, but it’s going to go somewhere and it’s going to be terrific. We’re going to learn something from it.
Step four. Character and plot is easy. Don’t let people over complicate this for you. Character is simple. A man walks into a Chinese restaurant. Right – boring, terrible, okay . What we have to do is, we have to give it some realism.
Imagine a man you know well, because you don’t want their personality to infringe and hijack you know the personality you want to give the character. I think of my uncle Martin. Nice trap. Cheerful. Has a beard. I know how he stands, I know how he walks, I know how he sounds.
I know how he’d lean on the counter, how he’d circle the little things with pencil, you know. There’s a Chinese restaurant which I go to fairly often, and I can picture it with the weird birds on the wall, and the little Buddha with the plate of food underneath it and the incense.
Right there you’ve got realism. You’ve described something that’s completely real because it is real. When writers are writing, they’re not making it up. They’re simply taking bits from real life and weaving it together and getting rid of the seams.
Remember – you only tell 20% of what happened.Yyou don’t need to tell everything. Remember the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky said “no artist creates under ideal conditions”. You will never, ever have ideal conditions to create, so don’t ever expect them. Some of the greatest works of literature have been created under atrocious conditions.
What is plot? If your grandmother had a string of pearls, imagine this is your novel. [Draws string of pearls on a white-board]. These are chapters. Okay, chapter one, chapter two, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Nine chapters – they’ll be long chapters.
Here’s your character, but maybe two characters. [Draws two people] Each chapter is a major scene in their lives. It could be 1797 to 1801. You may not go from birth to death. What happened to them? What did they learn? How did they change? How did they evolve?
But of course, it’s really how you evolved. How you changed. You’re taking all that emotion and you’re merging it with someone else’s life in a different context. You go into your own apartment. You rearrange the furniture. It’s still your apartment. It’s still your stuff.
Write each scene. Write each chapter. Put them together as your novel and you just keep rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting. After a year of rewriting, you’ve got a first draft. Congratulations!
If you can take away a pearl and it stays intact, congratulations again! You’ve found a superfluous chapter. If you take away a chapter, take away a pearl, and the rest of the string collapses and there are chapters everywhere, it’s good.
It’s good because every chapter needs to drive the narrative forward. Then what do you do, you just keep rewriting until you stop changing things. When you stop changing things, congratulations, you’ve finished a book. Print out two copies. Put one under your bed, put one in an envelope to send to agents and immediately start your next book.