Rules for Writing and Revising Your Novel

When you revise, you must go back and fine-tune your work—add, delete—what needs to go in, be taken out. Repair the characters. Do it when your mind is still fresh with the scenes and the characters of that chapter. However, you must be unbiased (which is hard toward what you’ve just written), detached (which is harder from what you’ve just built), so you can see your own creative flaws. GIVEAWAY: Khanh is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Bop won.)
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GIVEAWAY: Khanh is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Bop won.)

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Guest column by Khanh Ha, who was born in Hue, the former
capital of Vietnam. During his teen years, he began writing short
stories, which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent
magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s
degree in Journalism. FLESH (Black Heron Press, May 2012) is
his first novel (contemporary fiction).
Learn more about him and his book touring here.

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW

As an Asian, I can identify with a protagonist who’s brown-eyed, yellow-skinned. I read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler -- one that won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for literary fiction. In this short story collection, his protagonist in every story is a Vietnamese, and Robert is white. Well, despite lavish praises from his critics, I could never feel “the voice” in each of his stories, presumably from an Asian.

It takes an extraordinary skill for a writer to write in a voice other than his own, considering his race, his ethnic background, his years spent in the said environment that serves as the locale of his novel.

Writers like Chang-rae Lee and Ha Jin write strictly from their upbringing background through their protagonists. So the Korean voice, the Chinese voice from their works ring true. I take my hat to Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) who put himself (a white male) in the place of a Japanese female as a geisha and, kudos to him, succeeded where many others have failed. But it took him 12 years to write such a novel, having gone through three major rewrites to change the POV, third to first.

And don’t ask Arthur Golden to knock off 50K words in a month for the NaNoWriMo!

(Query letter FAQs answered.)

ON WRITING

So you want to write a novel. Do you have a writing routine? I know no one’s routine is like another’s. While writing FLESH, I was regimented. I wrote every day. Each day faithfully by sticking to the seven rules—7 is my lucky number.

#1—find discipline in solitude, in aloneness so you can meet your characters. It’s like a rendezvous with ghosts. Then make that meeting every day or every night with no excuses.

#2—write each scene as if it were the only thing in your universe—it must command all your attention.

#3—write one scene well and that scene would breed the next scene.

#4—leave room for readers to participate: don’t overwrite.

#5—stop where you still have something to say so the next day you won’t face a dry well.

#6—read each day to keep your mind off your own writing.

#7—don’t believe in anybody’s rules except yours.

If you were born to write, write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. Somewhere I remember Toni Morrison once said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”

ON REVISING

You finished a chapter.

Now go back and fine-tune it—add, delete—what needs to go in, be taken out. Repair the characters. Do it when your mind is still fresh with the scenes and the characters of that chapter. However, you must be unbiased (which is hard toward what you’ve just written), detached (which is harder from what you’ve just built), so you can see your own creative flaws.

Or it will be hellish after the novel has been written to go back to fix the flaws either on your own courage, or at an editor’s request.

(Hear a dozen agents explain exactly what they want to see the slush pile right now. See if your work is a match.)

On Characterization

Unlike an actor who plays just his role, an author plays all his characters’ roles, like a man who plays chess against himself.

You can imagine characters. Yet until you write them out, you haven’t known them. Put them in motion. Let them interact with one another. Let them live in some environment. It’s then that you begin to explore your characters’ depths. If you ask me what’s the hardest part in writing a novel, I’ll tell you: characterization. That’s what separates a literary novel from a potboiler. Characters shape a story line, not the other way around. You can’t think up a plot and shoehorn your characters into it. If you do, you are writing a potboiler. In fact, well-developed characters create a more convincing storyline, even shaping it or altering it against your original vision. Think about that!

On Hard Scenes

Writing is just like any normal part of our daily life. It ebbs and flows. The worst thing to a writer isn’t writer’s block but illness, prolonged, unbearable illness that can really affect his writing. Other than that, as Hemingway once said, there will be days when you have to drill rock and then blast it out with charges. When that happens, just take a break, do something else and let your battery be recharged.

There are no hard scenes to write. Really. Those so-called difficult scenes are what writers make them out to be with their paranoia. So before they can write such scenes, their anxiety has already killed their creativity to write them.

GIVEAWAY: Khanh is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Bop won.)

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