In the old days, novelists used to aspire both to literary greatness and to popularity, a/k/a fame and wealth. This means their novels had to have plots, as well as Great Writing. Nowadays, “literary” novelists* don’t give a raised pinky finger for the approval of the public. They are Artists and they do not feel it is their duty to pander to the great unwashed or the almighty dollar** with such mundane devices as strong, clear plots.
I have now been writing long enough (about five years, give or take a year or two) to feel eminently qualified to give instruction on how to write the novel that will bring you immortality. You, the Public, should feel privileged to receive this knowledge for free. All I ask is that you buy my books when I finally get around to publishing something.
You have undoubtedly heard that writing a novel is a long, hard process that takes months, even years. Don’t believe it. I, Ms. Kathy, have a perfect formula for turning out the great “literary” novel. All I ask is that you give me some credit when you win the Pulitzer Prize, or at least when you find your novel prominently displayed on a bookstore remainder table.
You introduce (insert name here), a nymphomaniac budget specialist who lives in a one-room apartment in (insert name of big city). There is a man in her bed, which doubles as a big ottoman. She doesn’t want to know his name. If she knew his name, she wouldn’t be able to have sex with him. Her apartment is spotless because, among other things, she has OCD. She goes into the kitchen alcove and picks up a knife. This puts her into a long reverie about how good her grandmother’s homemade coffee cake used to taste. She thinks of stabbing the man with the knife, but decides not to because she just cleaned the living room and she doesn’t want to get blood all over everything.
You introduce your first character’s boss, (insert name) an ambitious but charming yuppie executive who heads a big music company. He is promoting one of his latest bands, The Sore Losers, who are about to release their first album. The boss has the raging hots for both the band’s drummer (a man) and your first character, the nymphomaniac budget specialist. While he is on hold on the phone, he fantasizes about having a threesome with the two of them, although he knows this will never happen because the other two have hated each other ever since the budget specialist tried to bludgeon the drummer with her ledger.
You go back in time (without letting the reader know you are doing this, causing momentary confusion) to detail the childhood of the man who was in the budget specialist’s bed in Chapter One. His name is (pick some name and stick with it). You do not explain how he got into the woman’s bed in Chapter One. That comes later.
It turns out that the man in the bed in Chapter One is the lead singer of The Sore Losers. He is banging the woman in hopes that she will help promote his band to the executives in the music company. From this, the reader learns that Chapter One takes place several months before Chapter Two. Anyway, the man in the bed learns that the woman is a budget specialist, not an executive secretary, so he dumps her after one night. She doesn’t mind.
The budget specialist is no longer important to the story, so from now on she only appears peripherally. This chapter is all about the boss and how he rose to his eminent position in the music company. Whatever you make up will be all right.
The Sore Losers make their first album, go on tour, appear on TV and have a big hit single. The boss is now rich, but still unhappy because he never got that threesome he dreamed about.
SUGGESTION: Fill all of those chapters with pages and pages of very poetic descriptions of everything, even the trash cans outside the office building.
If you follow the above template, you can’t go wrong.
*In other words, writers who feel superior to those who, unlike them, are making money with their writing.
**Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined both of these phrases. He is best known for the opening sentence of his novel Paul Clifford, which begins, “It was a dark and stormy night … .” Of course, he was a popular novelist, so literary snobs can’t really blame him for starting clichés and writing bad opening sentences. He didn’t write badly on purpose, but he was good at it, anyway.