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T.H.E. Hill on How to Write a Novel

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I’ve been talking with T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, the Military Writers Society of America "Book of the Month" for September 2009. (Read the reviews of Voices Under Berlin and the interview with Hill on Blogcritics: Review 1, Review 2, Interview.)

Military Writers Society of American Book of the Month Award September 2009

Hill is currently working on his next novel, Reunification: The Tale of One GI's Return to Post-Wall Berlin, quite an appropriate topic for the twentieth anniversary year of the Fall of the Berlin Wall which led to the Reunification of Germany. I asked him to talk about how he goes about the creative process of writing a novel. The comments below are gleaned from a lively eMail exchange on how it works for him:

A novel starts out in my imagination as a single sentence that begins with "What if?" The answer to that question is the novel. Reunification began as "What if a GI who had been stationed in Berlin in the 1970s went back today and met his old German girlfriend?"

I'm one of those writers who lets his characters tell him what to do. I just put them on-page in some situation, and let them start talking. Once they get going, it's really hard to get them to shut up. That's not to say that I never get writer's block. Every now and again my characters go "on vacation" and things grind to a halt.

I have two ways around writer's block. One is that I'm a compulsive outliner. I let the characters do the talking, but I have a list of situations to put them in that forms the outline of the novel. If they quit talking in one situation, I move them to another. Most of the time that gets things going again. The other is that I never only work on one project at a time. I normally have another novel and a non-fiction project in various stages of completion in addition to the "active" project I'm working on. If the characters in the "active" project develop 'lock jaw,' I move to one of the others, and come back when the characters have started talking again.

That fits in with the way I write. I write everywhere: at the computer, on 3X5 cards, old paper napkins, and scraps of paper; at home, walking down the street, on campus, and in restaurants. For some reason, however, I can never write while I'm on or in a mechanical conveyance; a bike, a car, a train, or a plane.

I am an inveterate editor and writer who tinkers with the technical elements of the text, so the final product is always done on-screen on a computer. It is so much easier to make changes and move blocks of text around on the computer. Also, when my characters start talking, I have to write really fast to keep up with them. I can type 60 words a minute, 80 when spelling doesn't count. You can always go back later and run spell-check.

All the "How to write a novel" books I've ever read say to start your story out in the middle of the action, and then explain how your characters got there. That's what I did with Reunification. My "What If?" has two characters in it — the GI and his German girlfriend — so I put them on-page at a party in Berlin where they meet again for the first time.

There are certain biographical elements to Reunification, and I'm doing a first-person narrator, so I began with the GI. The first page starts with:

“I walked up to her and said, ‘Ilse?’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say. ‘Long time no see’ seemed too casual. ‘I know I hurt you’ seemed too cavalier.”

When I started this paragraph, I had no idea what would happen next, but by the time I typed "too cavalier," I knew that Ilse wasn't speaking to him. She was an "actions speak louder than words" type of girl. She hit him. As soon as she hit Mike, her grown son came running over to find out why she'd hit one of his guests. He hadn't been there when I typed "I walked up," but by the time his mother refused to speak to him, I could see and hear him. That's how the action of the novel got started, but the characters are still very flat.  After I finish the "action" pass on a chapter, my next step is to flesh-out the characters a little bit. You don't want to do an information dump on the reader. You want to dish out the information little by little until your characters are real people. The first sentence shows that Mike is a thinking character, so between recognizing her and the slap, he needs to say more about himself, and about them:

“She looked in my direction with that blank look you give people who expect you to recognize them when you don’t. Thirty-five years can do more to change your face than a station disguise kit.”

The fact that she initially does not recognize him underscores the length of time it's been since they last saw each other, which is stated explicitly at the end. Time is one of the key questions to be answered in any story: Who is doing what to whom, when, where, how, and why?

This paragraph also shows how observant he is, and it suggests why he has this talent. It is a thread that I will continue to develop throughout the novel. It is not meant to be obvious here, but it will be by the time I get to the end, even though I intend never to implicitly state what he was before he retired.

If this were a short story, I'd just say "she slapped my face." That is the answer to the first three questions to be answered in any story: "Who's doing what to whom". And in the first version that went on-page, that is what it said. After the second editing pass, however, it had turned into this:

“‘I beg your pardon,’ she said. ‘I don’t recall meeting …’ Before she could say the word ‘you,’ the memory hit her. I could see it in the change in her eyes. They went wide. Without even blinking, she hit me in the face with the plate of curry wurst she was holding in her right hand. The plate was Meissen, pre-war from the look of it.”

I know that the trend in "modern" literature is to avoid adjectives, but I've never liked that trend. I feel that saying it was her "right hand" adds to the verisimilitude of the story. Therefore, I always say which hand.

The fact that there was a "pre-war Meissen plate" in her hand helps set the scene. I like a novel that makes you work for the information in it, rather than one that says, "Pre-war Meissen china is very expensive. This is not some run of the mill party with snacks on paper plates."

The next editing pass added "Why was there a curry wurst on her plate?" It's a Berlin delicacy. There is such a thing as being too obscure. That's the key to making the text work as a coherent whole: reading it over and over again, adding something here, taking something away there, until you can read it all the way through and not make any changes. That's the point at which I finally give the manuscript to other people to read.

The job of a test reader is to give you a new perspective so that you can read the novel again and make more changes. One of the best comments I ever got from a test reader was "It reads like you just got tired of writing and stopped." I read it again, and he was right. What had been one chapter turned into three. I went back and put in the details that the reader needed to follow the action of the story, and watch the characters grow. I had known all those things, but I had gotten lazy and assumed that the reader knew them too. When I was in the Army, we always used to say that you can't assume the colonel knows. He doesn't "know", unless you told him yourself. The same thing applies to your reader.

That's why the information about the curry wurst was added. A reader whom I considered a part of my target audience didn't understand why it was curry wurst, so it was clear that I needed to tell her.

I don't know how Reunification will end. I have a couple of ideas, but I had an idea about how Voices Under Berlin would end, only it didn't end that way. The characters had other ideas that seemed more true to life for them. It's a lot of work writing a novel, but it's an adventure too, once the characters start talking to you. By the time you get to the end, they are like old friends, or enemies, and you're sad to see them go.

I find that they can only talk to me if I am not disturbed while I'm writing. The deal at my house is that if my office door is shut, I'm listening to the characters in my novel, so I don't want to be disturbed unless there's a fire, a tornado or a life-threatening emergency. There haven't been any of those – knock on wood — so the novel is progressing well.

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