As everyone knows, anyone can write a light novel and get famous. But since satire is a cheap form of humour, that is not actually the route I’m going to take with this post. Say you (hypothetically) wanted to write a light novel in English and get it published, how would you go about doing it?
Step One: Figure out what you’re actually writing
The number one requirement of good writing: knowing what you want to achieve.
So let’s define what the light novel actually is. It’s short fiction and it’s meant to be easy to read. It’s also targeted at a Young Adult demographic. But then that would pretty much be your regular teen lit novel, so you want your light novel to have some kind of appeal to an otaku audience. In short, you either want it to be self-aware and meta about anime tropes or you want it to resemble an anime in tone and style of storytelling. Otherwise, there would be no point in calling it a light novel.
Easy pitfalls to fall into at this stage. Essentially, by writing a light novel in English and not in Japanese, you’re writing for a dual audience: one who cares about anime (your most intended audience, obviously) and one who doesn’t. If you just wrote for the former, your book will suck. There is a reason why we do not have a mass-produced market for otaku literature in English. Writing anime tropes into a story and deconstructing them, parodying them, discussing them and so on requires the audience to actually care about anime tropes in the first place. Most people who read books don’t care about anime. They will not get your in-jokes.
So how to engage a non-otaku audience while still keeping the style noticeably anime-influenced for the geeky readers? Very good question.
- Don’t try to write your prose to resemble what you read on Baka-Tsuki or other websites that translate light novels literally into English. Read books in native English. Write with proper English.
- Localise the story. Unless you’re setting your story in Japan and trying to specifically capture a foreign flavour, don’t use honorifics or arbitrary Japanese phrases. Keep things understandable for the non-Japanese reader.
Step Two: Identify the tropes you want to play with
Personally, I hate using TV Tropes. I think it’s a crappy way of devising stories. But since writing a light novel is arguably an exercise in playing with tropes, whether you’re playing them straight, deconstructing them or just having characters talk about them, TV Tropes is your friend here.
When picking the tropes you want to base your story around, again keep in mind the dual nature of your audience. Try to use tropes that are readily understood by watchers of film, television and books. Once you’ve picked a trope you want to explore (e.g. a Magical Girlfriend) think about what you want to do with the trope. How do you want to portray it?
best most popular light novels link the exploration of their main trope to a broader theme. Examples:
OreImo: “Little sister plays eroge.” -> We sometimes don’t understand the people who are closest to us.
Sword Art Online: “Gamers trapped in a life-or-death MMORPG.” -> A game can be just as “real” as reality.
OreGairu: “Cynical boy joins a club and helps people.” -> Engaging with people isn’t simple when you are who are you, but you can’t expect to change yourself in order to get friends.
Haganai: “Boy with no friends joins a club with girls who also have no friends.” -> Friendship can be as simple as mutual loneliness.
Sakurasou: “Boy takes care of girl with deficiencies as a ‘pet’.” -> A device used to highlight the mental imbalances between the characters; we all have our own unique talents.
Chuunibyou: “Wacky girl with chuunibyou meets seemingly normal guy.” -> An exploration of chuunibyou as a syndrome and a critique of escapism.
Toaru Majutsu no Index: “Normal boy takes down enemies with superpowers.” -> Actively challenges our standards for what constitutes as ‘extraordinary’ in society.
Think of it this way: by using tropes, what you’re trying to do is distill broad, intellectual themes into readily identifiable fiction devices. You’re making your ideas accessible to a wider audience, not trying to alienate them. As long as you don’t think of using your tropes for the sake of using tropes, you don’t have to worry about being ‘cliched’.
There will always be people who will dislike this approach to storytelling and they will diss your story regardless of how well you tell it, but you’re not writing it for them, so forget them.
Step Three: Write It
Needs to be done sometime. A good way to actually motivate yourself to get the story out is to join up with NaNoWriMo and write the whole thing in one month. In any case, just get it down on paper.
How to write easily readable prose:
This is your main priority in writing a light novel. You want your style to be easy to read while still being intellectually stimulating. Obviously, you need practice before you can write in this style well, but here are some tips to guide you along.
- Use active verbs, not passive verbs. e.g. “He kicked the dog” instead of “The dog was kicked”.
- Vary your sentence structure, but keep them mainly short.
- Use precise wording. If you can express the same idea in less words, then do so.
- Limit your vocabulary. As long as you don’t have to waste more words to describe something with more precision, then use simple words rather than specialised vocabulary. You don’t want your reader having to flip through a dictionary just to understand what you’re saying.
- Don’t ignore descriptions. Work them in alongside the dialogue and action. Light novel descriptions should be strongly visual and impressionistic rather than artsy and emotive.
- The average light novel consists of about 70% dialogue. Use it to carry along your story. Read the dialogue aloud and remove superfluous or unnatural-sounding lines.
- Each chapter should move the story along. Each scene should move the story along. So should each sentence and, by extension, each word.
- Avoid repetition and tautologies.
Finally, and most importantly, BE INTERESTING. If you’re getting bored with your own writing, then chances are your reader will too. Who cares if it’s good as long as it’s interesting. Seriously. This is how shit writers get popular.
How to be Meta:
One of the more interesting literary aspects of the light novel is having the narrator mentally make comments on the plot or on other characters as it develops. This is how light novels become meta-aware and also why butthurt fans hate it when their favourite light novel gets an anime adaptation that never seems to explore what the main character is thinking.
To write a good meta narrative, you first of all need to get well into the head of your protagonist. It goes without saying that this is easiest when you write in first person. It also makes things easier if you base the main character on yourself. Really. Take no shame in it.
Once you think you understand your protagonist’s writing voice well, you need to put yourself in the characters shoes as you’re writing the story and think about how they’d mentally respond to the events unfolding. If they’re snarky or a cynic, the character should probably be unimpressed by a lot of what he sees. If your character is a pervert, he should be associating OPPAI and PANTSU with nearly everything a female character says or does. Simply put: consistency is the key.
Even then, you will not have achieved meta status until you take a step back and think about what you’re trying to do with this. Basically, you want there to be two narratives going on at the same time: the physical narrative and the meta narrative. The latter is an alternative, “second” reading of the events.
Here is a short excerpt from OreGairu that is hopefully illustrative of the dual narrative (my own translation):
Encompassing the boundaries of the school building as far as the eye can see, this quadrilateral-shaped courtyard is the holy land of the preppy kids. Boys and girls mingle here with each other during their lunch breaks. After they eat, they have a spot of badminton as they wait for the contents of their stomachs to settle. After school, lovers exchange sweet nothings in the dimming sunset behind the school building, awash with the scent of the ocean breeze and draped under the starlit skies.
When you look at it from up close, it’s so much like they’re trying out for some soap drama that I can’t help but get a chill down my spine. I suppose if I went along with it, my role would be that of the tree under which they make out under.
With barely a word spoken between us, Miss Hiratsuka led me down the linoleum floor, apparently headed towards the special building.
I had a bad feeling about this.
As you can see from the example, the main character’s cynicism is steeped into all of his observations, as if he’s keeping a running commentary track while the physical action of the story is being simultaneously conveyed. Pretty clever, huh?
How to convey “fanservice” with words
A hefty component of writing light novels is the fanservice, often of the sexual kind. Unfortunately, it’s an otaku thing, it seems. I wouldn’t say it works in written form and particularly not in English.
It can, however, be done. Take Bakemonogatari for an example. The narrative constantly discusses issues of sexuality, often as a way of portraying tension between the characters. In other words, the low-brow discussions are quite indicative of the characters and their personalities. As long as sexuality is a theme in the story and not something added for “fanservice”, it will make sense in a novel. There’s nothing holy about literature.
When it comes to the usual kind of fanservice you see in anime, though, my instinct is to say scrap it altogether. At least, those awkward moments like when the hero accidentally flips up skirts and gropes the heroine’s body. But there are deeper levels of fanservice beyond these shallow elements, which is what I’ll be dealing with here.
Light novels are, at heart, escapist. There is no way around it. It appeals to the fantasy instinct, often more so than serious literature. The most ideal way of conveying a fantasy that is easy for the audience to buy into is to make it grounded in reality in some way.
Basically: the reader needs to identify with the protagonist to the extent that the story can “break” with reality and still be worth investing in.
One of the most common ways that this is done is by making the MC a “blank slate”. This does not tend to work for novels, however, especially in light novels, which are heavily based around character interaction. Your MC needs to have common traits with your target audience (i.e. be a teenager and have teenage concerns and worries) but this should not overshadow the character’s personality.
The fanservice – that is, the implausible aspects – need to make sense from a character perspective. Say the hero gets a harem. Is this justifiable from the story? Is the MC’s personality the type that would actually attract so many girls under a specific context? It doesn’t need to be totally believable as long as there is an explanation of some kind. Helps to sustain the fantasy. Also, it adds a lot more spice to the harem if the hero acted somewhat differently with every girl. This is how relationships work in real life, after all.
Step Four: Edit, Edit, Edit
That other step that sounds easy to do but is actually insanely hard.
A couple of vague suggestions here:
- Get someone who doesn’t know about anime to read the light novel. Ask them if it flows or if it makes sense as a narrative. This is the most important thing in a novel.
- Don’t just proofread for grammar errors. Be ruthless on yourself. Can you imagine yourself picking this up from the bookshelf and reading it? If not, then you still have work to do.
- Keep remembering your dual audience!
Step Five: Get Published
I have actually never seen a light novel written by an English-speaking author get published, so I would really like to see this happen. In any case, standard procedure for publishing applies: send off the manuscript to as many publishing houses as possible until one of them caves in and accepts. It’s really no more and no less than that. You have to put yourself out there.
Alternatively, post up your light novel on the Internet somewhere so I get to read it for free and you make no money. Pretty please?
Also, it would help if you found yourself an illustrator who can draw cute girls. It’s not a necessity, though.
Anyway, it was fun writing this guide, but I suspect not too many of you even care about light novels. In fact, it seems to be the cool thing these days to hate on them. I simply thought it would be nice to at least take it somewhat seriously, and besides, I really do like books a lot.
So… thoughts on light novels, guys? Anyone interested in writing one some day? Was this guide useful at all in any way, even just as a rudimentary lesson in creative writing?