Thoughts on How to Write A Novel

The first time you write a novel, you’re learning how to do it. The trouble (challenge?) is that everyone’s path to a finished novel is different. So you can’t just read a book or six. You can’t just read a manual. I mean, you can, but any answers you find there will have to be tailored to you and your methods. The methods you don’t know yet. The methods you’re just now learning about.

The thing I’m talking about is not just putting a lot of words on paper. Anyone can do that. It’s spending a lot of time with your ass pressed firmly into a chair and eventually stepping forth lightly with a complete story; a story that makes its own sense and, when read by others, will call forth a caring response of some order.

I had this conversation with a friend recently. He is currently struggling with his own method. That is, struggling to find his own method. I shared with him the things that have worked for me and he had a lot of reasons that they would not work for him. Fair enough. That underscores another truth: it’s also a very individual process. But it did get me again thinking about process in that light -- as a process -- and pondering that it might be useful to write some of this down and stick it here on the off-chance that you might find it useful.

The more I thought, the more I realized that two things have emerged over the course of completing four, nearly five, novels that might be called “my process.”

1. Write every day. Every single day. I have a very low -- ridiculously low -- word count, but I have to meet it, no matter what. The idea here is forward motion. Every day, the story must be moved ahead, no matter how slightly. And if you do that -- if you move your story ahead even a teensy bit every single day -- you can’t help yourself: there will finally come a day when you have a finished book. It’s just basic physics.

2. Don’t look back. If you’re writing every day, your story stays fresh in your mind, in your heart. You don’t have to spend a lot of time reading everything over every single day, or, if you can talk yourself into it, at all, until you’re done the Writing the Book phase and have entered the Editing the Book phase. Oh sure: portions will have to tightened, or beefed up or trimmed down. There will be places where your thoughts will need added clarity or where fewer words will do. But even if you read over every single thing you wrote every single day, there would come a stage in your process when you would go through this editing process. So do it then and use this early time to write your book.

There’s more of course. Much more. Some of it not easily explained or shared. Some of it necessarily hard won. But these two things, alone, carefully applied, will help you finish, if not write, your novel.


Sandra Ruttan said…
Probably the most potentially dangerous thing about writing courses and seminars is that they stick to formulas they can teach, and if that doesn't work for you it can really mess you up. You do have to learn to do it your own way.

The whole reason I started a blog, way back when, was to discipline myself to write regularly between projects. I'd go hardcore and then burn out a bit and justify it as a needed refresher. But I've learned that continuing to write gets me back to the next project sooner, because I don't build it up in my head as such a daunting undertaking, because I no longer tell myself I deserve a big break from it.

That may not make much sense to others, but ultimately the point is you find the psychology that works for you to get the job done.
John McFetridge said…
Often I feel like that Oscar Wilde quote about writing, you know, I worked all morning, I put in a comma. In the afternoon I took it out.

The thing I wish someone had said to me in a creative writing class is, "Try and have something to say." Something beyond murder is bad and child abuse is bad and being lonely is hard.

It's a personal preference, I know, but I'm not interested in 'the puzzle,' the books that are all about figuring it out. With mysteries it's usually the murder - who did it, and with 'literary fiction' it's usually the "understanding," the moment when we realize (or in my case, often don't) what all this symbolism and stuff is really about.

We pass over the old cliches like write what you're passionate about, write something that means something to you, something no one else is writing and we jump straight to the difficulties we'll have selling the book so we better write it "like that."

Classes and seminars can really help with the craft, really help with looking at the words and figuring out the effect they'll have strung together one way or the other, but they won't help if people are just writing a twist on something or yet another take on something with same old tired characters.

Do I sound like Rickards today? Sorry, I have to go take out that comma.
You make a good point, Sandra: writing is like a muscle. With use it gets stronger. The more you do it, the more you know how to do it. And you're right -- and it's essentially what I was saying, as well -- it's a very personal thing. We find our own way there. Of course I was saying what works for *me*. Personal. It's my blog, so I get to do that here.

And John, I was presupposing the having something to say thing. I mean, if you don't have something to say, what are you doing in that chair in the first place? There's a whole world out there with dancing and walking and laughing and shared meals. If you don't have something to say, go do something less taxing than writing a book.

And, seriously? If you *do* have something to say, try writing every day, as suggested. Just try it. The amount you write is not important. What *is* important is engaging in your story with your whole heart, enough to keep it alive in your mind when you're away from it. Engaging with it completely every single day without fail.

And because it's fresh and real and new, it follows you around. (OK, it's true: you must desire this whole body and mind writing experience for this to be seen as a plus. Clearly, not everyone does! Some people want... you know, *lives*.)
Clea Simon said…
There's an online community I drop in on where one poor would-be novelist has been stressing voice, asking folks what's the difference between limited third-person and... whatever. My heart just goes out to her. I mean, if you're worrying about crap like that before you even draft the damned thing, how are you going to get Word 1 on the page?

In other words, yup, Linda. I agree with you. I teach writing for UCLA extension and you basically just repeated my most common advice. Although I also usually, and, for the nteenth time, quote Nick Lowe: Bash it out now. Tart it up later.
- Clea

Popular Posts