Writing a novel is very different from writing any other thing. It’s possible to write concisely, lyrically and well in other formats, but the novel makes more extreme demands. Dilettantes don’t write novels, at least not good ones. And why? Because writing a novel is hard.
So here we go: seven lessons learned over the course of writing seven novels. And if you have lessons of your own, feel free to share them here, as well.
1. Have something to say.
That might seem obvious, but we’ve all read books where this was clearly not the case. If you don’t have some strong something to share with your potential readers, you might as well stay home. A book isn’t just characters. And it isn’t just story. It’s a long and important enough journey that there needs to be a reason. Find out what that reason is, and then follow it all the way back.
2. Write the book that makes you happy.
It’s a crap shoot, this writing business. It’s possible you’ll pour everything into your novel and, when you get to “The End,” no one will care. If the book you’re writing makes you happy and is as good as you can make it, there will be no room for regrets. Everyone knows that some of the best books in the world have gotten turned down almost endlessly. And some of the cruddiest ones have sold bazillions of copies. It’s a crazy business. So make sure you’ve written the book that makes your heart happy, then you’ll never have reason for anything but pride.
3. Write the book that’s in your heart.
Writing a book because you think the market wants it is almost always a mistake. You want to write a book. You can feel the shape of it in your heart. Don’t alter that shape to fit a current trend: don’t try to sneak in zombies or vampires where they don’t belong. (And, in any case, aren’t there are enough zombies and vampires in the world already?) Push yourself to write the book your heart dreamed of, and write it in the very best way you can. Nobody -- and I mean NOBODY -- ever complained because they stopped to take the time to write a book that was too good.
4. Write every day.
Now, not everyone agrees with this, but for me it’s essential. If I don’t engage with my work in progress in a meaningful way every single day, it slips out of the high memory place where it needs to be for it to eventually become a book. I want it in the same special spot in my brain reserved for a wonderful book I might otherwise be reading. You know the feeling: where you keep drifting back to that book and thinking about it during the day as you’re going about your business, anxious to get back to the wonderful adventure. The only way I’ve found to keep my work in progress in that place is to engage with it every single day. A bonus: slog away EVERY day and eventually you just can’t help it: you WILL have a book. It’s basic physics.
5. Don’t look back.
Writing a novel is no time for regrets. Especially when you’re starting out, it’s important to get some traction before you look over your shoulder and start to second guess yourself. Move forward while the wind is filling your sails. There will be plenty of time for editing and revision once the first draft is done. But as much as possible while working on that first, pure draft, avoid looking back at the work you’ve done. Okay: it’s possible it’s not as terrific as you think it is on some days, but it’s also not as terrible as you’re figuring it is on others. More forward as long as you can without going back and poking at your delicate work in progress. It will help you get there more quickly and powerfully in the end.
6. Will power will get you there.
I quit smoking a few years ago and have said widely that it was nowhere near as difficult as I’d been led to believe it would be. “I’ve given birth,” is what I’ve said, “and I’ve written a novel. And both of those things were way harder than quitting smoking.” It may seem an odd connection, but there’s more here than you think. I’ve discovered that, every day I sit down to write, I’m exercising some of the same muscles of will that helped me quit smoking. Writing a book is hard. It’s way easier to fritter on Facebook or twiddle about on Twitter. When you write, you’re engaging every part of you conscious and subconscious (or you should be!) and that’s not always an easy thing to call up at will.
7. Go hard or go home.
When you’re writing a novel is not the time for half measures. When you’re editing, do you think it would be tighter if you reworked this part? Rework it! Would it be sharper if you developed this character or relationship further? Then do that, too! Writing a good novel should be a painful process. That is, it should hurt you to get it right. It should be difficult enough that it causes you some pain and even, at times, makes you bleed. If it were easy, everyone would be able to do it. If it were easy, it would not be as special when it was done.