Almost everyone I meet wants to write a novel, or had dreams of writing a novel when they were young, or has shifted that dream to the future, promising they’ll have a bestseller published when they retire.
I ask, Why don’t you write it now?
They say, I don’t know how.
There is only one way to write a novel, and it is a very simple method. It’s called sitting down and writing the damn book. This is how it’s done.
Before you can write a novel, you need to be able to write.
I didn’t say write well. Just write. I know some incredible poets. I have friends that make magic happen whenever their fingers touch a keyboard. But being able to write beautifully is not enough to net you a novel unless you can sit down and pound out the words day after day after day for months.
It doesn’t matter if you write badly so long as you can sit down with the intention of writing and squeeze the words. You’ll probably end up with a bad novel, but the good writer that only writes “when inspiration comes along” or “when the vibes are right” or “when I have something significant to say” has no novel at all.
A novel requires a significant commitment of time. The first draft can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. Every draft after that will take a few months, and every “tune-up” will take a couple of weeks. If you don’t have a year worth of afternoons free, you can’t write a novel. If you can’t force yourself to sit down at every opportunity and get those 100, 200, 500, 1000 words down, you can’t write a novel.
I’m not saying you have to write every day (although that helps). I’m not saying you need to set daily wordcount targets (although that really helps). But you do need to be able to look at your schedule, pick out the point where you have a half hour free, and say “No, I won’t watch TV. I won’t play XBox. I won’t browse blogs. I will write.” And you have to stick to it.
All clear? Can we move on? Good.
A novel is not a short story because it isn’t short. You think I’m being facetious but I’m just being practical. Every tactic you apply when writing a short story – scene setting, character creation, conflict – should be applied in the same way when writing a novel. Having more space doesn’t give you an opportunity to bloat. Just to tell a bigger story.
So, the first question you have to ask is – do you have a story big enough for a novel? Some stories are focused on single characters in single situations. They’re only big enough to support 4000-5000 words. Others involve single characters in multiple situations, dealing with multiple conflicts, and that can carry a reader for 40,000-50,000 words. But novels generally involve multiple important characters dealing with many ongoing situations and conflicts, and if you don’t think your story has enough conflict in it to carry for 70,000-100,000 words, don’t try and make it a novel. It’ll feel artificially stretched, crammed with filler, and boring as hell.
Begin with the right idea, one big enough for a novel, and the rest will be much easier.
So. We begin with a concept, which should also entail at least one character and a situation. This may or may not be the first scene. Leave that. We can figure out your ideal opening later. What you need to do is pick the situation and write it.
It doesn’t matter if your characters seem flat.
It doesn’t matter if there isn’t enough tension.
For the love of God, it doesn’t matter if the scene isn’t descriptive enough.
Just write the scene. It opens, there is a middle, and an end, and you don’t stop until you’ve hit that end. If you get stuck on anything, mark it with XXX and move on. You can come back and fix it later. Just get to the end of the scene.
Done? Excellent. Read that scene back to yourself. Savour it. It’s the start of something beautiful.
You probably already have an idea of what happens next in the story. But it’s equally as important to know whether something happens before. Does it? What led to this scene? Is it something important enough that we need to see it occur? If so, make a note in the doc. “Scene -1: John meets Sally at the shops.” Now make a similar note after the scene. “Scene 2: Sally buries John, minus his head.”
You have two scenes that need writing. Toss a coin.
You’re going to think I’m being patronising but I’m simply being honest. There is only one way to write a novel, and that’s scene by scene by scene. What did you expect, a trick? A magical mantra? Hell no. A novel is a building. There is magic in architecture, in interior decorating, in the beauty of shapes. But before you build a house, or a skyscraper, you need a foundation.
The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth drafts are the architecture, the decorating, the pretty rugs. This first draft is nothing but concrete filler. Don’t like it? Get a new passion. All you’re doing right now is pouring sludge into a prescribed shape. Except, it’s harder than that. You don’t even know the dimensions or floor-plan of this house yet. You’re just guessing, letting the concrete slop out and frantically mixing more with one hand while patting it flat with the other.
You have a scene, and you know what happens immediately before, and immediately after. Keep writing.
If you write every day, filling in the gaps, you should have that ugly-arse first draft finished after about 5-6 months. It could take longer – my first draft took three years. It could be shorter – my latest first-draft took three months. Philip K Dick busted his out in two weeks, because that’s just how he rolled. Either way, you must finish. Why?
1) Because a novel is not a novel until it has been edited to death, and you can’t edit empty air.
2) Because you want your story to be told, and nobody wants to read a first draft.
So if you get disheartened because your novel is wooden and slow… keep going. If you think your language is stale… keep going. If you ever give up in frustration because you just don’t know where to go next… make something up. Nobody cares if it doesn’t make sense. Nobody’s going to read it. It’s just a first draft.
Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.
When you’ve written those final words, The End, and you’ve tallied a wordcount and added that below, save the file, back it up in ten different locations, and go for a walk. Forget the book exists. Put it out of your mind entirely.
Come back in six months. You’ll be ready for part two by then, and so will I.
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(This article was originally posted in 2009)
Want more of my opinions and general advice on the discipline of writing? Check out my collection of articles!