Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to Write a Novel in Three Easy Steps

There are really three steps to writing a novel: begin, persevere, and revise.  Once you master these three steps, the rest of the work - the entire novel itself, actually - will literally complete itself.

But then only three easy steps?  Is it really that simple to write a novel?  The answer, dear reader, is yes.  And at the same time it's no...

Novels Take Time

If writing a novel really was easy - or simple - I would have published several by now.  Many more people would go into writing as a viable profession.  What we see instead is thousands and thousands of eager writers struggling to succeed for every one who makes a living off of words alone.

This isn't to say you should panic - not at all.  Instead, look at the novel as a very long journey - one that requires diligent work to reach your intended destination.  By following these three simple steps every day - by fixing writing as a habit in your life - you can easily complete your novel.  It may take a year, or it may take a decade, or it might only take the month of November (see NaNoWriMo.org).  But all of these timeframes are natural - each writer works at a different pace, and each writer approaches the novel from a different angle.  Some write very quickly and then spend years on revision.  Others spend years and years to carefully craft each line, and then the final product requires only some tweaking at the end.  There are those who plan out their novels from start-to-finish before even lifting finger-to-keyboard, and there are others (like myself) who plunge forward into the murky night of the unplanned masterpiece, uncertain whether the road will lead to a happy end for our protagonists or an intellectual black hole in the center of existence.

Whichever type of novelist you are, you'll find that these three steps remain essentially the same.

Step 1 - Find Your Idea (aka "Start Your Freakin' Novel!")

This is, strangely, both one of the easiest and one of the hardest aspects of novel writing.  Many of us have a story which is waiting to become a novel.  We know the events, we've imagined the characters, and we already "know" how the story will end.  In this case, choosing which novel to write is easy - we are naturally drawn to sit down and write for hours about these beloved places.  The challenge comes in finding the flexibility to keep the story interesting.  When we are too enamored with a story, it can become dull drudgery try to sit down and transcribe the novel from memory.  We start to "tell" the story rather than show what happens, and this results in a story which cannot hold the reader's interest.  If this is true for you, the best way to keep your story snappy is to let go.  As you write, let the characters take over.  If an unusual idea comes to mind, then you should go with it.  Many authors like the idea of letting their characters write themselves, and this is the ideal you should strive toward.  Don't cling to preconceptions of your story at the expense of having fun.

For others, the problem is that we have too many story ideas, and it's nearly impossible to decide which one to write about.  In some cases, you may feel that you have an entire trilogy of novels, or possibly six or seven separate novel ideas all waiting to be written.  The problem, then, is staying with one novel long enough to finish - once you reach a roadblock with one story, the temptation is to start work on another novel rather than persevere and finish the current one.  Sometimes, this is the right impulse - some stories simply aren't ready to come out.  Some story ideas are not as fascinating as we expect.  But we know that any novel - no matter how well-conceived or fascinating the initial idea - will be face road blocks.  So before you drop one novel idea in favor of another, ask yourself the reason your want to switch.  If you've written the first three pages of prologue and find yourself bored stiff, then by all means switch - three pages is hardly the start of an entire novel.  But if you've already completed three chapters and have a good feel for your main character, then give some more thought to keeping your current story.  Maybe sit down and try something new with your current story - start a new chapter or introduce a new character - before switching.  This should prevent you from allowing good work to go to waste, and it will force a level of discipline necessary to complete the first draft of your novel.

Now we come to the problem that "receives the most press," so-to-speak: writer's block.  This is the situations when you feel intellectually constipated - you have ideas, but you're not sure what they are, and they sure aren't coming out anytime soon.

This is perhaps the most frustrating situation for a writer, especially if you want to write a novel.  Because this is such a problem for all writers, I recommend taking a break from novel writing if you're dealing with this.  The root of the problem itself lies in the expectations we set up for ourselves, and novel writing simply ramps-up the pressure to perform.  Rather than beat yourself over the head for not writing (a tactic which only increases your sense of personal pressure), go ahead and write something completely unrelated.  Write a ditty about hitting your muse with a brick, or pick a word at random from the dictionary and write about it.  If this doesn't help ease the strain, then you may need to take a short break from writing altogether.  By short, I mean something from fifteen minutes to a few hours.  You can get up and walk around, or maybe call up a friend and go to lunch.  One of my favorites is to simply pick up a good book and read for a few hours.  Besides helping me relax, it keeps me focused - a good story can give me just the right distance from daily life to help me regain perspective on life in general.  Naturally, you will at some point need to return to novel writing, but getting a little bit of distance should help you go the distance, as you'll see below.

Step 2 - Persevere (aka "Keep Writing the Darn Thing Until It's Time to Stick a Fork in It")

Novels are long.  They take hours to read.  They can take years to write.

If this is the first time you've written a novel, Step 2 is the most important step to focus on.  Even the most gifted and artistic of writers may fail to write all the way through to the end, yet even the most basic story can be built and refined into a novel.

Now, I spent a lot of time discussing the genesis of the novel because that is one of the areas where we feel the most insecure.  We don't always trust ourselves to have ideas worth writing about.  When we do, we sometimes wonder whether our writing is actually "good enough" to make those ideas worth reading.  And that insecurity directly affects our perseverance.  When we doubt ourselves and the quality of our ideas, the temptation to give up on a given story can become nearly impossible to overcome.  Many of us (myself included) begin writing with this idea that we'll "find the zone" when a story "feels right."

I'm here to tell you that your novel cannot wait for you to find this zone.  For every great and wonderful page that's a joy to write, you might end up writing five or ten or even twenty pages that don't feel right.  You may end up deleting many of those pages later.  I remember one short story where I wrote thirty pages, deleted twenty, wrote ten more, and then deleted everything to start from scratch.  Over about six hours I churned out eighteen brand-new pages to hand in to workshop.  As you can imagine, I was a little less than thrilled with those first forty-odd pages that were deleted - but I kept writing.  Those pages may not have made it into the story, but the ideas behind those pages became the story.  Without those "failed" pages, the finished story would have been impossible.  And yes, those eighteen pages still needed work when I turned them in for class, but they were far better refined than any of what I had scratched out over the week before.

As you write your novel, be prepared for pages and chapters you don't like.  Some of these will need rearrangement, rewriting, or even removal.  But you can't halt your forward progress for the sake of a single page - or even fifty pages.  You need to get the story on the page. Yes, you will feel the temptation to "fix" the chapters as they come out, but you need to know what exactly you're working with before you do.  Don't lose your ending for the sake of the opening chapter.  Instead, you want to get the beginning, middle, and end down on the page so you can move on to Step 3 below.

Step 3 - Revise ("50,000 words without typos or sentence fragments?  I don't think so...") 

Writing a novel is hard work. The first draft alone will drain you. But for most of us, that first draft manuscript is only the beginning.

If you can, take a break. Spend a little time meditating on what you've written. Then - if you can - go back and reread your work. Sometimes, you'll find that you aren't able to do it. This is a very serious problem that I face - short stories I'll read over three and four and fifty times, but some of my novels are just too personal. My own stories make me too uncomfortable.

This is natural. But don't let it stop your revisions. If you find that your own story makes you uncomfortable, break it up into pieces. Read a page or two. Then flip to a random place in the manuscript and read another page or two. Don't worry about the physical aspect of revision - right now, just get a feel for your story. figure out where the story truly begins, and how the ending relates to that beginning.

In time, you'll find that you can comfortably immerse yourself in the story. This, then, is the time to make revisions. Does one chapter feel week? You can focus on making it stronger. Is there a piece of the story that hasn't been told? You can add in chapters here-and-there to clarify your work.

Here, keep in mind that the goal is not perfection. I and many others have sometimes fallen prey to the notion of the "perfect" novel - and trust me, there is no such thing. Yes, the lines should flow and they should be lyrical, but your loyalty must be to the story. Make sure your novel gives the story - the whole story - of your characters. Revise the novel until it accomplishes this.

After All That: Find Some Readers

A novel is incomplete until it has an audience.  After you've poured your heart and soul and the better part of of a carpal tunnel diagnosis into your story, you'll want to share it.  And this can be a great time for encouragement and support.  At the same time, though, it may be tremendous letdown.  When our friends love the stories we've written, life feels just amazing - but if they don't like it, or (worse) don't understand it, then we can feel as though we've tossed away perfectly good years of our life.
But there's no need to worry.  Once you've reached the point of finding readers, you've actually accomplished something amazing, something that most people never attempt, let alone accomplish.  Unfortunately, your first readers may compare your novel to the only other novels they've read - bestsellers, often, or works of literature which have stood the test of time and the brutal economics of the publishing industry.  Most published novels are neither bestsellers nor renowned literature.  Most bestsellers are not the first novel by a given author.  Even those "overnight success" authors experience years of toil before that first publication catapults them to fame and riches and the luxury tax.  So don't worry too much if your first readers aren't super-enthused about your work - they just aren't used to it.  And they can help you write something they will love to read.  Listen to their comments for what the story's missing, or for what it may have too much of.  Return to perseverance and revision.  Keep working.  Because in the long run, it's the authors who put in their time who find themselves as the overnight success.


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