One thing I’ve found since admitting to people that I have this dumb dream is that so many of you do too. It’s a cliché to say everybody has a novel in them but… well, heck, I think everyone might just have a novel in them.
The problem is that so few of us, if any, are natural finishers, and writing your novel is a massive, time-consuming undertaking that, more often than not, no-one is on you to complete. Mark my words, your original burst of creativity and excitement over that shiny new thing of yours will not carry you through the hard work. And when it wears off, you have to decide how badly the world needs your magnum opus.
If you decide that the answer is really badly, then I’ve compiled some tips for you. They’re the things I’ve learned elsewhere that have proven to be most true and most helpful. You’re welcome.
Disclaimer: I am super proud that I wrote a novel, and I am not above bragging about that sometimes. But the thing I’m proud of isn’t that I’m super talented and special (because quick reminder nobody wanted to read it lol), it’s that I worked hard. I can’t tell you that your first stab will be a masterpiece, but if you don’t even write the thing, it definitely won’t be. So, the big take away here is that if you really want to do it, you can. I’m going to shortcut this pep talk and just link straight to Shia LaBeouf.
Oh my god, read. This is not optional. I would go as far as to say it’s a large chunk of the task. Because there is a big difference between being able to string a sentence together and telling a story, and no writing class in the world can teach you the latter without a few examples. And by a few, I mean as many as you can jam in. You don’t need to read critically; you don’t need to seek out the most venerated examples of literary fiction; and you don’t need to slog through what you don’t enjoy. Just know that you’re sucking that stuff up like osmosis. You’re learning how to be a better writer with every character you feel come to life, every line of dialogue that rings true, and every turn of phrase you need to read more than once because it’s just so damn neat. Read. Take in all that literary goodness and make of it something new.
And if you don’t like to read, you have some rethinking to do.
#2 Just write
Bear with me, because once you’ve established with #1 that this is actually a field you have an interest in, then this is my best and most important piece of advice.
Abandon your pride, stop trying to craft perfect prose as you go and just get words on the page. Write in bullet points. Write the scenes you feel like writing instead of the one that comes next. Write just the dialogue. Use the wrong there/they’re/their. Substitute that exquisite description for the word ‘nice’. You can deal with this all in your second draft.
This approach accomplishes so many things. It will stop you berating yourself for being bad, and we all know it’s hard to do anything when you’re convincing yourself you suck at it. It will also help you work hard, and enjoy that work. Productivity breeds productivity, and feeling good because you hammered out 1,000 words in a morning might just be the key to another 1,000 in the afternoon. And it will keep you limber. You will be able to get your write on so much easier if it hasn’t been two weeks since you last curated the perfect 150 words.
You may think you’re not capable of working this way, as I did for more than enough years. I can’t describe to you exactly how to unlock this easiness with words, but trust me, with the right frame of mind, you can. Because the best and most important thing about this JUST WRITE tip? The product will probably be a lot better than you think.
#3 Work in small stints
I tend to do this when I’m trying to kick-start my brain and the words just aren’t coming. I set a timer for just ten or twenty minutes, and write. Because everything that seems difficult or unappealing is easier and more palatable if you know it will soon be over. By the time those few minutes are up, I’m usually on a roll. And if I’m not, I make a cup of tea, stretch, and do it again.
#4.1 Change your mind
Having a plan is important. You can’t JUST WRITE if you don’t know what the scene’s about. But if your story and your characters start taking on a life of their own, don’t panic. I think this is probably a good sign. Go with it. Riling against what feels natural or inevitable for your plot or your protagonist will lead to something that reads as unrealistic and inauthentic. A couple of months ago, I started writing a novel about a portal to another world under Westminster Abbey, and now it’s a detective story. Why? Because it had to be.
#4.2 Start with character
I’m getting deeper into tips about quality than I was planning to go with this one, but it’s an important addition to #4.1 (please bear in mind that I have stolen these tips from people more qualified than me; I don’t expect you to trust in my non-existent credentials).
If you don’t know where your story needs to go, start with character. The biggest mistake you can make is to have Kevin propose to his girlfriend at the top of the Eiffel Tower if he’s scared of heights. Or have him pour his heart out to someone if he has been guarded and uncommunicative for 80 pages (without showing us that he’s changed/this person is special/Kevin is drunk). If you’re writing multi-dimensional, believable characters, you will no doubt find that they take on unexpected and unintentional qualities. If these qualities are a problem, go back and find where you introduced them (was it a line of dialogue? Something in a snippet of their backstory?) and change them. Don’t just ignore them.
#5 Don’t show it to anyone too soon
Feedback is important, and learning to fully hear, accept and process constructive criticism is a tool you can’t do without. But, LATER.
Believe me, I know how badly you want your loved one to approve of your work, or just be let in on something so important to you. But your brainchild is young and fragile and needs your protection. You don’t need the type of interference that comes with half a dozen other opinions on where Kevin should propose. Besides, however proud you are of your fantastic idea, nobody is going to share in that enthusiasm when you present them a chapter that’s still half in bullet-point form, and that will hurt your feelings. As a rule of thumb, get your novel – and your mentality – to a stage when the thought of having a stranger with no vested interest in your pride or your feelings read it doesn’t make you sweat so hard you might just evaporate.
Here’s a quote I love from E.L. Doctorow. No reason.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”