How to write a novel

This is NOT how I write. But you get the idea.

No, I don’t recommend cigarettes and booze.

Certainly, this is more difficult than writing an essay. You will envy those youthful writers who not only did it in their twenties (or earlier) but got published—and famous. To keep from becoming too discouraged, you’ll have to look for writing icons who didn’t blossom until later in life.

Now that the envy is under control, on to the practical.

First, it seems obvious that you must begin with an idea. But this assumption isn’t so apparent as you might think. There are as many ways to begin a book as there are Myers Briggs personality types (sixteen, in case you’re wondering). You could begin with an idea, but you could equally well begin with an image, a character, or a setting, or in a dozen other different ways.

Next, if you fancy yourself an architect of words, you draw up blueprints. You outline the book and its chapters. You know the location of the doorways and where the weight-bearing beams must go. You know what the rooms will look like when it’s done. If, on the other hand, you’re a student of psychology, you may next dive into the minds of your characters and crawl inside their skins to understand their motivations. If you’re a hot mess of a writer, you’ll simply begin—with an image or a phrase, perhaps harvested from a dream—and see where it takes you.

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Where is the toilet supposed to go again?

Along the way, you’ll be haunted, or more accurately assaulted, by the cultural arguments boiling around you. Art vs. commerce. Writing-as-therapy vs. writing-as-communication. You, with the malleable mind of a writer, fail to see why a book cannot be all of these things at once.

Now you’ve written a page, now ten, now fifty. When you meet people at parties, you’re able to say, if anyone asks, “I’m working on a novel.” If you’re like most writers, you wish the inevitable next question would never come: “What’s it about?”

You’ve learned, through measured consumption of various book marketing webinars and blogs, to skip sharing the plot synopsis, the first-this-happens-then-that-happens descriptors that will have your questioner’s eyes crossing by the third sentence. Instead, you know that the correct response is a pithy “elevator pitch” with a great hook. What are you, a fisherman? Yes. You are fishing for readers. And readers want to hear what the book is About. Not plot points but its themes, its memes, the parts of it that will capture the human imagination.

Faroe Islands stamp, International Cildrens' Year - Child Drawings. Man in boat, fishing.[Public Domain - Via Wikimedia Commons]

Fishing for readers. (Faroe Islands stamp, International Cildrens’ Year; Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons)

The problem at this point, before the book is finished—and especially if you are in the hot-mess school of book development—is that you have no frickin’ clue what it’s About. If you did, why would you bother writing it? Many authors more famous than you have identified this as their primary reason for writing: to find out what happens. So you toss out some cliché and move the party conversation on to baseball.

Something that happens at the fifty- or seventy-five-page mark is that you run into The Wall. Like the famous Wall familiar to marathon runners, this one can seem insurmountable and is characterized by the following:

  • Feelings of intense self-doubt. Who the hell am I to think I can write this?
  • Drastic narrowing of your characters’ possibilities (or, uh-oh, I have written myself into a corner).

If you’re lucky, you will have cultivated a community of writers who can cheer you past The Wall.

Finally, you are finished (with your first draft). Congratulations! You print the beast out, lay it on the table, and revel for a moment in the fact that you have just dedicated perhaps years of your life to completing a shitty first draft. Yes, that’s what we writers call them, because we know how much more work they need. Those horror stories you hear about writers receiving a hundred rejection slips? No one tells you about the twenty revisions that preceded the rejection slips. In the most extreme cases, you may need to throw away everything you’ve done so far and start over.

But, if the bones of the story are sound, you can probably get away with a few rewrites and some good solid editing. At this point, depending on what kind of writer you are, you may be tearing your hair out, or you may be thrilled that you no longer have to face a blank page but instead get to work with the words and ideas that are already there.

This is an ultra-marathon, and the writing of the book is only the first half. You can revel in the accomplishment, raise a glass to your hard work, but soon enough you’ll need to get back to running the second half: marketing the hell out of your book.

This felt like an appropriate time for this post. Not only is NaNoWriMo coming up (in which I have never participated), my novel “What Remains Unsaid” is going into production with Sand Hill Review Press. And my novel-in-progress is showing signs that its first draft may be nearly done. (I’m sure hoping I won’t have to ditch the whole thing). I’ll soon be in the unenviable (enviable?) position of promoting one book while scrambling to finish another. Stay tuned for publication updates! Be sure to follow me on Twitter or join my email list.

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17 thoughts on “How to write a novel

  1. An architect of words and a fisherman for readers. Well said. Inspiring (and instructive post) Congrats on all your progress this year. Staying tuned to see what’s surfacing here next year!

    Waiting for sunset on Christmas Eve is like standing toes-over-the-edge on a high diving board.
    Every year we’d cruise casually by the window to keep an eye on the sun’s progress until it was officially evening.
    Then the shout “Christmas Eve Gift!” would ring out.
    You see, the traditions says that the first person to voice that phrase on Christmas Eve to another would be graced with good fortune and joy all the next year.
    (And of course, whomever was first won. Everything was a contest…)
    It’s more difficult to be first now with caller ID.
    As all those who have become my friends in blogland are spread widely across time zones, I’d like to wish you all “Christmas Eve Gift” now.
    And as I already feel so fortunate to have such wonderful readers and writers in this neighborhood, I wish to share any phrase acquired good fortune and joy with you in thanks.
    No matter where you are or what you are guided by, hope you have a very merry Christmas and a new year full of adventure and joy.
    Peace on earth and goodwill towards all creatures great and small.

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    • I’ve talked to very few authors who don’t feel that way at some point in their writing process. I hope your character made story-worthy choices 🙂 (Notice I didn’t say “good” choices, because interesting stories are usually built on the characters making dreadful ones!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so funny – thank you for making me laugh! It’s no wonder writers are a bit crazy. Congratulations on getting your novels out there! I’ve read your short stories and loved them, so I’m really looking forward to reading your books!

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  3. Haha, Audrey, this is hilariously awesome! “Revel for a moment in the fact that you have just dedicated perhaps years of your life to completing a shitty first draft.”

    I totally get it, especially that deer in headlights feeling I always get when someone asks me what my novel is about. I tend to avoid mentioning that I write books to anyone now so I don’t have to answer that question.

    Thanks for making me laugh and congrats on your novel! 🙂

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  4. “What’s it about?” Yep, dread that question — even now when the thing is finished, because I just didn’t conceive it that way. And I’m not even trying to do literary fiction. Congrats on having found a publisher for the last one. (Major, major congrats! Would love to know what that feels like some day.) How did you find your elevator pitch? By “reverse engineering,” as someone suggested that I do?

    And thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting. Nice not to feel like I’m a voice crying the wilderness.

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    • There are a lot of us wandering in the wilderness! I’m happy (or maybe distressed?) to say that I didn’t reverse engineer the elevator pitch. I did follow a bit of a formula, though, which helped me reign in the desire to talk about everything and helped focus on just one aspect of the book. I’m trying now to do the same for my current work, which unfortunately isn’t proving any easier now that I’ve already done it!

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  5. I find the skills needed for fiction are transferrable to non-fiction and vice-versa. Good structure, bad first draft (inevitably anyway) but it’s transformable into a good second or later draft because the structure’ right to begin with. All writing, in essence, presents an argument (in the classical Greek sense) designed to transport the reader on an emotional journey. And I agree – marketing is a vital part of the author’s journey, whether the book is being commercially published or self-pubbed.

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