How to Write a Novel

…and Not Lose Your Mind in the Process.

screamIf the title of this post caught your eye, my guess is that at some point you have said:

“I’m going to write a book someday.”

Or perhaps:

“I want to write a book.”

And even better yet?

“I’m working on a book.”

As an instructor in a creative writing BFA and first-time novelist, I salute your ambition. I also offer my condolences.

You’re in for a rough ride. Writing a novel (and I’m just going to talk about novels — not non-fiction, how-to, or self-help books) is an artistic Tough Mudder – only the strong of mind, body, and spirit will survive. It requires craft, determination, and a thick skin. You will also need endless passion for your story and a reliable coffee maker.

Once you commit to writing a book, it will create a huge empty space in your soul that will exist until you type that last word. Even then, there will still be a part of you missing. It will now live in that book. It’s a proverbial pound of flesh.

A fortune cookie once told me that the gift of a painful experience is that you get to pass on your wisdom to those who may face a similar experience. I recently published my first novel, and I would like to spare you the mistakes that I made as I stumbled through the process.

Here’s some advice for your consideration.

1) KEEP IT A SECRET: Tell no one you’re working on a book. NO ONE. Otherwise you will endure constant questions that seem to be encouraging. The moment you tell people about your plans, you will be haunted by well-meaning friends who when seeing you will ask, “So, how’s the book coming?” If you haven’t been working on it, you will suddenly get the sensation that approximately 2 tons of lead weight has been placed on your shoulders. It gets old very quickly.

But…if this is not your first book, tell everybody, especially agents and publishers. Always look busy.

2) SECURE A CORNER: You’re going to need alone time. Create a quiet, isolated place to work, free of distractions.

3) SECURE THE TIME: For me, writing is work not play. I see many writers in my Facebook feed proclaim that they love writing. Personally, I like it a lot more when it’s completed. The actual process is work. When you are busy all day with a job and schoolwork, it can be hard to get motivated to sit down and work some more. Schedule time every day.

Put it on your calendar just as you would a work or school schedule. Commit to it. Time will slip through your fingers, and the world is filled with entertaining distractions such as family, friends, and gainful employment. You will have to lock the time in and defend it with all your might.

4) ORGANIZE: The romantic notion of sitting down to the blank page and showering your brilliance upon it isn’t realistic. That’s not what’s going to happen. Writer’s block is what’s going to happen. Before writing that novel, organize your thoughts. Think out the story. Make lists. Create character sketches. Get it all in a notebook, Evernote binder, or index cards. Take this step as far as you can, it will make the other steps easier, and crush writer’s block where it stands.

5) RESEARCH: Unless you are an expert on all aspects of your story, you will have questions to answer before you begin to write. Setting your story in Tokyo but you’ve never been there? Hit the books. Period piece? Hit the books? Science fiction? HIT THE BOOKS.

Armed with knowledge, you will be free to write without stopping to fact check constantly. You’ll feel confident and that will translate into productivity. You have to know your “stuff” because savvy readers will find your mistakes and you’ll end up as a subthread on Reddit.

6) OUTLINE: You’ve organized your thoughts and story. You’ve done a nice chunk of research. You should have a solid idea of the story you want to tell. Now it is time to look at its structure. Outline the story and take it from beginning to end. You don’t need to know everything, but you need a solid foundation. There will be much more that will come from the process of writing, but the more you know now, the better.

7) WRITE IT: Say bye-bye to free time. The only way your book will be written is if you get your butt in the seat and write. A typical novel has roughly 90k words. You need to know this because you are about to go on a WORD DIET. What this means is that you are going to write 500-1000 words a day (you set this goal) and do nothing else until you reach your word count for the day. If you shoot for 1000 words a day, you’ll have your first draft in three months. Not bad.

8) TAKE A BREAK: Once your manuscript is complete, take a week off. Call your mother — she missed hearing your voice. Do your laundry and get some groceries in the kitchen cabinet. All that fast food is unhealthy.

9) REVISE IT: I have some bad news: the writing was the easy part. You need to go line for line and revise. Tear it apart. Cut unnecessary words. Nothing should be so precious it can’t be deleted. Fix every mistake you find, as for each mistake you fix, there are two that you didn’t see.

10) SEEK CRITIQUE: Now it’s time to tell people you have been working on a book. Rejoice! Find a writing group. Find friends who can provide the tough love. Have them read it. Ask them for feedback. This is a miserable process. You’ll probably feel nauseous most of the time. Hang in there.

11) REVISE AGAIN: Take what you learn from the critique process and apply what is appropriate. Remember, some people don’t like pizza. Opinions are opinions, not law. Stick to your vision, but take what they have to say seriously. Rework that manuscript.

12) HIRE AN EDITOR/PROOFREADER: Seek professional intervention. Hire the best editor and proofreader you can afford. They will tear through your manuscript yet again, but this time it will be with a cold, mercenary eye. It is critical to get professionals involved at this point. You need the best product you can possibly have.

13) BETA READERS: You should have a sparkling draft as this point. Something that has become quite popular is finding beta readers to read the book. They will point out any consistencies or questions that remain. Again, you are soliciting opinion, and not all of them will be appropriate. This process is similar to the focus groups used by Hollywood for years, and they have destroyed some amazing films. Tread lightly.

14) REVISE AGAIN: Sigh, I know.

15) GET PUBLISHED: This article is about writing a novel. Getting published is a conversation for another day. Spoiler: it is just as fun as writing it.

See you on the other side.

Photo Credit: Darwin Bell via Compfight cc

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10 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel”

  1. Great piece! This should be mandatory reading for anyone considering, or in the process of, writing a book. While you are addressing fiction, most of it applies to non-fiction as well, now that I have fallen down both rabbit holes. There is a big creative difference, no question, but the work ethic, the endless research, the seemingly Sisyphean effort toward the end goal and resultant the need for determination is the same. That teflon skin doesn’t often come with the writer brain, either – writers need to be warned to grow full body armor! I hope creative writing teachers everywhere share your invaluable real world wisdom!

  2. This is spot on. Seriously awesome post – many have tried, most have failed to write a single blog post that highlights how to get it done. Bam! There it is, right in front of me. For me, the biggest eyeopener here is that writing is work not play. I do really enjoy writing – so that was a surprise, in certain respects. But why that is so true, is the only thing I enjoy more than writing is to have written. And to get it, it really is work. Hard, grueling, work.

    Many you nailed it. Thanks, as always, for sharing your experiences and insights. This one is bookmarked, my friend.

    1. Dom,

      I’ll bet between the two of us, we have read millions of words on the craft. Much of it helpful, some of it not so much. Thanks for letting me know I threw a quality drop in that endless pool.

      We both know that good things come from putting your back into it, although to be fair — when it’s really rolling along it can be a blast to be pounding the keys.

      Oh, and I might be out in your general area in November. Hope that we can somehow meet up.

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