How to Write a Novel

You’re going to need an idea.

It can be a clever plot. Something about uncontrollable magic or unpredictable mayhem or unconventional love. Or maybe your idea is a character. Someone who stands out. Someone who blends in. Someone who lives in a coffee house attic. Someone whose feet never touch the ground.

Okay, now the hardest part: You must write a sentence. Any sentence will do (yes, even a sentence fragment) because you’ll probably change it a hundred times anyway. Here, I wrote some for you:

  • The monkey never saw it coming.
  • Halfway between the sky and the sidewalk, she realized she had forgotten how to fly.
  • His favorite sound and his favorite activity were defined by the same two words: shattering glass.
  • Nothing moved.

Next comes the hardest part: You have to write more sentences. Lots of them. Good ones. Bad ones. Brilliant ones. Ugly ones. Sentence after sentence after sentence after sentence.

This is going to take you longer than you thought. It always does. Oh, sure, you’ll have one 10,000 word weekend. And for a few days after, you’ll think of yourself as an Actual Professional Writer.

That feeling will fade.

After three weekends in a row with an average output of 723 words, you’ll be ready to quit.

You’ll be ready to quit a lot. Writers walk a tightrope from the beginning of a book until the end and even the slightest breeze can tip them off balance. You know these breezes by their more common names: doubt, frustration, uncertainty, hopelessness, fear, distraction. They’re relentless, so just fix your eyes on the other side and keep moving. It’s okay if you only wrote seven sentences today. It’s even okay if those seven sentences suck.

Just stick to it. If you do, you’ll eventually be ready to face the hardest part of writing a novel: Typing “The End.” Yes, there’s a moment of satisfaction, perhaps even joy in typing those two words. It’s a well-deserved moment. You just wrote a novel!

No. You didn’t.

You just wrote a first draft. When you type “The End,” you’re actually typing “The Beginning of All That I Still Have to Do to Make This Great.”

But there is some good news here. You’ve made it to the hardest part of writing: Revisions.

During this season of a book, you’re no longer on a tightrope; you’re carving through a jungle of your own making with a machete. All sentences are suspect. Many must die. You’ll have to write some new sentences, too. Lots of them. (I know the machete metaphor breaks down here. Let it go.)

During the (interminable) revision process, you’ll hand your “latest draft” to friends and family and hired strangers. They’ll nearly always tell you what you don’t want to hear: “It’s not finished yet.” Deciding which suggestions to use and which to ignore may very well be the hardest part of writing.

[Side note: Revisions last forever. I'm not being hyperbolic. Twenty years after your novel has hit the bestseller lists, you'll still be re-writing it in your head.]

This leads to the hardest part* of writing a novel: Deciding to be done with it. Despite the infinite revisions that will go on in your head, there comes a time when you must say “Enough!!” (in a doubly-exclamatory voice) and begin the marketing process or the agent-search process or the contest-entering process, so you can move on to the next book.

The next book? The next book.

Sigh.

You’re going to need an idea…

 

*I’m well aware that I described every step as “the hardest part” of writing. I don’t need to explain myself here, do I?

Chasing, Maybe

When I first started writing, I attempted to emulate my favorite authors (though Arthur C. Clarke and Ernest Hemingway would have struggled to find even the slightest resemblance). This is the way it goes for many writers. We begin our journey to uniqueness by trying to be someone else. Isn’t it the same way with musicians? [Cue "Smoke on the Water."] It’s only after hundreds of thousands of words, most of which we prefer to forget, that we finally begin to find our one-of-a-kind writing voice.*

And then what do we do? We use that compellingly unique voice to tell the stories we think will sell.

Not right away. First there’s a season when we write the stories of our heart without consideration of marketability. These are the stories that poke at us from the inside. Stories that defy traditional categorization. Plots that take unpopular twists. Characters who don’t act the way they do in other people’s books.

For many writers, that season doesn’t last. Stories that poke writers from the inside are often a tough sell, especially through traditional circles (but also in the new world of Self-Publish Whatever You Want).

I didn’t really mean it, Marketing. Have I told you how nice you look today? Love the bow tie. You’re wearing it ironically, right?

Selling books is an honorable and good goal. We find validation in readership and readership mostly comes from selling books. (Or giving them away. But that’s the subject of another blog post.) I know we say “I don’t care if I become rich and famous, I’m happy if even one person likes my novel.” But we don’t mean it as much as we’d like to. And it’s because we don’t mean it as much as we’d like to that our writing often takes a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) detour. We start to ask different “Maybe” questions than we once did.

Maybe if I make the vampires more sparkly.

Maybe if I add a love triangle.

Maybe if I sprinkle in a few zombies.

Maybe if I make the antagonist more Republican.

Don’t miss the point here. Maybe isn’t a bad word. Quite the contrary. Writers are made out of Maybes. But when the market (or our best understanding of it) begins to dictate what kind of Maybes we should ponder in the writing process, we risk losing what makes our writing voice unique. Note that I said “we risk losing.” It’s not a given that a writer in search of sales will lose his voice in that pursuit. But the temptation to “write books that can sell” can chip away at what makes that writer uniquely wonderful.

So is it some kind of compromise then? Finding the happy medium between who we are and what we know will sell? If your primary goal is to sell books, then yes, the writing process will sometimes feel like compromise. You’ll choose genres that you might not have chosen to write before. You’ll revise your story so it grabs readers from page one, rather than letting it simmer for a few chapters as in your original plan. You’ll add subplots to spice up the romance or kick up the action.

Is that such a bad thing?

No. It’s your story and you can do whatever you want with it. And a good editor will help you maintain your voice even as you work toward your primary goal of selling books.

So it’s all good, then, right?

Yep. It’s all good. That is, until you feel a story poking at you from the inside that doesn’t fit the current brand-development plan.

I know what you’re thinking. You can write both kinds of books. The ones that have a good chance of selling, and the ones that poke at you from the inside. (I’m aware they might actually be one and the same. If they are? Why are you reading this? Surely not so you can gloat. You’re far too content with your writing life to gloat.)

Go ahead and divide yourself into two authors – the one who cranks out romance novels for a ready audience and the one who writes about the lost legacy of forgotten presidents. (Or whatever.) Then let me know where you found all those extra hours in a day, because you’re going to need them to support two careers.

If you have that kind of time, go for it. Seriously. You’ll have the best of both worlds. But if you don’t? Well, I’d counsel my authors to write the sellable books. And then I’d do my damnedest to make sure each one is amazing and notable for its uniquely compelling author’s voice.

But as you may already know about me, I don’t often take my own advice. I have a hard time writing shitty first drafts (you might disagree, of course) and I don’t write every day and I have poor posture and suffer from questionable eating habits. (Breakfast – it’s the most important meal of the day. That’s why I save it for late afternoon, when I’m actually hungry.)

I had a brief season when I tried to write marketable books. Those unfinished masterpieces have since been relegated to the “Nope” folder on my computer.

Instead, I have decided to only write those books that poke at me from the inside.

There’s the novelette (really? who reads those?) about a bomb that lands on a boy’s desk, and the way his life is changed by that singular event. And the speculative YA novel that has no factions, no love triangles, and no chapters-long training scenes. And the story about a 10-year-old girl named Raspberry who moves with her dying father to live on a hill overlooking a haunted forest.

When people ask me what genre my books are, I don’t know what to tell them.

They’re…um…about longing and loss and hope and brokenness and grace and sometimes monsters. They’re…Stephenesque?

Not very compelling cover copy.

Do I want my books to sell? Of course. And to that end, I’m self-publishing some and pursuing an agent for others. But I’m not chasing royalties. I’m not chasing validation. I’m simply chasing the stories. So far, it’s been quite an entertaining journey. And you’ll never guess what I’m finding along the way…

Myself.

 

*Not sure if you’ve found yours yet? Here’s a test. Go back to the last thing you’ve written after leaving it alone for a couple of weeks. If you find yourself wondering what brilliant novelist is secretly making your words sound better, you’re quite probably there. Or at least at the beginning of “there.” Your voice will change over time as you do. And if you aren’t impressed by your words? Well, that doesn’t mean you can’t write. Nor does it mean you can’t sell books. Readers are a fickle bunch. And I’m sure you’ll agree that they don’t care a tenth as much about writing voice as you or I do. Except the ones that are also writers. (I think I just created another black hole there. Sorry, Siberia.)

The Fault in Our Stares

If Neil Gaiman walked into this coffee shop, I’d be starstruck. I’m not easily starstruck. As I slog through the latter part of middle age, I just don’t have the energy to drum up enthusiasm for the common celebrity. Confession: I haven’t read Entertainment Weekly in years.

Last summer I visited the set of the new Zach Braff movie (coming to theaters near you this July – and depending on the edit, starring me in one scene as a blurry background extra) and was non-plussed by the famously tanned faces that wandered in and out of the virtual frame. My favorite part of the visit was talking briefly with Zach’s much less famous brother, Adam, who is the co-author of the screenplay. (For the record, I would have been equally interested in talking with the other Braff, Joshua, who wrote the surprisingly compelling coming-of-age novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green. But he was off living his regular life.)

The only category of the self-congratulatory spectacle known as The Oscars that even remotely interests me is “Original Screenplay.” Yes, Cate Blanchett is a wonder of evolution, but I’d still rather talk story with Spike Jonze than glad-hand with Galadriel.

I like to tell myself that my predilection for pen monkeys* over prima donnas makes me a little less shallow than typical celebrity fawners, but that’s just a poor attempt to pretend I’m not totally smitten by those who pay their dues with the written.

Consider John Green, for example. I mean, look at the guy. Nerd. Normal. Generous. Funny. Successful. He’s the me I didn’t know I always wanted to be. Or maybe should have been.

And J. K. Rowling. I want to spend my summer vacation in her imagination. Then I want to learn a spell to make myself 12 again so I can enjoy delivering the best “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” report in the history of life.

And Marilynne Robinson. I’m a slow writer because I don’t know what to say. She’s a slow writer because she wants to be certain of what she says. I want her patience (right now) and her gentle genius for character.

And of course, Neil. I visited both the House on the Rock and Rock City long before I read American Gods. And I had a passing interest in mythology. It’s like I had all the pieces I needed to write that book except Neil’s brilliant mind. And how did he know I once wished for an ocean at the end of my childhood street? How could anyone know that? I want his way with words.

I want all their writerly gifts. I even want a taste of the celebrity I claim to have no interest in. I want people to line up at my book signings all a-quiver to be in the same room as “that cool guy who wrote that amazing thing I read fifteen times!”

When I stop to think about it, though, I realize what I really want is simply to be a great writer. The kind worthy of such admiration, whether or not it ever comes. But I’m not going to get there by drooling at the feet of my writerly idols.

So if Neil Gaiman walks into this coffee shop, I’ll try not to stare. Instead, I’ll offer a nod of respect, then return my attention to my laptop. I’ll write until I understand why I use phrases like “predilection for pen monkeys,” then I’ll keep writing until I become the best version of the only person who can write like me.

Meanwhile, I’ll brush up on my Neil Gaiman impersonation. I mean, in case of future book signings. Because nothing makes fans go all a-quiver like a smart English accent.

 

*Pen Monkey is a term I discovered on writer/writing guru Chuck Wendig’s blog. He’s way smarter than I am and a far superior writer and blogger. What are you still doing here anyway? Go there. You don’t need me anymore. 

 

(How To) Listen to Everything

The best advice about how to be a better writer can be summed up in six words: Read a lot. Write a lot.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that to writers. (Not because it’s a secret. I just didn’t keep track.) If you’re not doing both of those things, any other advice you might unearth as you wander this vast Internet wasteland won’t do you much good.

There are no shortcuts to “getting there” as a writer. By “there” I mean a place where your writing is distinct enough that readers want to read all your books, and compelling enough that they forget you exist between the first and last page.

But you didn’t come here to hear six words you already know. You came here for the Secret to Becoming a Best-Selling Author. (Really? Um…that’s someone else’s blog.) No, you came here for encouragement and commiseration and the occasional bit of accidental wisdom. Today’s attempt at all three can be summed up in a single word. (You already know what it is. You’re observant that way.)

Listen.

You want to be a better writer? You listen. To everything. Here’s how:

Listen to other writers. Read their copious books and blogs. Try their writing habits on for size. (Except that “getting up at 4 a.m. to write before the world awakes” thing. Seriously. That’s just insane.) There is no “one size fits all” system for writers. Learn what other writers are doing, then adopt only those things that work for you. Please note: This doesn’t mean you’re destined to write your own “How to Write” book someday. It’s okay if some writers don’t do that.

Listen to your characters. Well-written characters are a writer’s best friend. They can help solve just about any plot problem, given the chance to speak. Make sure your characters have permission to tell the truth, then trust them when they tell it. If you’ve painted yourself into a plot hole, ask for advice. If they don’t have any, it’s likely that your characters aren’t as well-written as you’d thought. Start there.

Listen to your critics. There are two kinds of critics in the world – those who love the sound of their own voice more than anything, and those who love the sound of a well-written story. The former are attention-seekers who don’t really care about your words. Most people would tell you to ignore them. That’s solid advice. But I think there’s some value in listening to them once in a while. Not because they have great wisdom (though they might), but because they can teach you something about the human condition; like for example, narcissism. Then you can use this when you craft characters for your next novel.

The other kind of critics deserve your full attention. When they say “I struggled with Mrs. Jenkins’ motivation for killing the penguin,” they’re telling you “I really wanted this to work, but it’s missing something.” These sorts of comments are not unlike the way baseball fans lean into fair territory as the potential winning home run arcs through the air toward the foul pole. Good criticism is leaning toward hoped-for results. These folks want you to succeed. Try leaning along with them to see what they see.

Listen to your mother. That’s usually good advice in general. But when it comes to your creative work, there’s still something to be said for listening to Mom (or other Family Member of Significance). Maybe your mom is an honest-even-if-it-hurts mom. Lucky you. Brace yourself, then listen. She might not have a lot of insight about the literary brilliance in your novel, but she probably knows a thing or two about you. Who knows, you might discover a flaw in your writing voice that only your mom could identify. (“It doesn’t sound like you. It’s much too happy.”)

Or maybe your mom is an I-love-everything-you-do mom who still has that handprint ashtray on the coffee table in the living room even though she’s never smoked a cigarette in her life. Take those glowing words about your crappy first draft for what they are: a sincere desire for you to be happy and successful. This is fuel for the soul. Burn it while you revise that crappy first draft.

Listen to your inner voice. I don’t mean the voices in your head. Nor do I mean the characters’ voices here. I’m talking about the little voice that says things like “that doesn’t seem to be working” or “that’s kind of the best thing you’ve ever written.” I’m talking about your writerly instincts. Note: Like most of these bullet points, this idea is closely tied to the original six words. The more you read and write, the better your instincts. Does that mean a day will come when you don’t need an editor? Um, probably not. But it does mean when that editor asks “what if you tried something like this?” you’ll be able to answer the query with confidence.

Listen to hope. Believe that you can do the impossible. Because you can.

Listen to despair. It’s okay to feel like a failure once in a while. Fighting that feeling just serves to prolong it. Be emotionally honest with yourself. Say it with me: “I suck as a writer.” Go ahead and compare yourself unfavorably with all the other writers. Just don’t stay here. Remember that you’re the only one who can write like you. Maybe that doesn’t feel like a good thing today (because you suck). But tomorrow? Tomorrow it will be a grace.

Listen to the wind. We live in a loud world. All those voices above (and many others) are constantly competing for your attention. Sometimes the best thing to listen to is…anything but those voices. Take a walk through the forest and bend your ear to the wind as it bends the branches to the earth. Skip rocks across a pond and count each slap of stone on water.  Play hopscotch with the neighbor kids and let their laughter soak your spirit. Stand on a busy street corner and embrace the chaotic rhythm of the workaday world as a kind of urban music.

Don’t think about your work in progress. Just take in the sounds and silences of the world around you. This may be exactly what your brain needs to sort through the current writing challenge: uninterrupted time for the subconscious to do its best work. But even if you don’t become a better writer by listening to the wind, at least you will have listened to the wind. And that will make you a better person.