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?

How To Be a Good Editor

Ever wanted to be an editor? No? That’s probably wise.

But just in case all your other options suddenly fall through (ie: the bowling alley installs an automatic pinsetter, the crash test dummy program stops accepting applications from humans, the professional dog walker eliminates her “Assistant Dog Walker In Charge Solely of Scooping Poop” position), here are some tips on how to be a good one. (If, perchance, you would rather be a bad editor, just do the opposite of what I suggest. And good luck with that.)

Be selective. Edit the books you love; work with writers you like. This makes the job of editing embarrassingly enjoyable and reduces the likelihood that you’ll be cursing your career choice before you even get to page 27. Some good reasons to say no: scheduling conflicts; lack of familiarity with the genre (to avoid having to say this, read widely); discomfort with the author him- or herself (the relationship is a bad fit); you can’t see how you could help (the book has too far to go, or is already so good your contribution would be minimal). Note: It’s easy to be selective when the bills are being paid.

Read between the lines. Most writers suffer from low self-esteem and fear the Red Pen. But generalities aside, every author is an individual with specific needs and expectations. Ask lots of questions before you agree to work on the writer’s book and listen carefully to their answers. Some want to be assured they aren’t pursuing an impossible dream. Others believe they’re just one step away from achieving it. Knowing the author before you even look at the manuscript helps you to anticipate the sorts of challenges you may uncover in the editing process.

Immerse yourself in the story. Read it through as if you just bought the book from your soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore. (Sorry Borders. I still love you. I did earn a paycheck or two from you a few years back.) Don’t open to page one and begin editing, be a reader first. Spend time in the world and with the characters. The big issues will reveal themselves as you read. The smaller ones will simmer in the back of your head and pop up just in time for the Red Pen once you get down to the business of editing.

Let go of your own writer voice. If the writer already has a strong voice, this isn’t difficult. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the story, you’ll become intimately familiar with it and editing in that voice will be second nature. But if a writer doesn’t have a strong voice – as is the case with most inexperienced writers – this can be a challenge. You may be tempted to edit using your own writer’s voice. Don’t. Instead, make it your goal to help the author discover his or her original voice. Find the seeds of that voice (word choice, tone, rhythm, etc.) and water them. This is the best thing you can do for a writer. (Yes, I just used a gardening metaphor. I’m allowed one gardening metaphor a year. This was it.)

Respect the story. You have two masters when you’re an editor. (Three if you’re being contracted by a publishing house to do the edit.) The most obvious master is the writer. She’s the person paying you, so it’s important to respect her desires and concerns. But a happy writer with a bad story really isn’t a happy writer at all. Let the story guide your editorial notes. Communicate those notes in a way that doesn’t disrespect the writer’s hard work, but don’t shy away from saying the hard things when the story and the writer disagree.

Say encouraging things. Editing isn’t all about noting what’s wrong. It’s also about revealing and encouraging a writer’s strengths. If you find a particularly brilliant sentence or description, say so. You can even use exclamation points in your comment. However, be honest. Don’t make up things to praise. That just feeds false hope. If you have a hard time finding nice things to say, you can always say (with absolute sincerity): “You wrote a book. You have done something many people only aspire to. Good for you!” (Note use of exclamation point.)

Don’t edit with a jackhammer. If you find bad habits, point them out. Be direct, but avoid hammering a point more than necessary. Show the writer why the habit is bad, offer suggestions on how to solve it, then let the writer make the appropriate application to the rest of the occurrences. This gives the writer a chance to practice a better habit.

Exude confidence, but never arrogance. You’re an editor because you know books. You know characters and plots and how to show instead of tell. You have a sixth sense about what works and what sucks. So edit with confidence. However, you’re not God. Not even close. Have a good reason for every editing note and every change you make or suggest, but don’t presume your suggestions are the only ones that work.

Invite discussion. The writer will initially be intimidated or discouraged by your notes. (Even those who say “I love being edited!” experience some measure of one or both of these feelings.) We’re trained at a young age to fear the Red Pen. You’re not here to tell the writer she’s an idiot or a fool or a failure. You’re here to help the writer discover more of the writer inside. You’re not here to dictate, but to encourage and shape and direct. Talk with the writer. Explain your choices. Listen to her disagreements, concerns, fears. Then together, learn.

A good editor is a writer’s best friend – the kind of best friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth. Or adverbs.

 

 

 

Do the Best You Can With What You Have

There’s little need for a post here. If you’re pressed for time, just read the title again, let it inspire some brilliant application for your writing life, then jet off to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

Of course, if you want to spend a few more minutes in this space (and who wouldn’t; don’t you love how the gray header matches the cloud of uncertainty that’s giving your muse black lung?), feel free. It’s your dime.

Here’s the thing (and by “thing” I mean premise for this post): writers have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations. We call these expectations “dreams” or “goals” to make them sound beautiful or practical. But they’re expectations nonetheless.

“I’m going to write 10,000 words today!”

“I’m going to get an agent by Christmas. This Christmas!”

“I’m going to quit my day job and write full time and be happy and successful and tip generously even when the service is bad!”

“I’m going to read every book ever written about how to write well before I even put a single word of my own novel on the page because then when I do it will be lovely and perfect and certain to capture the hearts and minds of every human being on the planet including people who’ve never read a single novel!”

Then, often due to circumstances beyond our control, the dreams become nightmares. The goals grow mold (like the stuff hiding in your basement walls that’s going to kill you someday).

Still, we persist.

Maybe you do what I do – try to give the pain of underperformance purpose by re-categorizing it as a “life lesson.” [Here’s how to do this: cup your ears to the yawning abyss and listen for some murmured echo of wisdom about how pain – even the pain of unmet dreams or goals – is really a gift because it makes us better writers. Then try not to throw up.]

There’s certainly some truth in that murmur – Real Life Pain does make us better writers of Imagined Pain. (See this post.) But unless your plan is to write a novel about feeling totally inadequate at the one thing you long to excel at, this probably isn’t the sort of pain you should be listening to.

We don’t mean to do this to ourselves. (Except for you masochists out there.) We start off with good intentions. But somewhere along the way, we become concerned that we’re not as far along as we thought we should be so we reach farther than we ought for the One Ring (“we wants it….”) only to fall off the horse. Again.

Discouragement sets in. And frankly? Discouragement sucks the fun out of writing.

What if, instead, you gave yourself a little slack? Sure, set goals. Follow dreams. Do everything you can to reach those places. But always, always with the quiet understanding that your reach only extends so far in any given moment.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it.

Then why do you keep beating yourself up for not being Stephenie Meyer?

Pursue everything with diligence and excellence. Maybe you’ll meet your writing goal. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get an agent this month. Maybe you won’t. Maybe your book will get published someday. Maybe it won’t.

Just do the best you can with what you have.

And that will be enough.