How to Write a Novel
To a non-writer, writing a novel seems a daunting task. Most fiction writers consider it sooner or later, even if they prefer short form.
Having written several, I now believe the best way is to THINK a novel through, then start writing. A caveat, though: sometimes a character’s voice comes so strongly you feel like starting to write. You have a general idea of the goal and motivations. The main character’s voice comes to you like dictation. In such a case, that’s the best time to start. You can pause and do the heavy thinking when you hit a snag. But only for a short while.
You will have to revise: face it and embrace it. Most people have to revise heavily. This was one of my faults early on. I fell in love with some of the lines and actions and couldn’t cut them, in a novel about two rivaling sisters. Because I wanted to publish it, and quickly.
The first years of writing all I did was think about selling. I had been told I was a good writer and thought I’d find big success young. At in high school and college, I was a far superior writer to those my age.
The problem was, they caught up.
My best work came out on the rivaling sisters manuscript when I decided to take the whole thing and actually rewrite it. I’d already made notes in the margins but I didn’t edit. I began writing it over.
It was a game-changer. New ideas and directions blossomed organically and were truer. On occasion I would see how my character did not follow through a situation in her own natural way. The process made me write in a way that the characters’ actions and motivations were much more grounded in their psychological makeup. It was fast and fluid.
I understood my main character better. The weak parts of the first write-through evaporated away as my character’s thoughts and movements were much more linear with her self.
The biggest issue I used to have in writing novels is taking too long to get it done. I’ve been working full-time all my adult life, until recently. Even setting aside time to write chunks of the work, or let it simmer and go back to it, too much time dragged on. In a couple of instances I was on my third year of still working on getting the 130-page manuscript together to be good enough to send to agents.
If you totaled the time writing and editing over the three years, it would be about three months total. After three years of still trying to cobble together a unified story ready for an agent’s eye, I would get sick of it. I wanted to start a new novel instead.
The time drag gave me a love/hate relationship with the characters and plot. A three-month project taking three years is painful. I wish I’d saved money, rented an isolated cabin, and written the thing in a season.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about my early success and how it waned. I sold my first piece to an anthology at age 16. I sold nonfiction pieces to magazines my senior year in college, and published features in two big-city newspapers the year after. Freelance writing supercharged my low, new-worker income. My first nonfiction book was accepted when I was 30. I read Writer’s Digest voraciously and tried all kinds of different genres, seeing what would hit. Playwriting, poetry, essays, and all other manner of writing were touched—but never really well-developed.
The selling slowed. As my public relations job paid well, brought quick success (but not for my name or writing) and other life things were more fun, the fiction writing got slower.
But the desire didn’t.
While I was getting comfortable, the hungry, sacrificing, and more honest-with-themselves writers passed me. I got so discouraged and distracted I quit writing fiction for 10 years.
When you stop thinking about selling, about writing in all kinds of formats you rarely read but think you know—you wind your way back home. And for me, that was novels.
I got back into writing fiction again when I decided this was the work I loved and wanted to do. No matter what.
Think about the story you want to tell. Ask why you are an ideal person to tell this story. Set a schedule if it helps you and doesn’t stress you. Never hate your work, even when rough waters try to sink you. Work on another type of writing or artistry if you need a break.
But only for a short while.
Keep going. Be patient and learn the craft. Listen. You will get adept at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Don’t worry about selling or publishing. The fact that you’re writing a novel is gigantic accomplishment, no matter what the outcome.
True story: over the years I’ve been at gatherings and parties and have personally met at least 50 (yes, FIFTY) people who said these exact words:
“I always wanted to write a novel.”
You passed those 50, and hundreds to thousands more, when you wrote the first sentence of your novel.
Imbue your work with love. You will love yourself more, feel calmer, write more, and write better.