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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How I write a novel

There are dozens of ways to write a novel, but here’s the way I do it.

Step No. 1. I sit down at my computer. Does that sound obvious? Well, it isn’t. I’ve talked to scores of people who wanted to write books, and many of them were full of ideas -- plot, character, marketing, etc. Unfortunately, only a small minority had actually sat down at their computer and started the book. Of that small minority, only a smaller minority wrote with regularity. Quiz all the other I-wanna-write-a-book folks on the reasons why, and they usually mumble something about not having enough time.

Sure, time’s a problem for all of us. Families, jobs, personal commitments -- they all conspire to wrest our writing time away from us. Before I retired a couple of years ago, I was a journalist, working an average of 60 hours per week. I also had (and still do) a family, pets, and a falling-down house -- all of which needed my attention. But gee, I was always so tired! When I came home from work -- journalism, with its daily deadlines, is one of the most exhausting of all professions -- all I wanted to do was find some place dark in which to curl up into a foetal position. Writing? Fugitaboutdit.

But I wanted to write. REALLY wanted to write. After examining my time-crunch problem (I worked 9 a.m. to frequently 11 p.m., plus sometimes on the weekends WITHOUT comp time), I came up with a solution. I’d write BEFORE I went to work. Thus began my 15-year habit of getting up at 4 a.m. EVERY SINGLE DAY, writing until 8 a.m., when I got ready for work. Excruciating? Oh, yeah. There were mornings when I was so sleepy and miserable that I sat at my keyboard and wept in self-pity. But I kept to my self-imposed schedule anyway. As the months (and years) wore on, that 4
a.m. curtain call became easier to answer. My tears dried up and the words began to flow. It didn't happen overnight. And it took discipline. Writing Tip No. 1: If you don’t have discipline, forget about writing a novel; write a poem. Writing Tip No. 2. Once you’ve established your writing schedule, DO NOT VARY IT, although home and the world will give you millions of reasons to do so. Ignore them all.

Okay, now that you’ve developed the discipline (John Wayne called it “grit”) that it takes to write a novel, here’s Step No. 2. Write an outline of your novel. Yes, yes, I know. You’ve heard many successful authors scoff at the idea of an outline. But hear me out. Once I decide to write a novel, I start making an outline. Who killed whom and why and possible sub-plot(s). This is (I call it) Wonder Time, because it’s so much fun. During Wonder Time, ideas and characters come fast and furious while I try on characters’ names, jot down possible settings (doing a little fun research as well). Once I’ve assembled my cast of characters and put them, say, in a little desert town outside of Phoenix, I come up with my “arc of action” (a penciled graph showing how quickly the action will escalate). Then I figure out what three scenes are the most important -- and I place them equidistant on the arc of action. Then I write everything down so I won’t forget: Here’s what happens in Chapter One; here’s what happens in Chapter Two; here’s what happens in Chapter Three... and all the way to the end, which is usually somewhere around Chapter 25. FUN, FUN, FUN!!! This is Wonder Time, remember. I’m not actually writing, you understand, I’m just playing around.

Step No. 3. Using that wonderfully detailed and thrilling outline, I start the actual writing. Chapters One, Two and Three go pretty fast because I’m all fired up, still loving my brilliant outline. FUN, FUN, FUN!!! However, somewhere around Chapter Four, the fun begins to pall. I’ve come up with a few new ideas (and characters) that don’t fit in my so-called “brilliant” outline. Disgusted, I file the “brilliant” outline away and don’t look at it again. Gosh! I’ve managed to either incorporated the best of all possible worlds -- by having my outline and
throwing it away, too -- or the worst of all possible worlds. And now is when the going gets tough, so this old toughie gets going. I start forcing myself to slave away for a minimum of four hours a day, not knowing where I’m going and or when (or if) I’ll get there. It’s not a happy time, but I’ve built up so much momentum, I can’t stop. In fact, sometimes it’s downright miserable. I begin to doubt my talent. I begin to doubt my story. Oh, yuk! Frequently, I get so scared that I sneak a look at that old filed-away outline and write a few scenes from it. Then, when the energy
kicks back in, I file the outline away again, and charge ahead. Writing Tip No. 3: Keep writing, even though when you feel that your “muse” has deserted you; if you keep writing long enough, your muse will come back. Conversely, if you stop, she’ll abandon you forever for someone with more grit. The muse never alights on writer who aren’t already sitting at the keyboard. I dunno why, maybe Ms. Muse just has a thing for electronic gizmos.

Step No. 4. I write all the way to the end of the first draft WITHOUT stopping to read what I’ve written. Why? Because first drafts always suck. They’re supposed to suck -- that’s their job. A first draft is nothing more than the skeleton of a novel, and skeletons ain’t pretty. Drafts Two, Three, Four and (God help us all) Draft Five are where you prettify that ugly old first draft. Believe me, if I ever stopped writing and took a hard look at what I was writing, I’d be so appalled that I’d never be able to continue on to those magic word, “the end.” Yes, I know it’s
tempting to go back and rewrite some of those more clumsily worded phrases and paragraphs, but it’s my advice -- here comes Writing Tip No. 4 -- don’t do it!!! If you go back and read the awful dreck you’ve written, you’ll be tempted to slash your wrists (or, at the very least, have plastic surgery, change your name, and leave town). Besides, once you start full-scale editing (and you’re months away from that), all those pretty little passages you’ve reworked just might be the first to go, so why bother messing around with them in the first place?

Next week: Step No. 5 (if I haven’t depressed you enough already!).


staff said...

It's great to hear how you do it. I, too, like waiting to start a story or novel until the story line—particularly the beginning and end—comes clear to me.
I am also partial to drawing diagrams, flow charts, timelines, floor plans, and maps. I often save Chinese restaurant placemats to work on, as they're a perfect size, but only if I haven't left too many food stains.

Barbara DaCosta

euclid said...

Hi Betty. Brilliant, just brilliant advice. I do all or most of what you suggest. I also keep a spreadsheet on which I record word counts of each chapter, each day, etc. It helps to keep me moving foward. R. U. E. (Resist the Urge to Edit) is the best advice. I could have saved myself so much time and heartache...

Helen Ginger said...

Good advice. I do almost all - including a spreadsheet - but I do some editing as I go along.

I read the previous day's work and edit before I start the next day.