So you want to write a novel, eh? Or perhaps you’re on your second or third. Maybe you’re an experienced-enough writer, but you just want to try something new. Whatever your circumstances, let me tell you a story, and offer you a bit of advice which could make all the difference in your next big writing project.
I wrote my most recent novel first as a novella. The idea was great, and I banged it out in just over two months. What can I say? I’m a fast typist.
As is my habit, I put it down for a couple more months, then picked it up again, to take it in fresh.
In all fairness, it didn’t actually suck, but it just ended way too soon. I was only starting to touch what it was I wanted to say. I was only beginning to explore the tragedy and horror and humour and thrill which I wanted not just to convey in my writing, but which I wanted to feel inside of myself.
There was something in that 73 pages that was calling to me, something inside of me which wanted to be said. I was to be the scribe, and it was going to tell me what needed to be said.
I was to become Dante, and I was going to let Virgil lead me into an underworld.
On Traditional Advice for Writing a Novel
One need not go far to find any number of articles or HOW-TOs on how to write a novel. The advice ranges from quite good and insightful to the rather antiseptic step-by-step planning type. I went to writing school, and by and large, similar ranges of advice came out of there as well. Yet the one piece of advice which stuck with me all these years is this question:
Is it a novel you are writing, or are you writing yourself?
I think there are any number of novels you might be seeking to write which work very well with the traditional advice one finds.
- Work out your setting, your protagonist, characters.
- Write an outline, a summary of sorts, to work out the plot twists and turns.
- Do research on your topic
- Get an editor
And there is nothing wrong with this kind of advice. If you feel this is what you need for advice, by all means, take some or all of it.
I’m going to offer a different take on novel-writing, one which I’ve followed my entire writing career, and which has helped me to coax the best from my work. This style has been explored by many writers and expounded by any number of writing teachers, known collectively as “Method Writing”. I am going to show you my approach to it, and what it can do for your writing, and for you personally.
Imagine where the story starts, and where it ends
The Story Starts: There’s a woman named Kathleen Waters who’s been transformed into a duck. She doesn’t want to be a duck, but someone has transformed her against her will.
The Story Ends: In the end, Kathleen is untransformed, returned to her human shape, but realises in her rush to get back to her old self, she was ignoring all the wonderful things that she had as a duck. Kathleen now wishes to be transformed back again.
(Rather odd example, I realise, but if you use that idea, I want my name in your dedication)
That’s all you need. Don’t get into how Kathleen became a duck (not yet, at any rate). Don’t get into how she gets changed back. We only need our start and our finish.
Assume you know nothing
Now that we have our start and our finish, begin from the idea that you don’t KNOW what is going to happen. Don’t plan, don’t write an outline of the plot. Assume the novel’s journey from where Kathleen starts to where she finishes is unknown to you, an undiscovered country.
This clears a creative space inside of you, an open landscape where you’re going to crash about in discovery. It is the setting aside of some part of your subconscious to begin to create the story and its landscape.
Picture your protagonist
Take a month or more to really know the protagonist. Write down what you can see of Kathleen in your mind’s eye. Picture her. Draw crummy sketches of her (well, crummy in my case because I draw like a seven-year-old). Write down what she looks like, what her personality is like, what she did for a living (before she became a duck), who are her friends (human, duck, or otherwise), or if she has no friends. Really imagine everything about her. As you get ready for bed, or fix a coffee, or make a meal, think about how Kathleen would do this (again, were she NOT a duck).
Which leads to the next big step…
Live like your protagonist
I’m not expecting you to live your life dressed up in a duck costume (but if you do, please, please send me a photo!), nor am I expecting you to go do the same job as Kathleen.
What I do want you to do is to shift your habits and behaviours when appropriate to those of Kathleen. Start living and trying to think as she would. Not just when you’re writing, but when you are moving around in the world. You are ruminating your protagonist. You are shadowing her, stepping into her shoes. Let Kathleen have a place in your life.
Before you fall asleep, imagine you will dream about Kathleen and her current situation.
Make your protagonist and her situation as engaging in your life as is possible. You are attempting to lure out of your subconscious mind a story you want to tell. Your conscious mind is capable of constructing stories, sure, but your subconscious is the master of storytelling. Help it do its job.
Do this the entire time you are writing, but at the very least, do this for a couple months before you get writing. Give yourself time to sink into Kathleen’s world.
(again, photos of you in a duck costume are wholeheartedly welcomed)
Write openly, and leave the editing for ‘some other time’
Now you’re ready to write. So write.
First person, third person, doesn’t matter. Start writing. Start from the start, and just keep going. Let Kathleen tell her story, what she knows, what and who she was, where she is now. Let her go from place to place with her duckdom, and let her discover her own way out. She talks (quacks) to people or ducks, or a mystic squirrel. That’s in you, that’s what you’ve been asking your subconscious to kick back your direction. Wander with Kathleen as she goes from here to there.
And don’t edit right now. Don’t back up and change something, or make her go left instead of right, unless it feels absolutely wrong. You have to feel your way, and if you decided to change something as you write because you ‘think’ it would ‘read better’ or ‘is a better idea’, then you’re editing. Don’t edit. That will come later.
If you really want to change something, then change tack, but leave behind you what you wrote before. Let the the story move you forward towards the horizon. It may not make sense, and likely it might seem bizarre, but that’s a good thing. Dreams are bizarre, and it is that quality of the bizarre which have intrigued and enthralled people to dreams across history. Allow yourself to not know what is going to happen, and let your writing lead you into the places you need to go.
Let yourself feel how Kathleen would as you write down her story. Really listen to your inner Kathleen. Why? Not for some abstract reason, but for a very concrete one: You are trying to get to the heart of Kathleen, and this isn’t possible if you keep yourself at a distance. Let yourself feel how she feels at each step on the path.
Kathleen has inner demons. She is strong here, and weak there. She is troubled by her past, and struggles to see her own part in how this all came to be. She is flawed (beyond the duck thing), and this is something that is important to explore. Let her be real, be human. Not heroic and greater than life, but someone real, who was born, will live, and yes, will someday die. Let her be that, and tell her story with her flaws just as equally portrayed as her strengths.
Now you have everything you need. Keep going. Keep writing, let the story come out of you, and keep feeling how she would feel.
Write every day. Even just a page is something. But it means you have to give up something in your life, some small change to allow you to do so. Keep the momentum flowing. Keep Kathleen beside you every chance you get, and make time to write.
Keep at it until you reach the end. Kathleen is no longer a duck, but is looking enviously as a flock of mallards fly overhead, and wonders if she can get the mystic squirrel to give her one more wish.
You’ve got your first draft. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?
Put it down for a while
So the first draft is done. What now? Put it away for a while. Let yourself have a bit of distance from it. You worked hard, and that kind of writing can be draining. Besides, if we are too close to something, we can tend to nitpick and labour over minutia.
Give yourself some space and come back to the first draft in a month or more. It’ll keep.
Polishing the stone
As I said in my piece on The First Draft Blues, what you have created is a rough-cut stone. Now comes the time to polish it into a gem.
Now you begin the game of editing, but stay with those habits I described in Step 3. Don’t go all analytical and cold on your novel at this stage. Now comes the time of edits and rewrites, of the adding and removing, of working with an editor.
This will be a tough phase, particularly after the creative burst of your first draft, but don’t let this be a non-creative process. You are now filling in the details, rounding the edges, really clarifying Kathleen’s intentions and her journey.
Maybe this chapter works, and that one doesn’t. Maybe this one needs more, and that one less. What you’re after is a feeling of completion. Does the chapter read aloud as you want it to? Does it say what you want it to say the best it can? Does the writing send a shiver down your spine, make you laugh out loud, bring tears to your eyes, fill you with a romantic sigh?
You are editing now to make the feelings come alive, to really burst out from the page. This can take time, and be okay with the time it takes.
There is a natural propensity after your first draft to want to ‘wrap it up’. First draft is done, now its all about the tweaks, right? Wrong. Resist the urge to rush to completion. When you’ve nailed it, you’ll know. Trust yourself. Give yourself time to rewrite (and rewrite, and rewrite, etc.) as long as you need to get that magic feeling that you’ve nailed it.
That first draft of mine which took 2 months ended up taking nearly five years to be what I wanted it to be. Is that a long time? Sure, but it is also all the sweeter to have finished writing the very novel which makes me now nod and smile with pride.
What’s actually going on
What you will find in the end is a book which is passionate, full of energy, and the kind of Mana which are the makings of greatness.
And why is this? Because all this while, you’ve not been writing a novel, you’ve been writing yourself. (← see what just happened there?)
You are Kathleen. Her journey is YOUR journey, and the things she said and did and felt and went through were really what you needed to say, what you had inside yourself all this time. Some part of you wanted to tell a story, and you gave that part an opportunity to use the novel as a way of expressing not only something you feel about the world, but about how you feel in your life at this time and place.
Great novels are great not because they have labyrinthine plots, or ‘engaging characters’, or even because of incredibly well-constructed prose. These definitely help, no doubt, but they are not the deciding factor.
Great novels are from the heart. They are interesting and engaging and well-constructed in the end because of the heart, YOUR heart, being poured into them.
You are giving the world some part of yourself, opening a window on your soul and letting the world look in. There will never be another you, and no one else would write that novel the way you did.
In doing so, you have explored yourself, have told some part of your own story. What makes you sad or scared or happy or laugh out loud. You have gone into your own undiscovered country, and from it, recovered something for all the world to enjoy. In the doing, you have likely discovered something new about yourself and how you feel about the world.
In the end, it’s a win-win.