I've been asked a lot lately by various folks in various online places for advice on how to start writing a novel, how to write a novel, how to finish the beast once you started. Some people told me that they referred beginning writers to my blog, so this post is for you, for those of you who always wanted to write a novel but never got around to it, or maybe were afraid, or maybe didn't have time, or for some other reason couldn't. I will attempt to summarize my writing process into one blog post, so in a sense you will be reading a sort of a satirical piece on how writing works, because of course it's impossible to cram into one single post the entire book writing process, but I will make it fun and, with luck, it will bring down those barriers that gird your mind and prevent you from getting started. I can guarantee you one thing though. If you have 1 hour free right now, like, RIGHT NOW, and if you get out your pen and paper or your laptop or whatever your preferred writing tools are (perishable papyrus, anyone?) and you do everything I tell you to do here, you will start writing your book this very minute. Got it? Great. Ready? Here we go.
1. Pick one thing that bothers you most RIGHT THIS SECOND and write it down.
So, for the sake of example, let me do this. Let's say, at this moment, your foot bothers you. So this is what you write: My foot hurts. I'm not kidding. Just write what bother you most, or maybe what bothered you your entire life, preferably something that doesn't let you sleep and creeps up in your nightmares. Like this: My brother stole my Christmas present when I was 5 and I never forgave him. Okay, or how about this: The woman next door used to shoot frogs after midnight by the dozen. (How would you know? Well, you were neighbors, and you saw it, and it bothered you since then.) Okay, I'm being funny here, but write deep shit, shit that bothers you, shit you want to get off your chest. Like: I'm afraid of death. The point here is, DO NOT THINK. FEEL. Write whatever bothers you NOW, and that's it. Why? Because it doesn't matter what you write now. What matters is, you have to start somewhere. The very first few pages of everything you write will be discarded later. The very first few pages is like you clearing your throat before really talking, but you have to write them. To start. So, are you done? Good. Let't move on.
2. Write uninterrupted for the next 20 minutes EVERYTHING that supports that 1st sentence.
Can you stomach not to be interrupted for the next 20 minutes? Can you close the door and turn off your phone? Do it. Now, let's say you wrote: My foot hurts. Develop this more. Come on, bitch about it. Let it out. Say: That motherfucker next door stomped on my foot when he was walking his pet pig, and I was walking my pet rhino, and he told me that he thinks that somehow rhinos should not be allowed as pets, and I said to him, bullshit. So when he... You get the idea. Just dish. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO ANYTHING ELSE FOR THE NEXT 20 MINUTES. You have to keep writing even if it seems like nonsense, even if it doesn't feel like it supports anything. Just get it out, weave. You can even write things like: Okay, yeah, my foot hurts, but the bigger problem is that I'm out of coffee. Whatever it is, got for it. You have to write as much as you will write. I predict you will probably do about 100-200 words, and that's about a page. Great. Next step.
3. Decide WHO THE MAIN CHARACTER IS. Who is the book about?
This is the pivotal point. For the sake of this blog post we are discussing fiction only. Meaning, yeah, you can totally apply this method to writing a memoir, but I will be guiding you on how to write a novel. So. Every single character in your novel has a certain life philosophy, a view of the world. You can have as many as you like. You are essentially speaking through your characters. so that pain you wrote, that thing that bothers you very much, that will probably belong to this character you started writing about. You could've thought of that person as yourself at first, and that's okay, but now is the time to start banging out more stuff about that person and slowly edge away from the fact that it's your personal pain and give that pain gradually to your character. You can start adding interactions with other characters at this point, if you want to. The goal is, KEEP WRITING. And this leads me to the next point.
4. Set yourself a daily goal and WRITE EVERY DAY TO MEET IT.
I suspect a bunch of you will fall off at this point. Because writing doesn't happen at the wave of some magic wand. You have to actually sit down and do it, every day, but it is possible to do it even if you hardly have any time in your life for it. If you're serious about writing a novel, here is what you do. You do math. I will give you some math I know, and you can use it as a starting point. So. It should take you about 1 hour to write 500 words, give or take, if you don't stop and don't think too much, that is, if you're a beginning writer, because at my stage I can do 1,000 words in 1 hour, but I choose to do 200 or less, because I now take time to think. Anyway. I'm taking a median average I heard from other writers. Usually writers say they can do about 2-3K words a day, and only about 4 hours of good solid writing time, before they get tired. That is about 500 words per hour. I would suggest you set aside 1 hour every day, 20 minutes at the very minimum, and write in that time. The only rules are these: EITHER produce your word count, OR don't get out of the room until that 1 HOUR PASSED (or 20 minutes). If you stare at the screen for 1 hour and write nothing, that's okay. The goal is to build a habit. Also, when you do this, TURN EVERYTHING OFF. Now, comes the next part.
5. Under no circumstances are you allowed to edit until your 1st draft is done. DO NOT EDIT!!!
So, now that you have your schedule, and your word count, charge forward. Do not worry about anything, plot, theme, grammar. Forget about it all. Just feel. Feel, and write down what you feel. Every day. In that writing time you set aside. If you write for 1 hour every day and produce 500 words, in 6 months you will have written 91K words!!! Now, that is a complete 1st draft of a novel. A typical novel, depending on the genre, is about 80-120K words. Usually, the amount of words varies from draft to draft, like an accordion. It compresses, it expands, it shrinks again, it bloats. For you to keep your book alive, you would ideally have written it in the course of 1 year, not longer (we're talking about beginning writers here, remember). You have to do at least 3 drafts, and each consecutive draft will take you less and less time. 1st draft is for dumping the story on paper, 2nd draft is for making sense of the story, and 3rd draft is for polishing it. The way I do it (also, remember, this whole post is based on my method) is I do complete rewrites of each draft. Only the more drafts I do, the less changes I make. Meaning, I start from the beginning and comb through it till I'm done. So, when you write your 1st draft, every day start from the point where you stopped. Reread the bit you wrote the day before, to refresh your memory, BUT DO NOT EDIT. MOVE FORWARD! Next is this.
6. Do as many drafts as you need to, to make sure you did your best, and MOVE ON.
The biggest problem with beginning writers is getting stuck and never finishing their book. The thing about this is, when the book is dead to you, when you have edited it to death, when you enjoy it no longer, the reader will not enjoy it either. You have to keep it fresh, fresh and exciting for yourself. You have enjoy writing it. That is why getting something that bothers you out of your system is a good starting point. It's like therapy. Every day you do it, you will feel lighter and lighter. You will become addicted. It will begin to flow. But you have to sit down every day, in your allotted writing time, and do it. But. Make sure you keep going through the story every draft from beginning to end. This way you will be able to see the whole of it AND the pieces. So, jumping ahead here. Let's say, you have finished your 1st draft. Great! Now, set it aside for at least a week, preferably 2, and then block out a weekend and read the whole thing from beginning to end in one go. Uninterrupted. Ideally, print out the whole thing and take hand-written notes on it. The idea is this. If you see it in a different medium, you will have a better chance of reading it like it's somebody else's work. You have to critique your own work here, and this is tough, really really tough. The more you write, the better you get at it, so don't worry.
7. Do not show your work in progress to anyone UNLESS THEY CAN PRAISE YOU NO MATTER WHAT.
All right, many of you will shake your heads here. But here is the deal. When you start out as a writer, you're very fragile. A single harsh word can stop you in your tracks, and you will simply give up. Hell, I've been ready to give up on my 3rd novel a month ago or so. I know how it feels. It never goes away. ONLY if you have someone who can tell you awesome stuff about your writing, show it to that person. Otherwise, do not show it to anyone until the final draft is done. Why? Because people will shift you off balance. You can't afford it. Maybe even keep the whole thing in secret. Write for yourself, for the simple reason of writing a novel BECAUSE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE A NOVEL. Who gives a fuck what others think? It's your novel, yours and yours alone, they have no say in it. You do it for yourself, because, here is a little secret I will share with you. If you truly write a novel for yourself without a care in the world about what others might think about it, THEN you have a very high chance of finding readers who will love your novel and will want to read it. Because it will speak to them. Because they are like you. They think like you, they have ideas like you. See? Later, when you grow thicker skin, you can start showing your work in progress to others, but don't do it at the very beginning. Also, think about this. How surprised will your friends and family be, when you will announce that you have written ... not thinking about, not planning to, WRITTEN a book already. Right? Right. It will be awesome. Moving on.
8. While you're writing, READ LIKE THERE IS NO TOMORROW.
Okay, in that schedule time, if you can, add at least 20 more minutes every day of reading time. Reading fiction. NOT books about writing. NOT articles. NOT news. Read novels, to see how others do it. Just read them and absorb things. Writing is a fluid form of communication. So many books have been written. Go ahead, pick them up, study them. It seems like it's easy to find some kind of a secret to writing a perfect novel, yes? Yeah, right. Except nobody knows it. Because it has to come from deep inside you. It's art. It's your understanding of life, yours and yours alone. The more you read, the more you will see how others were able to translate their hopes and dreams and ideas and beliefs into stories, and you can do the same.
Okay, I need to finish writing this long post otherwise it will become a book. So. Hopefully by now you have written out that one thing that bothers you, have written a whole page about it, have decided on the main character, maybe added a bit more. Things to remember. Your 1st draft will be shit, AND THAT IS OKAY. Every 1st draft sucks. The purpose of the 1st draft is to get the story down on paper, because you can't edit that which has not been written. Well then, I wish you good luck. I know you can do it. It's very very simple. Write every day, for at least 20 minutes. Read every day, for at least 20 minutes. Focus on 1 novel only at a time. Do not show anyone your story unless you are certain they will tell you it's awesome. Stop around the 90K word count. Take a 2 week break. Read your draft, take notes. Do 2nd draft, 3rd, maybe 4th. If you do these things, chances are, by the end of the year you will have your 1st novel written.
NOW, GO WRITE!!! And report progress here, if you'd like, or email me with your victories.
P.S.: If you want to read more, here is a post on how to come up with a novel idea in 1 day, and here is a post on how to write 4,000 words a day, and here is a post on why your story is right the first time.