How Do I Write a Novel?

Someone reached out to me via my Facebook to ask this question:

I’m trying to start my first novel, and I was wondering if you have any advice on how you really get going with it and into the groove. It impresses me how you can find time to write consistently while also having time for your family and other interests. I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual writers block that keeps me from even starting! Anyway, if you have any methods you can share (particularly pertaining to fiction) I would be very grateful!

I’m going to start by saying, thank you! It’s always nice to hear positive feedback. Which, in this line of work, there usually isn’t a lot. You pour your heart out onto the page and, in return, a bunch of total strangers tell you that you suck. Even worse, though, are the assumptions they make about you. First and foremost, because the average citizen of the world doesn’t seem to have much imagination. If you’re writing about something, then you must’ve experienced it! Which, back when I was writing under a different name, usually made me a nymphomaniac spree killer. That these were stories, that I’d made them up entirely in my mind, was–and is–a surprisingly rough sell.

Which brings me to my first point: write because you need to. Not because you want to, and not because you think you’ll get rich. “Want” isn’t enough to carry you over the hurdles and the average traditionally published author makes 10,000 USD per year. That’s the mean, though; the median is actually much lower. You won’t be Stephen King; you won’t be J.K. Rowling. You won’t even be E.L. James. You’ll be you, the first you, and you may or may not ever earn enough from anything you write to pay a single bill. So your motivation needs to come from something else. Something more meaningful.

Personally, my problem has never been coming up with ideas. Rather, I’ve struggled to find the time–and the energy–to put them down on paper. My ideas aren’t, arguably, the most original but they’re my ideas. They’re original to me. My characters are real, in my head.

As far as the writing process goes, I wrote well over a million words–in full length manuscripts, in short stories, even in essays–before I even attempted to get anything published. I’d written, and defended, two separate dissertations, but the first would-be novel I managed to complete sucked. Which…is what’s supposed to happen. If you plan on sitting down and writing your magnum opus right off the bat, you’re delusional.

When people ask, I tell them writing a novel takes me about six months. A more accurate answer would be that it takes six months, plus all the years I’ve been writing. Each novel is cumulative; I learn more about what to do, and not to do, and my writing improves.

Writing is a craft, and should be respected like any other craft. Stephen King wasn’t Stephen King, either, when he first started out. Your goal, like any new writer’s, should be simply to produce. Five hundred words, every day. A thousand. Pick a number and stick to that, and remember that everything counts. Texting, social media, everything’s part of the exercise. There’s no such thing as writing that “doesn’t count.” Nor should you dismiss anything you produce. I see this all the time, though, people complaining that it’s “only Facebook” or so forth in a bid to dismiss their own failure to communicate. Except…if you can’t communicate with your own actual friends successfully, people who already like you and already have a reason to be interested in what you have to say, how are you planning on winning over total strangers?

Writing isn’t masturbating into a mirror. It’s getting something out there. Write, and write every single day, and think about what you’re saying and why. Without introspection, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to develop your own voice. Because it won’t be your own voice; it’ll be just another mask. Be prepared to reveal your vulnerabilities; as with any effort of creation, that push and pull between frailty and strength is where the power lies.

I don’t personally believe in writer’s block. There are days when everybody doesn’t want to go to work. But just like you can’t mow your lawn by imagining it mowed, you can’t write anything, especially not a book, by imagining yourself writing–or, for that matter, having ideas. Whatever ideas you have, however minimally formed, write them down. Flesh them out. Challenge yourself to add something to the story you’re telling, the world you’re building, the characters you’re creating every day.

I didn’t train for my first half marathon by strapping up and running thirteen miles. First, I learned to run. Which, needless to say, took awhile! Your daily exercises, likewise, are training. Training, with consistency and purpose, is how we win. Publishing a novel is like qualifying for the Olympics; don’t be discouraged if you’re not there overnight.

Have the courage to use up one idea, and then another. Commercial success might never come, but there’s one thing you can control: how you interact with your writing. What your writing gives to you, what it means to you. Its role in your life. Even if I knew I’d never publish again, I’d still be writing. It’s just…something I have to do. I enjoy drawing, but I can put that hobby aside for weeks at a time without feeling like I’ve chopped all my limbs off.

What works for every writer, as far as how to implement these ideas in real world practice, will vary. Which makes sense; no two athletes are going to follow the exact same training regimen. Your program, the best program for you, is the one that showcases your strengths. My mentor, may he rest in peace, spent his entire writing life on a rigid schedule: from 5 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the morning, six days per week. Being also a morning person, I’ve adopted something similar although markedly less rigid. My husband, though, Mr. Business, also writes in his free time and is in fact a (much) better writer than I am. He does most of his writing on the weekends, or at night.

At one point, I had a daily goal for my word count. Because M.M. Kaye did, I suppose. As a kid, I was a fan. As an adult I’m still a fan, although more of her mysteries. Her so-called “serious” works are…problematic, especially through modern eyes. A daily word count clearly worked for her; for me, though, it only fed a sense of urgency that sometimes prevented me from really delving into the details.

What about you, people of the internet?

What works, and doesn’t work, for you?