Tips for the Novel-Writing Process
I’m still a nascent novelist, but I’ve been working on novel #1 for about four years and, in addition to the light at the end of the book-tunnel, I can also see I’ve picked up a few ideas about getting from first page to last. I hope there will be at least one or two here you can use. Here goes…
Inspiration comes in two flavors. The first is plain old Basic Inspiration, that fire in the belly that makes you want to write a novel. The second is Story Inspiration, that idea that lands in your head and won’t stop banging on the interior of your skull until you start making it into a story. Both are critical, but you can’t expect them to just show up. You have to encourage them, so read (fiction, non-fiction, the newspaper, everything), see movies from all decades, take walks, write a free-form journal for an hour a day, examine your navel – do whatever you can to turn up your creative flame.
Writing won’t happen unless you decide, for sure, no B.S., that you’re going to do it regularly, according to some kind of plan. Lots of people encourage writing every day, and that’s probably idea, but if you can only write on Tuesdays and Fridays, commit to doing that. If you have to carry around a notepad and get down a couple of sentences whenever you’re at a stop light or caught in another of life’s pauses, do that. Whatever it is, do it. Sometimes the writing will go well, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. Make the commitment and stick to it.
For me, finding time is the hardest part. I try to get in an hour a day, five days a week, more if possible. I’ve made this work in various ways: getting up early, writing at lunch hour, going into work a little late so I can write from 8 until 9. You may well have to give something else up. In my case, I gave up sleep, deepening my relations with co-workers by not going out to lunch, and increasing my work pressure by arriving at an awkward time. (To write this post, I’m giving up my Sunday afternoon nap. Woe is me!)
You don’t have to write in just one space; you can have several. I am lucky to have a basement office I can hide away in, in addition to a coffee shop just down the road. Personally, I find my work goes best in a place where I feel very much at home and where I can arrange the physical requirements of my work – PC, trackball, coffee — pretty easily. And if you’re writing at home, I highly recommend having a door you can lock.
This is so important to me I made it a separate item, even though I could have put it under “Space.” All the writers I know require some level of quiet in which to create. Noise distracts the mind, and an unfocused mind is a poor one for creating fiction. If I can’t find a place with the requisite degree of silence, I pull out headphones and turn up a white noise recording; white noise drowns out ambient sound without being distracting.
Having quiet doesn’t mean having absolute silence, just a degree of it. It’s helpful, I think, to have some sort of background noise that puts your mind at ease without distracting you. White noise, as mentioned above, is good, but my favorite is instrumental down-tempo/chill music, which is pretty much a deep beat with an overlay of soothing sounds. It has the effect of keeping me alert and relaxed at the same time. Sometimes, I don’t even use that; right now, I’m composing to the sounds of the space heater at one end of the room and the dehumidifier at the other. (Yes, it’s a swanky home office I’ve got, all right.)
Writing is work, often hard work, so give yourself a doggie biscuit when you finish a session or hit a milestone. One of my favorite rewards, especially if I’m home alone, is to crank up the guitar amp and play very loudly. I’m also highly in favor of cookies; almost any kind will do. Sometimes, if it’s the right time of day, I’ll have a scotch. Figure out what means the most to you and go for it. Have a brain, of course; rewarding yourself with a shot of bourbon after every paragraph is not the way to go here.
Take breaks, especially if you’re in a long writing session. Dale Carnegie, in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (You should read this, whoever you are.), writes that a U.S. Army study discovered that soldiers who took a ten-minute rest every hour were more productive than those that worked straight through that time. I have a sort of internal clock that tells me when I need to get up from the keyboard. You may need to set a timer. Whatever works, just give yourself regular breaks; they’ll keep you and your writing fresh.
I like having a method for my writing. In fact, I like screwing around with the method almost as much as the writing itself. This gets into the old thing of writing by the seat of your pants vs. writing by a plan, or somewhere in between. Choose something that works for you. I am finding that I like to plan, but at a certain point, the planning hits a wall because I can’t think of the next thing. At that point I start writing, changing the plan as the story evolves. The subsequent parts eventually present themselves (I hope).
Permission, Forgiveness, and No
In a world where there are so many “oughts” and “shoulds” clamoring for your time and attention, it’s hard to write without thinking you should be doing something else. These thoughts usually run something like, “Am I crazy, sitting here writing this novel maybe nobody will ever read? Shouldn’t I be mowing the lawn or something?” You won’t write too well if you are thinking about the dad-burned lawn. So, first, give yourself permission. Say it to yourself. You could even look in the mirror. “Carson, you have my permission to write.” On the heels of permission, it’s helpful (for me, at least) to add forgiveness. “Carson, I forgive you for writing instead of mowing the lawn.” You also have to claim the power of “no.” If you’re going to write, you have to draw boundaries, and “no” is what boundaries are made of. So, to whoever is calling for you to do something else, say something like, “No, I am not going to mow the lawn now. I am going to write fiction.”
Special Bonus Idea! Enjoy yourself!
Sometimes I read blogs or whatever from writers who say how hard and unpleasant it is to write a novel. I have to shake my head at this. It’s extremely unlikely any of us is going to make big bucks from our fiction work, or even enjoy a large readership, so if you’re not enjoying it, why do it? Do whatever you can to make your writing more enjoyable. Some of those things are listed in the paragraphs above (which I’m sure you’ve read with rapt attention). Get a comfy chair. Work with a cup of tea or coffee to sip. Work on the porch on a nice day. Most of all, enjoy the process of watching your story take shape on the page. Don’t judge it too soon or too harshly, just putter with it and enjoy each moment. And that’s probably the best advice in this post.
Thanks for reading; see you next time, I hope.