Ever wanted to write a novel but had no clue how? Having just finished my fifth novel, I am now ready to pass on my accummulated novel-writing wisdom to those what have never writ one but wants to.
Here is the complete, full and unexpurgated guide:
First of all you need a computer. (Yeah, yeah, I know in the olden days they made do with quill, ink and paper, and typewriters—aargh! don’t get me started on how creepy and scary typewriters are—plus, whatever, this is not the olden days.)
On that computer you need a word processing program. If you want to be compatible with the publishing industry it should be microsoft word. If you want a program that doesn’t make you froth with rage it should be anything other than microsoft word. (Sadly, I have gone with the rage-frothing option.) You’ll also need some kind of spreadsheet program which needn’t be compatible with anything else—it is for your eyes only.
If you want to write your novel relatively quickly and productively, it should have no access to the interweb thingy, also no games, or anything other than the two aforementioned programs. If you can’t write without easy access to
endless forms of procrastination, sorry, I mean, research tools, then by all means be connected to that gateway to hell the intramanet.
Once you have your equipment set up in a suitably ergonomic way (that’s right, I’m with Scalzi on the efficacy of coffee shops—that way lies bad backs, soul-destroying one-night stands, and caffeine-stained teeth) open up your wp program and type in the title of your novel.
Do not spend a lot of time on this. The novel I am about to be currently working on is called The Fairy Novel which is shorthand for The Great Australian Feminist Monkey Knife-Fighting Cricket Elvis Mangosteen Young Adult Fairy Novel. It’s a working title, which means the crappy title I came up with while waiting for my agent, editor, or marketing, or someone, to come up with something better. Untitled is another excellent working title (Sean P. Fodera explains in the comments why Untitled is actually a terrible working title). Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi! has also worked well for me. Maybe Go! Little Novelist, Go! might work for you.
Sometimes working titles wind up being the actual title (Snakes on a Plane, anyone? Or how about A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?) but mostly not. The title at the top of the page is purely there for psychological reasons. So that even before you’ve written the first sentence you’ve still got something, and not just a little something, but the title! The beating heart of your novel!
Make sure you make it a bigger and fancier font than your novel proper, underline it, too. Making it red or blue or some other colour can also be very motivating. You could even create a funky animated title so that Untitled bops across the top of the page and waves at you. Though that might be a little distracting.
Once you have your title, in a font you like, at the top of the page, a choice lies before you:
- Do you just start the novel or do you outline?
Hang on, what am I saying? This is your first novel! Under no circumstances should you outline first. Outlining is something you’ll figure out whether you need later on, after you’ve written a few novels. First novels should be written by the seat-of-the-pants method: make it up as you go along.
If you have no particular story to tell, then borrow one from someone else. This has worked pretty well for Shakespeare and pretty much every other great writer. The bible is good for plots, as are myths, fairy tales, legends, ballads, pop songs, and crappy movies that didn’t quite work (rewrite them so they do).
If you’re worried about your plot being a bit too recognisable, set it somewhere completely different, and change the sex, age, race, ethnicity and religion of all the characters. You can further cunningly disguise it by mashing two or three plots together. It’s about time someone wrote Romeo & Juliet plus The Hustler plus The Ramayana.
I’m not going to tell you what your novel should be about except to say that it must not be about a first-time novelist working in a coffee shop. Also stay away from unicorns, dragons, butterflies and washed-up alcoholic salesman (though possibly combining all four might work).
Whether you write your novel in first, second, or third person is also up to you. Just know that currently third is considered the most invisible, and second the least. Just muck around until you find which one suits you (or this particular novel) best.
The first sentence should begin with “The” or “Once upon a time”. You can change it later, but those are the sure-fire sentence starters that’ll get the novel up and running lickety split.
You may get stuck along the way, and have no idea what your characters should do next. Raymond Chandler says that’s when it’s time to send someone in brandishing a gun. Sending in a vampire also works. Or you can set something on fire, have a long lost relative or best friend show up, have your protag lose all their worldly goods, or discover that the lovers are actually siblings (ewww!). I.e. if you get stuck, throw something into the mix and see what happens. The more stuff you have in your pot the less likely you are to run out of momentum and things to write about.
Once you’ve written the first 20 thousand words it’s time to crack open your spreadsheet program and start mapping your novel. This is a handy trick taught me by the old man. Here’s what my very first spreadsheet (ss) looks like:
At a glance I can see which pov was telling what chapter, what day it was, where they were, and who was getting the lion share of the novel. You can also have a content column that lets you know whether it’s a sitting-around-talking chapter (“) or a sitting-around-and-thinking (‘) or an action-packed chapter (!) or somewhere in between (^) or one with sex (*).
If your content column (cc) looks like this
then you might decide that after all that running/shooting/jumping/giving birth, it may be time for a wee spot of (“) or (‘) or (*) or (@), so as not to exhaust your reader. Mix ’em up. See what happens.
If you’re worried that your protag has a tendency to be a tourist, you can also have a column for whether they’ve done anything. Put an x if they have, and nothing if they haven’t. It’ll soon be clear whether you have sleeping-beauty issues or not.
The full utility of the ss does not reveal itself until you’ve finished the first draft and are ready to start rewriting. Then the ss functions as a mini-map, instead of scrolling back and forth frantically trying to find who done what where, you can have a squiz at your ss.
You may be tempted to start shifting chapters around and inserting extra (!) or (“) before you’ve completed your novel—resist that temptation! I have a friend who has been rewriting and rearranging their brilliant-but-unfinished novel for many, many, years now and they’re still no closer to finishing it. That way lies madness. (Or, you know, a novel that takes ages to finish.)
Which doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it along the way. Why not reward yourself at the end of each chapter by adding it to the spreadsheet? You can even invent new symbols to describe its content. Or find some other thing that must be mapped. See? Procrastination is yours even without the intramaweb thingie.
The really hard work of novel writing begins after you complete the first draft. Then, and only then, can you start figuring out how to make that which is broken way less broken. In order to do that you should give yourself at least a week off after completing said first draft. Walk away, go play, dance, juggle. Sleep for a week. But do not so much as think about your novel during your time off.
When you’re ready to get back to work sit down and read it from start to finish. Most people find it easiest to do this by printing out the ms. and scribbling comments in the margins. Try not to get bogged down by proof reading, keep your eye out for the big stuff: Mark the boring bits, the confusing bits, the incomprehensible bits. Think about how to fix ’em. Scribble your ideas down.
When you’ve gone through the whole ms. it’s time to implement all your changes. Each change will spark a whole bunch of others. Keep at it until you think your novel’s in pretty good shape. Don’t forget to keep track with your ss to see how the balance of (!) and (“) and (*) and (‘) is going. Make adjustments accordingly.
When you truly think you’re done it’s time to send it out to first readers.
Who should your first readers be? you ask. Who do you know who reads a lot, and talks about what they’ve read in smart and interesting ways? Do you know any other writers?
Send it out to everyone who agrees to read and comment on your work of genius. The more people you send it to the greater your odds of getting feedback. I promise to read books for friends all the time and frequently fail to keep my promise. (Sorry, everyone! I am a bad friend.) I send my first drafts out to ten or more people; I rarely get more than five responses.
When you get the feedback rewrite accordingly. Once you’ve done so to your satisfaction then congratulations! You’ve written a novel! It is now time to begin your second novel.
To sum up:
- borrow plot
- first readers
And that’s all there is to it. Good luck! It’s as easy as falling off a log and into a secret hidden portal into John Malkovich’s brain. Or something like that.
NOTE: The above is not a description of how I write novels.