Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How to Write a Novel

Part of this can be explained by a very strange modern word: NaNoWriMo.  Those familiar with it (and in my Interweb journeys over the past seven years, I've discovered few communities unaware of it) know that these letters stand for National Novel Writing Month, which rolls around each November, and is a challenge to write 50,000 words within its thirty days.

This was something I first did back in 2004.  The story as I famously recall it goes that I had been intending to write one story for weeks leading up to November, but came up with something else entirely on the 1st.  This is fine, because as part of the challenge you're supposed to do all of the work during the month, including outlining.  Somehow I survived that first NaNo.  Naturally, when I repeated the process during the next two years, I cheated, by continuing the same story (which eventually became The Cloak of Shrouded Men).

My method for success was simple enough.  I calculated the exact number of words I would need to write each day, assuming that I was able to set time aside each day, in order to end up with 50,000 at the end of the month.  With that total (1,667) in mind, I started writing.  At some point I started figuring out what I wanted to do with the characters I'd created, where they needed to go, what needed to be revealed about them, but in such rough sketches that I wonder how I survived and succeeded.  There was only a small amount of additional planning in succeeding Novembers.

The interesting part is that the daily wordcount became something of a guidepost.  I regularly missed days and had to catch up.  By 2006 I wrote far fewer than thirty chapters (one a day with that specific wordcount) because I ended up doubling up so often.  By that method I started to realize the potential to get away from the wordcount goal and to simply start writing.

If that sounds simple, then I'm only half-serious about my success in that regard.

In 2007 I had my first unsuccessful NaNo.  I got behind early and tried to catch up, but it just wasn't working.  I gave up and walked away from the story, and still haven't gone back to it.  Perhaps tellingly, I never officially participated in the event again.

As far as writing goes, I should probably admit at this point that I had never written a novel, or attempted one, before NaNo in 2004.  I'd written short stories, and not the short stories that I tend to write now.  I even started writing short stories in installments, which is something I still do now.  Yet it had never occurred to me to try a novel.  When I graduated from college in December of 2003, I had the vague notion of writing one, but other than what I wanted to write, I had no idea how to start.  (It probably explains my general lack of success.)

NaNo gave me all kinds of inspiration, and confidence to know that I could actually do it.  I wrote my first non-NaNo novel (although come to think of it, shouldn't Chris Baty, or someone else, launch the imprint National Novels already?) in 2009.  It was Finnegan, and I wrote the same general length and in the same general increments that I'd learned writing Shrouded Men, but instead of over the course of three years, over the span of months.  I made all the plans in the world on this one, or so I thought, and it ended up being almost completely different than what I'd expected.  This was how I learned what kind of novel writer I really was.  It directly informed my experience writing Ecce Homo (or, Minor Contracts as I've since renamed it) the next year.

Last year I wrote Yoshimi, but this time I was determined to rewrite my own rules.  I wrote it with a publisher in mind, and knew that some of my old tricks wouldn't fly.  One of the rules I rewrote was the wordcount per chapter, and for me it was a radical change that took a learning curve to master.  Once I did, I surprised myself again.  As I've said, I tended when I started to write a relatively small amount of words per day, and that would be a chapter.  With Yoshimi I determined that each chapter would be 10,000 words.  You see the difference?

Well, trust me, it was a big difference.  I had another outline for this one, and I was determined to stick to it. I'd put a lot of work into it, and thought for sure that I knew exactly what I was going to write this time.  (I was wrong, mostly, about that, too.)  I rewrote the opening of the book several times.  I'd done that before, with short stories.  The tone, the approach, doesn't seem right.  (I've even redrafted after completing a manuscript, for the record, changing chapters after the fact.)

Eventually (and let's be honest, because at the time I had the time), I struck on the ability to write each 10,000 word chapter in a single day.  It completely revolutionized the writing of that book.  I'd never done anything like that before, not even on those desperate days when I thought writing a mere two 1,667 word chapters in a single day was a big deal.

(I don't remember exact wordcounts for any papers where I wrote in similar marathon sessions at college, so we'll just pretend I'm awesome and leave it at that.)

This year and since last month I've been writing Seven Thunders, a novel I've been planning since 1998.  I realize now that the book I needed to make of it wouldn't have been possible if I'd attempted to write it earlier.  The learning curve I've been describing has been absolutely essential, plus many other things I've learned since that year.  I've cut the 10,000 chapter wordcount by half, and so far that has been going fairly well.  I cannot lie and say writing novels isn't still scary at times, not the least for the fact that I still have not successfully made a career of selling these manuscripts as easily as I've learned to write them.  There are still moments where I ask myself if I'm still just pretending to do it rather than actually succeeding.  I'll find out eventually.

I've learned that for me, the idea of writing every day is not only not possible, but counterintuitive.  You don't force writing.  If you do you probably should regret it.  The approach you need will not always be apparent, and writing without that inspiration and hoping to revise around it later...to me sounds like the worst idea imaginable.  Give yourself a timetable and the way to reach it, and you'll get there.  Unless you're on a specific deadline, it doesn't even matter if you miss that timetable anyway, but it'll make you feel good to hit it.  The writing will work itself out.  The story will shape itself.  Even if you have the most comprehensive outline possible, if you stick only to that, then you've probably again sabotaged your own efforts.  Novel writing should surprise you.  I don't know how to emphasize that more.  If the shape of your story isn't organic, your reader will notice.  If they don't, they're not much of a reader.  So I just said that.

It seems as if most writers I read about these days depend on beta readers more than they do their own abilities to know if they've succeeded.  A beta reader is still a reader.  They can suggest changes, but they're still a reader.  Unless you're in a position where you absolutely must satisfy someone else's perspective, yours is the only one that counts.  You're the writer.  Deal with it.  If you can't, you ought to find another calling (though that's a funny thing to say, isn't it?).

That's it, then.  That's my thoughts on how to write a novel.


  1. I've never done Nano, not officially. I don't need anyone to tell me when to write. I do it when I want.

    1. I imagine some version of you was already writing novels when NaNo was still in diapers.

  2. It's true - you can't write to someone else's rules. Writing is an individual journey.


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