Writing: How to Write A Novel in 12 Steps
Believe it or not, this is a question I get asked with intermediate frequency: how do you write a whole novel?
To which I typically reply: how do you go to work every day? Or, if you’re from North Carolina, like me: how did Coach K win 1,000 games?
The answer, of course is: one word at a time. If you’re Coach K, one game at a time. There are no fancy steps, no beginning prep rituals, no ‘confronting the Muse’ moment where you, as artistically as possible, crumple before the weight of your own genius like a syphilitic whore in a morality play.
A novel–usually defined at a work of fiction over 50,000 words–might sound intimidating, if you’re not a frequent writer. But you do it one word at a time. You do it by telling a story–by telling a story, in fact, until you think the story is told.
1) You get an idea. You mull it over, for a while: it’s a pretty good idea. You think you’d like to write something about it.
2) After fluttering around debating it for a while, you sit down in front of a blank screen in Scrivener or Word or whatever else you use. Maybe you open a fresh notebook. Rescue a crumpled legal pad from the refuse on the floor. Whatever it is you do to get started.
3) You write down a word. Usually, it’s ‘CHAPTER’, or ‘ONE’, or something similar.
4) After that, you write some more words. You write, and write, and write, and write.
5) You might, at some point, get to an area where the story is giving you trouble. Maybe you’re not sure what should happen next, or you’ve lost interest in telling this story. Sometimes, then, it’s best if you put it down, or move on to another part of the story you can get excited about currently.
6) But here’s the thing. There’ll be a point you’re interested in that story again, a point you know what should happen. And that story won’t have moved, won’t have changed. It’s waiting for you.
7) After a while, you notice you’ve already written ten pages of this story. Next time you check, you’ve written twenty. Holy shit, that was 40,000 words! And then, when you check again, 80,000. But the story isn’t finished, so you continue.
8) And, eventually, the story IS finished. I can’t tell you what this point is, but trust me, you’ll know.
9) You go out with your friends, who have just about forgotten you exist. You drink heavily. You tell everybody you wrote a novel–go you! You form opinions on the state of the writing world in general, on women in fiction, on diversity in literature. You tell a bunch of people about your opinions. A small percentage of them are even interested. Give this phase about two months.
10) After debating the writing world, how good you look in a tweed blazer, and just what shelf in the study (you have a STUDY now) your Pulitzer should go on, you edit. This sucks the life out of you.
11) After you edit, you publish, or send off, or whatever your preferred kiss goodbye to your manuscript is. And then:
12) You get this idea. You mull it over for a while: it’s a pretty good idea. You think you’d like to write something about it….
What I’m saying, kiddos, is this: there is no formula, no good ‘first step’, no coaching and coaxing, to writing something. There’s you. There’s a story. You have to tell the story, so you do.
You tell it until it’s finished. And then you have a novel.
All the stuff we write about writing–including my OWN stuff–is bunk. Is bullshit. Is crap.
Writing isn’t about character arcs, or good first lines, or diagramming motivation, or, God forbid, that stupid cowturd nonexistent figure ‘The Muse’. Writing is NONE of this. Writing isn’t something you can follow advice for, learn how to do, or even, honestly, learn how to do better.
Writing is storytelling. That’s all. That’s it.
What determines ‘whether or not you’re a writer’ (how I hate this question!) is whether or not you do it.
So when we’re debating adverbs and adjectives, the purpose of the Hero’s Journey, cliches and archetypes, truisms and tropes, keep this in mind. Let it simmer in the back of your skull, percolate amongst the writeous (like that one?) and judgemental ideas we all have about ‘The Craft’.
Writing is storytelling. It’s done word by word.
And right now–
You aren’t doing it.
That’s all. Much love,