Go Ahead, Write A Novel

posted July 24, 2013

This was going to be my first podcast. A how-to on how to write a novel. I sincerely believe that everyone with a wild hair should go ahead and write a novel if it’s something they put on a life list.

I actually recorded this as a podcast. Several times. But I really couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice. It wasn’t the voice I hear when I’m typing. As I write I hear a voice that is distinctly my own, one that I’ve heard in my head for years, but it doesn’t match up to the nasally one I hear aloud. In my head I’m more Morgan Freeman and less Napoleon Dynamite.

I thought the content was good so I’m writing it up.

I haven’t given up on podcasts. I ordered a professional microphone that arrives next week and is supposed to make me sound like Dean Martin. Or at least Dean Martin doing an impression of me, which is almost as good as sounding like Morgan Freeman.

So, let’s write a novel. 4 easy steps. (No sh*t).

Step 1: Give yourself permission to write a bad novel.

Seriously. Write the worst novel you can imagine. Don’t go out with the specific mission of writing a bad novel, because that’s as hard probably as trying to be the next Hemingway. The point of the process is the novel itself. As long as you enjoy yourself there will be quality within the process. You may be the only person that enjoys the finished product, but that’s still pretty sweet. You’ll feel great.

It’s like if running a marathon is on your life list. Some or all of that race might be ugly to watch and feel like hell to run, but the completion is really worth it. The fear and awe will be dissolved and the NEXT marathon will be a bowl of cherries. I think every great novelist probably wrote a whole lot of crap before the good stuff started coming. They finally limbered up and just let it happen.

Step 2: Make a plan

I’m talking an outline. There are plenty of writers who complete a novel without an outline and more power to them, but for first timers it’s probably a good idea to have the whole thing plotted out and ready to roll before you write a single sentence. I started, and failed to complete, a half dozen novels before I started using outlines. They made completion not only possible, but surprisingly easy.

Here’s how it works. Or how I do it. You have a plot point that’s the starting point of the day. You have another plot point that is tomorrow’s starting place. You can do whatever the hell you want, whatever feels natural for your characters or the situation. You can ramble and diverge and digress and go bat shit, just make sure that you end up in front of tomorrow’s plot point.

Like this:

  1. Bob goes into a liquor store and while he’s there someone holds the place up.
  2. Bob has been shot and is recovering in the hospital.

So much stuff can happen in between those two points. If you approach the writing not as contrived filler, but document a scene that would entertain you, it’ll be a piece of cake. If you were Bob and you were in the liquor store what would interest you? What are you buying? Where are you taking it? Who’s in there with you? Why is the floor sticky?

Writing a novel really isn’t all that different than reading one. Some novels surprise you with the big plot points, but all the little stuff that happens in between is predictable. Or believable I should say. It has to feel familiar and comfortable in order to keep you humming along. If it’s too much work, you put it down.

3. Know your characters before you have them do anything.

This is right up there with the outline for something I didn’t do in the early days that I always do now. You want to spend time thinking about these people, imagining what they’re like, who they remind you of, etc. You want to be able to predict their behavior so that their actions are believable in the story.

It also kind of makes them co-authors too. There’s a point in the process of writing a novel, for me around 20,000 words, where you’ve fleshed the main characters out enough and seen them in enough situations that they sort of write themselves. You serve them a fruity cocktail in a coconut shell and you know instinctively if they love it or demand a straight bourbon. You don’t have to figure them out anymore, they’re like old friends. Think of your closest friends, how would they respond to the coconut shell cocktail?

4. Keep moving forward. Remember Lot’s wife and lay off the sodium.

Keep a regular schedule. It’s easy to lose momentum and close to impossible to get it back. Don’t read back over a damn thing until you’re done. If you can’t remember what happened, refer to your outline. That’s its greatest power. That outline is the seemingly mundane fuel of completion. It breaks a huge task up into bite size pieces. You’ll always have the broad strokes and you can fix the continuity errors later. There will be tons of errors, so just keep moving. If you start to revise you won’t finish.

Start now. If you like.

That’s it. I firmly believe that anyone who can write a long email conveying a night out to a friend can also write a novel. If you need help on what you should put in an outline write one for your favorite book. Pretend you’re telling a friend the broad strokes of what happens. You may be surprised how little really happens in most books. It’s the details and the joy that went into the telling that makes a novel fun to read. If you have fun getting from plot point to plot point, the product will be fun to read.

And hey!

If you can’t come up with an idea, use that outline for your favorite book. If it’s just the broad strokes your content will be completely original and bear no resemblance to the book you loved. It ain’t plagiarism. There’s only like 12 stories anyway.

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