I know you’ve been holding your breath waiting to find out what my young aspiring novelist said in reply to my questions (see Part 1) and how I answered her. The wait is over.
Most of my questions concerned the atmosphere in which she writes and whether she’s been doing the necessary prep work. I wanted her to think about what really goes into any serious writing effort. In a nutshell, she told me that she has only written a few short stories before attempting the novel, that her general writing skills need work, and that perhaps these are the main causes of her difficulties. She’s not following a set process or method, but she is trying to apply some sort of organization to the work.
Her biggest concern however, and one which I believe many authors share, is doubt over whether she will ever finish. At times she feels overwhelmed by what she has set out to do. Welcome to the world of writing!
Here’s what I wrote back to her.
Writing a novel may seem like a huge task, and that’s probably a reasonable thing to think. But there’s no magic or mystery about how it’s done. Writing is a discipline like any other art. You need talent, but most of it is just plain work.
You said you’re having a hard time with everything there is to do. The better organized you are, the less overwhelming it will seem. Good organization involves breaking things down into manageable pieces and that gives you control. We already talked about keeping notes for various plot points, characters, and details. That’s an important part of organizing. You also need a method for how to proceed. Here are two possible suggestions:
- Start by writing the entire story in outline form. Decide the events that will take place in each chapter. Use bullet points instead of full sentences. The outline becomes your road map. Then go back and write each chapter, filling in the details. Go back again and fill in more about the characters. It’s writing in layers. Each layer adds something to make it better.
- Start by writing it as a short story. Write full sentences and include some details about the characters and events, but don’t worry that it isn’t long enough. After you’ve written it as a short story, you can expand it by adding scenes, sub-plots, and more detail. You can add narrative to describe locations and settings. You can elaborate on the characters’ actions and make it more real with dialog.
As for the work itself, here’s where discipline comes in. If you can, set aside a certain period of time each day just for writing. Make an appointment with yourself and don’t break it. Create a quiet atmosphere and clear your mind of everything else. Even if you have no idea what you’re going to write that day, keep the schedule. If you plan to write for an hour and you sit there for 50 minutes unable to think of anything, but in the last 10 minutes you have a great idea and get it down on paper, you’ve accomplished something. It’s not always about quantity.
Don’t worry about correcting grammar and spelling as you write. Get the story and details down. You’ll have to go back and polish (all writers do) but the first and most important thing is to put your ideas on the page. You’ll be surprised how writing flows once you get started.
Have a great resource for grammar and spelling. As long as you know where to look things up, you’ll be okay. Learn from what you’ve looked up and develop good habits. The more you write, the more you’ll learn, and your skills will increase over time.
Keep studying about writing. One of the best ways to do that is to read lots of novels. Choose good authors and learn from them. When you read, pay attention to style. Note how the writer uses dialog and makes it sound natural. Notice how he or she plants information early in the book and then returns to it later, tying up loose ends. Look at the structure and how the story unfolds. Does it take place in sequence, or are there flashbacks? Is one character the narrator, or is the author the narrator? Is there a narrator at all? There are so many things to notice.
Whether you do any of this or not depends on how much you really want to write your novel. Know the answer to that before you start.
I hoped these points would give her a foundation for her work — at least enough to get going. I also offered some ideas and examples for filling in the details that bring a story to life. I will share those with you in Part 3, so stay tuned.