Writing a novel is something I’ve told myself for years I would do someday. In March of this year, I finally decided (for whatever reason) that this was the year, the time was now, and I was going to write the damn thing. This past week, I finished the first draft. Now, writers of all walks will tell you that this is only the beginning, and they’re right. But you will also learn very quickly that the world is littered with the corpses of those who wanted to try writing a novel and came up short before they finished their first draft, their first act, their first chapter, their first sentence. I’m not an expert, but I’ve made it this far. I picked up a few things along the way, and if you’re thinking of writing a novel, or starting to write a novel, or are bogged down and “blocked” trying to write your novel, maybe some of what I picked up will help you. Note that when I say “novel” I mean whatever your project may happen to be, be it screenplay, novel, poem, limerick, dirty joke. And when I say “you” I mean “me”. Let’s be honest, my entire blarg is an exercise in narcissism. Here, then, are 18 points of Dubious Advice (because nice round numbers are way too establishment for me, man) for Writing Your First Draft of Your First Novel.
- You’re dead without a deadline. It’s so easy to say, “I’ll do it someday,” or to say “I want to write something by next year,” but that’s about as useful as an air freshener in a dumpster down by the docks. Without a real, tangible, solid, no-BS-deadline staring you down, you might as well be asking the tooth fairy to write the damned thing. You must, must, must set a deadline and it must be one that you respect. Who the fargo cares if you fail to meet the deadline? Give yourself an extension, that’s fine. But mark the finish line. Draw that line on the sand.
- Small deadlines matter, too. A novel is a tremendous undertaking. That’s deliberately understated to keep you from incinerating on the spot from witnessing the sheer scope of the thing you’re about to try to do. It’s massive. Think scaling Everest with no ropes, no guide, and no training at altitude. You don’t know what you’re getting into, and when you begin to wrap your head around writing tens of thousands of words night after night after night after night, it will intimidate you into thinking it can’t be done. Pick a smaller goal than writing the whole thing. A thousand words a day. Five hundred. Two hundred. Set the goal and don’t let yourself miss it. Anybody can write a few hundred words. This post is already three hundred words and I’ve barely gotten started. How do you eat an elephant? Grind it up into tiny bits and have elephant burgers for a month.
- Hold yourself accountable. I can’t tell you what motivates you, but the writing has to matter. Make a deal with yourself to get a fancy new pair of sneakers every ten thousand words. No dessert until you’ve done your writing for the day. Give yourself an hour of playing video games if you get the writing done, like your parents used to do to get you to finish your homework. Whatever it is, make it worth it to you to do the writing and/or make it painful to you not to get it done.
- Some days are golden. You will have days — especially toward the beginning of your little journey, but they are by no means limited to that singular time — when the words flow from you like rainbows from a unicorn’s asgard, like the water that erupted from my wall from a burst pipe this winter. You will be unstoppable; you will be giddy with the feeling of accomplishment and prowess. Mark those days. Take a selfie as you bang out your two-thousandth word ’cause you just couldn’t stop writing. Bronze your keyboard. Do something so that you can remember those days when you need them. Because:
- Other days will suck the life from you. You will sit at the keys or before your notepad or at your blank stone tablet, chisel in hand, and the words just won’t come. Like a sixty-year old man with a swollen prostate, you’ll be standing at the urinal of your novel, uh, pen in hand, begging, pleading to squeeze out just a drop, JUST ONE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. And then you’ll get that word down, except it’s a word like “banana” and it doesn’t help anybody and this is where keyboards have to look out for getting thrown across rooms. Remember the good days.
- Keep pushing. Sisyphus didn’t get that rock up the hill by giving himself a day off. Yeah, sure, when he got the rock up the hill it rolled right the Fargo back down again, but that’s not the point. Even when it’s the last thing you want to do, the last thing you’re capable of, you still have to get it done. Because those days come for everybody, and if you don’t push through, they’ll break you.
- Momentum matters. Speaking of Sisyphus, you have to keep that ball rolling. Know how, when your car is stopped on an uphill, and you take your foot off the brake and as you slide it over to the gas the car lurches backward and then the transmission jerks you forward like a fish on a line? If you let yourself get stopped for a day, it’s all too easy to start rolling backward, and before you know it, you’ve reversed it into the front of a Dunkin’ Donuts, and we all know you’re not getting anything else done on a day like that. Keep moving forward and you don’t have to fight the hill so hard. That being said,
- Give yourself a break now and then. There’s a reason starting pitchers don’t work every game. They need time to recover. Now, you may not be Nolan Ryan, but you still can’t pitch every night and expect to hurl hundred-mile-per-hour fastballs without either beaning somebody or dislocating your shoulder. The occasional day off from writing is as essential as water for recharging your batteries, renewing your focus, giving you a break from those days that make you want to stab your eyes out with a pen. Weekends are a natural rhythm for this, but whatever fits your schedule is good.
- Write without distraction. Literature is immersive: we like to sink down into those dark gritty worlds and make ourselves right at home with the characters living there. To write like that you have to be sunk in that world yourself, attached like a barnacle to its crusty underside. You can’t get there if you’re answering the phone, running to a vending machine or the fridge, checking e-mails or popping out to walk the dog. Some of us can’t manage that every time we write, but all of us can get it some of the time, so make sure that time is sacred and don’t interrupt it.
- The internet can be your best friend. There are warehouses full of advice on writing, truckloads of it available for free on the net. Some of it is fantastic, some of it is total sharknado, most of it comes down somewhere in the middle. Read it, absorb it, learn from it, and use it to your advantage. Look at the things other writers are writing, look up crazy stories and factoids for information and inspiration. The net is a tool — like a funky-shaped pair of pliers that would be just as comfortable pulling a tooth in Victorian England as tightening the valves on your water heater — so don’t be afraid to use it.
- But it can also be your worst enemy. Reading about writing is not writing. Researching is not writing. Bookmarking sites for possible use on your current project or some as-yet-undetermined future project IS NOT WRITING. Doing some “work” on the net has its place, but it doesn’t in-and-of-itself move you closer to your goal of xx words per day. It can be a vicious time sink if you allow it to be. For god’s sake, don’t even have a browser open when you’re drafting.
- You must commit to this. Writing is not for the noodler, the dabbler, the weekend warrior. It requires laserbeam focus and unswerving dedication, because the potholes and the pitfalls are many and deep. If that makes it sound like a job, that’s no mistake. Writing is a job, and like all jobs, even when we enjoy them, there is no shortage of things that can ruin your day. Difference is, you’re probably not pulling a paycheck for this particular job, which makes it that much easier to let it slide. You can’t do that. Consider what you’re writing today a down payment on that beach house you’ll one day buy with your royalties.
- You’re going to suck. If this is your first time writing creatively, then for real, you’re going to suck. If you’ve written well academically, you’re going to suck. I’d wager that even if you’ve written poetry or prose or plays or music or anything, you’re still going to suck. Not on the whole, but certainly there will be days that the suck is an unstoppable torrent from your nether parts. Even the all-star quarterback gets dropped on his asgard several times in a game. The home-run king still strikes out. What sets them apart is the bounce back. Accept the suck and push through it so that you don’t suck as bad next time, and realize that you can fix the suck in a future draft.
- Outline. If there was one thing I didn’t want to accept about writing, it was this. You must outline somehow, someway. I wanted to believe that I was this “organic” writer who would just follow the story wherever it led, and that sounds romantic in some vague sort of way, but it’s also a one-way ticket to your characters sitting around watching Saturday morning cartoons. (That actually happened in my draft, and it will be edited out because it sucks.) You need to have, at the very least, a vague idea of where the story begins, where it will end up, and some of the landmarks you want to visit along the way. Those points may change, but you need to know where they are before you take the ship out of the harbor.
- Take notes. When you’re writing, you’ll be aware of things that suck, things that need clarifying, phrases that are awkward when they come out, characters that are behaving badly. The urge to fix those things RIGHT NOW BEFORE YOU MOVE ON will be fierce. You must stomp down on that urge and put your knee in its throat, because that sharknado will sap your momentum worse than the internet. Instead of fixing every problem, make a note to your future self and move on. Jot the notes in the margin. Most word processors have a “notes” feature. Shout at yourself in all caps. Find a way to address a problem without breaking your flow.
- Keep your eyes on the prize. You wanted to write for a reason. Maybe it was to tell a story that’s literally burning away at you from within. Maybe you read the heartwarming tale of a boy and his dog when you were in the fifth grade and you want to reach out and touch some young reader the way you were touched (not like that, okay? Focus). Maybe you’re a bored millionaire doing it to win a bet. Whatever your reason, fix it in your mind, meditate on it, and return to it as you write. Remembering your reason for being here will be your beacon on those dark days when the words just won’t come. An outline will help, too.
- But, don’t be afraid to take some detours. You can and should keep your story moving forward on its way to its destination. But what fun is it driving across the country on the interstate, looking at the same grey asphalt and highway signs for hours upon hours? The more interesting path is the winding road that meanders through the foothills, sidles through the historic district, and lopes along the please-god-don’t-let-the-car-break-down-while-we’re-out-here wasteland. Now and then, take some time to let your characters ease off the throttle and check out a side street. Let them stop for coffee. Let them pull over and piss on the side of the road.
- Have fun. I hate to even think something so cliched, let alone write it, but it needs to be said: if you’re not having fun, what’s the fargoing point? I’m not saying every moment should be full of the bliss and ecstasy you get from watching midgets joust on goatback, but if you aren’t enjoying yourself at least intermittently along the way, you’re doing something wrong. Nobody’s forcing you to do this except yourself. Remember why you started. Think about how good it will feel to finish. Enjoy the ride.
There you have it. This list is incomplete; I’m sure there are dozens of other bits of advice I would love to share with my self from back in March, but if I could give my past self only a few pointers, they would be these. Oh, one last thing: If you are starting down this bloody, ink-stained path of tears toward writing your first novel, stick with it. Don’t quit. The feeling you get when you finish that first draft is frankly one of the most bizarre things I’ve experienced on this earth. It’s not to be missed out on. Stick to it. Finish. Then brace yourself for the world of hurt that is EDITING.