David Louis Edelman January 15th, 2008
One of the Ten Commandments of Author Blogging is “thou must write a post explaining how thou writest thine novels.” And so, in an effort to save my immortal writerly soul from scribbler’s purgatory, I’m going to explain my process in easy numbered steps that anyone can follow.
Since I’ve only written two novels to date — Infoquake and MultiReal — and am now in the midst of a third, I can’t say that this is always going to be my process. All I can say is that it’s worked for me twice now, and it seems to be doing just dandy the third time around.
More importantly, I can’t say whether this process will work for you. No two writers write the same way, and sometimes what works for one person will only trip up the next person. Life’s like that. You’ll need to adapt to your own unique circumstances as you see fit.
Here goes. How to write a novel:
Step 1: Come up with an amazing idea. Believe it or not, this is the easy part. Over my thirty-six years on this planet, I’ve thunk up a couple dozen incredible ideas for novels. Really. Shakespeare, Kafka, and Steinbeck are all huddling together in the afterlife praying I get a chance to explore some of these stories before I kick the bucket. Sometimes the ideas are just simple juxtapositions, sometimes they’re extrapolations of life experiences, sometimes they’re twists on existing stories. Sometimes they’re just hazy impressions.
Great ideas aren’t quite a dime a dozen, but you can definitely find them on the discount rack in Wal-Mart. All it takes to come up with a great idea is confidence, imagination, and a certain unique perspective on the world. That’s it. I’m willing to bet that you — yes, you — have plenty of ideas for great novels inside you.
Step 2: Noodle around and figure out if your idea is novel-worthy. I said that coming up with an idea was the easy part. Your first real challenge is to explore that idea to see if it’s worthy of spending a year or two of your life on. This is not a light decision to make. These characters are going to set up camp in your dreams, they’re going to pop out at you from the side of the road while you’re driving. You’re going to find yourself standing in a 7-11 wondering which flavor of Slurpee your protagonist would choose and how they would pay for it (corporate credit card? cash from wad in pocket? five finger discount?). You need to know if you can live with these people.
How do you noodle around to figure out if your idea is novel-worthy? Well, just start writing. Explore. Go wild. Improvise. Doodle. Daydream. Don’t worry about whether you’re writing the beginning or the end or some passage in the middle that will never make the final cut. If the book explodes under your fingertips, and you’re all a-twitter with logistical, ethical, and epistemological questions about your idea, that’s a good sign. If you reach page 10 and discover you’ve got nothing left to say, that’s an indication that your idea isn’t novel-worthy. It might be short story-worthy, or it might be novel-worthy for someone else — but if it’s not for you, don’t force it. Move on.
Step 3: Commit. This is the crucial step. You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “Damn it, I’m writing this novel. The whole frickin’ thing. I don’t care if my spouse thinks I’m loony and people snicker at me when I walk into Starbucks with my laptop. Even if it never, ever gets published, I’m still going to write this novel. There’s a very good chance that it’ll sink like a stone even if it does get published, and the critics will completely ignore it or call me nasty names. I’ll probably never, ever make any money off it. But I don’t care.”
Sometimes it helps to tie that commitment to something tangible. Clear yourself a room or a part of a room to use as Your Writing Space. Take a couple days off work. When I decided to write Infoquake, I quit my job and bought a new laptop. (A cheap one.) (On credit.) Believe it or not, buying that laptop helped, because I kept looking at it and telling myself, Dude, you better make sure you didn’t waste your money.
Of course, there are all kinds of perils involved in making any commitment. You need to believe you’re committing to something worthwhile, you need to have the time to devote to making it work, and you need to be able to stick through the rough times. You need to make sure you’re not committing to too many things at once.
Step 4: Start banging out a first draft. You’ve got a novel-worthy idea, and you’re committed to fleshing it out. So go do it already. Don’t know where to start? Don’t know which character to focus on, or whether you want to set your story on a fire planet, an ice planet, or a mud planet? No need to panic. Just try one. You don’t need to have a fully developed outline or even a half-developed one before you start. The important thing is just to get yourself moving in any direction.
Keep in mind that nobody is going to see your first drafts but you, so it doesn’t matter if you have to run through an entire solar system of planets, moons, asteroids, and floating geodesic domes before you hit on the right one. You may find yourself chasing a lot of dead ends, pursuing a lot of ideas that lead nowhere. That’s okay, that’s all part of the process.
Step 5: Structure as you go. Some writers can zip through a draft of a novel by the seat of their pants. Others diligently outline every step their character’s going to take over the next hundred thousand words. It’s likely your process will fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Regardless, you need to have some idea of structure if you expect your novel to work. You might not know what that structure is when you start, and you might change it drastically as you go, but you can’t just expect Frodo and Sam to wander to Mount Doom by themselves. Either they’ll wander around aimlessly or they’ll wind up at the Cracks of Doom at the end of chapter 3, and then your novel will be in big trouble.
I find it easiest to start with a broad structure and increasingly fine-tune in smaller and smaller increments as I go. For instance: you know where your protagonist starts the novel, and you know where she’s going to end up. You’ve got a general idea of the trials and tribulations she’ll face along the way. So break up the book into three to five acts, and map out where she’s going to be physically and emotionally at the beginning and the end of each act.
Step 6: Persevere. Many young writers get the idea in college that the Muse is supposed to beam you perfectly formed sentences that will just flow from your fingertips in a demonic burst of inspiration at 2 a.m. And this does happen, sometimes. But the Muse doesn’t parse out these perfectly formed sentences often, and she expects you to fill in the gaps yourself.
One of the most important skills every writer has to learn is the ability to keep writing even when you don’t feel that tingle of inspiration. Sometimes you just need to plod through, get from point A to B. There are a lot of footsteps between the Shire and Mount Doom, and occasionally you’re going to just trip or stumble along. Often you’ll find that after you’ve trudged for a while, you’ll stumble on a sudden idea or inspiration that will make that passage light on its feet. Other times, you just have to keep trudging.
Step 7: Get that first draft done, by hook or by crook. There’s no law that says you need to write your novel in order; skip around if you need to. I find that I’ll get interested in certain two- or three-chapter segments at a time from all over the book. I’ll start writing those and poop out along the way, stopping when I get interested in another section of the book. Sometimes when I come back to those chapters that were giving me such difficulty a month ago, I’ve figured out something along the way that makes the writing easier.
But regardless, by the time I’m 85% of the way to the first draft finish line, I’m cutting corners. I’m taking shortcuts and throwing in sloppy bridging scenes. I’m starting to doubt the whole enterprise, and I’ve already tossed aside many of the ideas that framed the whole thing in the first place. But at some point, I can sit back, print out a big stack of paper, and pat myself on the back for having finished my first draft.
Congratulations! You’ve finished the first draft of your novel. And now, the fun begins (as I’ll elaborate on part 2 of this article).
Update 1/21/08: Here’s part 2.