Writing a quick novel — 7 things I think I learned so far

Writing a quick novel — 7 things I think I learned so far

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So, been writing hard. Got 74,000 words done in nine days for the first draft of The Impostor (and finished it) for NaNoWriMo. Here’s what I’ve been learning. Please feel free to enjoy this for entertainment value. If you’re actually looking for worthwhile writing tips (a lot of people who come to this site apparently are) then remember that i) there’s no guarantee that what worked for me will work for you and ii) there’s no particular reason to believe it actually worked for me. But, please, feel free to read The Impostor to see if you think it’s any good or not (and, remember, it’s a first draft and has typos, bits that will get chopped out afterwards, etc).

So here’s what I’ve learned

1 Write straight through (edit when finished)

I’m fairly certain I used to write 3,000 words a day, which is what I’ve always been recommended to write, it’s just that I used delete most of it afterwards, thereby barely advancing at all. I’d like to blame this on word processors, with their easy delete keys. Back on the old manual typewriter, you could never actually delete anything except by throwing the sheet of paper away. I suppose my problem was that I really wanted to write ‘great’ fiction, and so needed to polish everything before moving on. Some of my paragraphs were really great (no — seriously). It’s just they didn’t seem to add up to great stories. Actually, most of the time they didn’t add up even to completed stories — hence the many novels begun but never continued. Pausing to edit creates other problems as well. The more you polish one bit, the more you set a standard which then makes you dissatisfied with other bits. So, what I’m learning to do is write straight through, and then edit ruthlessly once the story (flash fiction, short story, novella, novel) is finished.

Writing straight through has helped me to keep the whole plot in my mind all the way through, and not forget what it was all about. I’ve found that less editing is eventually needed — and there’s no risk of spending hours on a passage of overwritten prose which, eventually, has to get chucked because it’s not actually part of the story at all.

2 Don’t worry if (that) it’s rubbish

The corollary of writing straight through is not worrying that the whole thing is rubbish. If it is rubbish, you haven’t lost more than a month writing it. If the story is great, but all the words are poor, then you can, quite literally, go through and replace the words afterwards. That said, there are lots of people working on great novels that will never be published because i) it’s actually quite hard to interest an agent, let alone a publisher and ii) a good proportion of those novels will never actually be finished. In the mean time, there are a lot of really, really terrible novels that do get published (think the entire Conan series, for example) and even go on to become cultural icons (again, Conan).

3 Write for yourself, not about yourself

Someone once told me that everyone has one novel inside them, and you have to get rid of that one novel before they can write anything decent. I feel the point is well made. Most of us tend to be drawn, at least partially, to writing about some version of ourselves, and making some great life affirming statements. The problem is, apart from a few who have a rare gift of self-knowledge and self-deprecation, most of us aren’t very interesting when writing about a character which is in some ways like us but not quite. The technical term for this kind of character is a Mary-Sue, after a famously bad piece of fan-fiction.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that most of the books I’ve really enjoyed are introduced by the author or elsewhere described as a book written for their own amusement. Either way, my learning point that it’s a lot easier to finish writing a book of you’re enjoying writing it, are doing it mainly for your own amusement, and aren’t looking over your shoulder at the ‘target demographic reader’.

4 Keep an eye on the end

I can’t believe anyone sets off to write a novel without knowing at least in principle how it could end. That doesn’t mean you have to stick with the ending you first planned, but having an ending which will definitely work is something to work towards. Actually, I can’t believe the number of novels I started writing without any clue as to where they were going. I suppose in this I was misled by the introduction to the Lord of the Rings, in which JRR Tolkien describes how he didn’t know where it was all leading up to. Of course, the thing was, he knew exactly where it was going, having been plotting it for years. There’s a strange allure to setting off on the journey not knowing where it will lead, but hat allure has never led me on a journey that actually ended anywhere. While it’s rather fun to walk out of the house on a misty autumn morning and see where you get to (as I did today), it doesn’t actually make for a memorable journey, no matter how good the photographs are.

5 Do the timeline first

The thing that has slowed me down more than anything else over the years is losing track of the internal timeline of a story. Are we on Monday or Tuesday? Is the moon full or new? Is there actually enough time to take a boat to Hamburg, or a tachyonic star-ship to Sirius, or ride a horse from Kenilworth to Warwick? What really helped me with The Impostor was writing out the timeline before I ever started, with every event scheduled to the hour at which it occurred. Doing it that way also freed me from creating the timeline as I went, and then describing it as I went which (I’ve found, at least) makes for a tediously linear tale.

6 And the research

Did they still duel to the death in 1862? Did any famous events happen on July 1? When did the railways come to Luxembourg? Wikipedia and the marvels of Google are great for picking up incidental details on the way, but, certainly for writing a historical adventure, I found doing the research for all the plot components before I started really made a difference. Crucially, it meant I wasn’t bogged down late on by discovering that the thing I needed to make the plot work had not yet been invented. Naturally, it’s fiction, and the best thing to do with a plot/reality anomaly is to let the plot win and throw the research out of the window, but it’s very easy to get tense and worried about it.

7 And the characters

Just as I would love to ‘discover’ the plot as I go, I would love to discover the characters as they interact with each other. Problem is, it’s never worked for me. All the characters that have unfolded when I just wrote like that turned out to be versions of myself (see 3), two dimensional villains, or one dimensional figures (the beautiful woman, the salt-of-the-earth working man, the wise advisor, and so on). Having at least some of the characters at each others throats long before the story ever started makes it a lot easier to get straight into the conflict, rather than work through a tedious first chapter which is essentially a long preamble (and which, I understand, most editors would then tell you to cut anyway).


Anyway, that’s what I got. Comments?


One Comment

  1. scottspeig
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:05:00

    I’d just add that Trudi Canavan in the Black magician trilogy ended up writing a whole extra storyline for one of her characters after the publisher wanted more words.

    He wasn’t even a main character until that point. So I’d argue it’d be better to write the main story all the way through and then add in the details afterwards expanding the story’s world. (I’m no writer though, so this is purely guesswork – seems sensible to me though)

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