5 Things I’ve Learned about Writing a Novel

As you can see by clicking around, I usually use this blog for evil. I figure it’s time to balance out my Blog Karma and share a little advice about the one thing I feel I can actually impart advice about. No, not mutilating yourself with a broken light bulb; writing. Now, I know I’m no Dan Brown, or That Creepy Mormon Chick Who Wrote Twilight, but as the title says, these are merely things that I’ve learned over the years, and maybe, three weeks out from New Year Resolutions, somebody reading this will find something useful among those things.

I think a lot of people who give themselves the rather aimless goal of “I’m going to write a book!” don’t finish because they start out by sitting down in front of a blank Word document, just expecting something to appear, other than frustration, or the growing urge to tip their desk out of an open window. Staring at a screen, cracking your knuckles and mumbling “Right…my book…” isn’t a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Once you’ve hit upon your idea, even at its most basic, privative concept (“A dog who thinks he’s a DEA agent – brilliant!”), hold off on firing up Word and just let the idea breathe for a while. Allow it to just idly rattle around inside your head, where the brain will subconsciously nourish the idea until it’s big and strong enough to be released into the wilds. Just cast your mind to it when you’re lazily daydreaming, or actively listen to appropriate music and picture it like it’s a movie. There’s plenty of dull downtime in life; all those moments spent commuting to work, standing in lines, or waiting for your crying partner’s lips to stop moving – use this time to think about the world you want to create, and the characters you want to populate it with. At some point, you’ll know you’re ready to begin, and you’ll be hungry for it, and when you sit in front of that blank document, the words will start coming so fast, you’ll wonder if your fingers can keep up. By the time you get to the sighing and knuckle cracking, you’ll have made so much progress that it’d be silly to stop. And of course, all the while you are thinking, take notes. Which brings us to…

Random ideas, character traits, pieces of dialogue, stuff you want to happen, names, themes, news stories that strike your interest; really, you should have a notebook with you at all times to be taking all this down whenever it hits you. My home is covered with stacks of little notebooks, like John Doe’s in Se7en, but instead of the psychotic ramblings of a deluded serial killer fixated with religion and the sin of the pigs around him, my notebooks contain…well, pretty much that, actually. Anyway, even in the process of making notes, you’ll find a bunch of new stuff coming out, almost like automatic writing. Before you sit down to hammer out your book, just go hog wild with the notes, and scrawl down anything you can think of that relates to what you want to say. Think of it as yanking your skull off of your neck and emptying your brain out onto the page. Some of it might be nonsense, but there’ll be a lot of sparks there that’ll light a few helpful fires of inspiration, and stuff will come out of you that’ll make you think “Hang on…I can do something with this.”

Notes are how the story starts to build, and at the risk of sounding like a filthy hippie, picture the notes that build your story as a tree. The main trunk sprouts from the seed of that initial idea, while the branches coming off are the ideas that begat ideas, everything connecting and feeding off each other. When you get into the actual writing process, you’ll find you probably don’t even use the whole tree, and occasionally, you’ll just pick one interesting branch that grew off to the side, away from your initial idea, but is sustainable and strong enough in itself. Some of the stuff in the Frantic Planet books came from a side-idea that ditched its parent altogether to make a go of things on its own, like some creepy conjoined foetus that has a job and drives a car.

Stephen King sits down without an idea in his head and works from page one to ‘The End’ with no idea where he’s going. Maybe that’s why his endings are always so great. Other people plot extensively beforehand, using index cards, or post it notes, or a treatment that covers the story from beginning to end.

Personally, I’m a big plotter. I like my story beats (and ending) nailed down before I start, which I then break down into chapter-by-chapter bullet points of everything that has to be gotten across, and work through it one chapter at a time. For me, the planning element is about giving myself landmarks on the roadmap that is my story. I know the destination, but I might take a few swerving detours when unexpected angles crop up along the way, and it’s often these parts that are the most exciting. From my own point of view, you need a skeletal structure in place around which to build the story, so that when you begin proper, and start putting meat on those bones, you don’t just meander around in a circle and go nowhere, or end up in a metaphorical ditch.

My actual writing system is as far from linear as you can get, and if you snuck a look at a chapter midway through, it would look like the suicide note of a paranoid schizophrenic, but gradually, it all gets tighter and closer together, and arrives at the same point of completion as, say, a Stephen King, who wrote in a thoroughly straight line. To force my system on someone else would probably have them retiring from writing altogether to go and live on a kibbutz, just as forcing another system on me wouldn’t help. You’ll find your own way of working, and don’t feel the need to be a slave to a particular system if you find there’s a better way, or that what you’re doing isn’t really working for you. It’s all trial and error.

You can’t be a writer and exist in an artistic vacuum. Well, you can, but you’ll be a shitty one. Reading is as important as writing, so you need to devour as much as you can. Learning what kind of work affects and sticks with you will help you find your own voice.

This may not be for everyone, but when I started writing, I got into the habit of watching a ton of movies. Of course, movies don’t help so much with the craft of prose – that just takes a lot of hard work, like any other craft – and movies have a different structure and pacing to books, but a story is a story, and eventually, the writer part of your mind will start getting analytical. When a movie doesn’t work for you, you’ll find yourself asking why, and thinking about how you’d have changed it to make it better. When it blows your mind, you’ll start picking out why that was. And art is fucking inspiring. Good and bad. Art from both ends of the spectrum often sees me attacking the keyboard like a rabid animal, either something amazing that inspired me to try and reach such heights myself, or a shitty movie that made me think “That got made, but I know I can do better.” You should be able to take something from every piece of art. Even if it’s boring, ask yourself why. Was it cliched? Missing an element of jeopardy? Flatly directed? Once you can spot the mistakes, you can avoid them in your own work. It’s also good to get a sense of cliché, and what’s already been done, or you might end up writing Billy and the Clone-o-Saurus.

It sounds simple, but a lot of people who swan around saying “Yeah, I’m a writer, me!” forget to do this part. 99% of the process is just you, sat in front of a screen, typing. There’s no way around it, and no way to avoid it. It’s a lonely, singular task, and you’ll make excuses to get out of it, or tell yourself you can take a day off because you did so good yesterday, but really, just get down to it and do it. Even if you really, really don’t feel like it that day, 1,000 words is still pretty easy to come by, and if you add up all the 1,000 words you managed to do on the days when you really had to force it, you’ll find it comes to rather a lot. Two weeks worth of “Eh, I squeezed out 1,000 today, but it was a real struggle” gets you 14,000 words closer to hitting your target. Even if you think the work from those tortured drip-drip-drip sessions sucks, you’ll probably be rewriting it anyway. Doing something that can be shaped or edited into worthwhile work is always better than doing nothing. Honestly, if you can’t do at least 500-750 words, even on the worst, lowest, can’t-be-arsed day there is, you’re kind of a bitch. If you make a decision to be a writer, you can’t be palming yourself off.

I should probably top this off by addressing the supposedly-fearsome creature known as Writer’s Block. Like a crucifix to a vampire, should Writer’s Block rear its faceless, silent head, you can send it screaming back into the darkness pretty easily, by holding up the extensive notes which I already told you to take.

Now, get to it.

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~ by Stuart on January 25, 2011.

9 Responses to “5 Things I’ve Learned about Writing a Novel”

  1. I forget where I read it, but someone smart once said that writer’s block is just the fear that you’re going to write something terrible. The best way to get past it is just to write anyway. You can always fix what you’ve written, but there’s no fixing what’s not there to begin with. Anyway, excellent tips. 🙂

    • That’s a great description, actually. Something will always come out if you try to write. I’m a great believer in filling the page with whatever does come out, and then hacking it into shape. Plus, getting yourself going is like turning on a tap. You start with the drips and dribbles of the odd line here and there, and soon the creative juices are gushing out into paragraphs and pages.If the tap stays off, nothing’s ever coming out.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stuart Millard, Chris Brosnahan. Chris Brosnahan said: RT @franticplanet: Here's a thing I just wrote. 5 important things I've learned about writing a novel: http://bit.ly/eDshFR #writing […]

  3. I agree with all of these – the percolation process of an idea is so important, I think. I’m so opposite from Stephen King. I remember reading his book and thinking, how is that even possible? I tried his method and it did NOT work for me. I gave up about ten pages in.

    • It’s unthinkable to me to even start without an ending. Maybe that’s why King writes those 1,000 page epics – he keeps on going until an ending just shows up.

  4. I found this really inspiring. Thank you so much for the “talking to.” We needed it. 🙂

  5. As seen by the dates in this blog, and the fact that you directed me to this only today, I am late in reading this. That being said, thanks for sharing your words of wisdom and experience. I am trying to write and I have a lot to learn. I stumbled upon your books haphazardly and was blown away. Thanks for the inspiration and an insight into how you do what you do.

    • Thanks, man. Glad to be of some service. Like I said up there, the best way to learn how to write is just to write, so ATTACK YOUR KEYBOARD IMMEDIATELY

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