Writing a novel: What’s it take?

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Some things are required when you write: a leash isn’t one of them! Be flexible and open to changes, evolutions, and adaptations in your ideas.

I’ve written before about the question I most dread as an author: “How did you come up with that?” or “Where did that come from?” A related question–but not quite the same–that I’ve gotten before from one friend in particular is, “How do you have that much story in you?”

You’ve probably heard similar questions or comments before. “You wrote a book? That’s so cool! How?” “I could never write a novel. I’m just not creative.” Things like that. It really all boils do the creative process. So, what do you need to write a novel, or a series of them, or a group of unrelated ones?

  1. Perseverance. Writing a novel is one of those bucket-list items in the same category as “running a marathon” or “running a five minute mile.” The difficulty lies as much in the long, drawn-out process that’s entailed in succeeding as it is in anything else. Any goal that requires that much time, energy, and devotion has built-in with it the pitfall of just giving up. “I don’t have enough time.” “I have other things I have to do.” “I started off good, but then this happened, and that, and….” That’s why I–taking Stephen King’s advice–always tell people they should write each day. Even if it’s fifteen minutes or half an hour. Write every day, because if you do that, I guarantee you, you’ll get your novel.
  2. Tunnel vision. Tunnel vision isn’t always a good thing, but as I wrote about here, it’s a useful tool for finishing a novel. Don’t worry if the book’s good. Don’t worry about edits you’ll have to make later. Don’t stress about not knowing how to end things when you’re 40,000 words in…. just work on the scene at hand. The current moment. This is my preferred method of shutting down my “inner editor” while I’m creating a first draft. I don’t let myself consider the novel’s “big picture.” I work on one scene and one scene only, because the only way to get a novel written is one word, one sentence at a time.
  3. A basic concept. You don’t need an outline if you don’t want one, and you don’t need to write from a developed plot. But you do need some basic idea of what your story’s about. “A sorcerer-noble takes over the kingdom and kills most of the royal family.” (My first novel.) “A convict released from prison, bitter and violent, changes his life after a bishop forgives him, instead of having him arrested, for stealing his silver” (“Les Miserables.”) “A spoiled brat of a Southern Belle tries to save her family’s plantation during the Civil War.” (“Gone with the Wind.”) Start with your concept (again, as Stephen King suggests,) and from that, your characters will develop. Once your characters are there, they’ll guide you the rest of the way.
  4. Flexibility. Things will change on you. Possibilities you didn’t foresee will pop up after you thought you know where things were headed and totally reroute you. Go with it. Flow with it. And enjoy it. I tend to be a creature of habit and routine, so it’s nice for writing to teach me how good it is to be flexible and less nailed-down from day to day.
  5. A Sense of Humor About Yourself. You will write things you know are just horrible. Entire scenes. Entire chapters…. You will doubt your abilities, I guarantee it, at various stages in the writing process. If you don’t have a sense of humor about yourself–if you can’t take yourself and what you’re doing lightly enough to shrug those doubts and disappointments off and keep going–you will throw in the towel. I tend to be a serious kind of person–far too serious–so writing helps me to laugh at myself and take things in stride. I need that so much, and I try to transfer that attitude somewhat to the rest of my life.

So, those are some requirements that came to my mind. Fellow writers: what would you say is necessary to get a novel down on the page?

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14 responses to “Writing a novel: What’s it take?

  1. For me to get a novel onto the page, it has to really engage me as a writer or I can’t find the words to create the world I want too. It also takes me great discipline, I’m a ‘reader’ for several sets of people and stopping doing that was the hardest thing ever. I used to get 20 requests a day. So I stopped, worked out my time, within my husbands work schedule, came home got my jobs done and sat down. Then I’d have 3 hours of full writing time, where I could write 3-4k a day. On other projects I managed myself differently, but this is what it took to get the latest novel off the ground. 🙂

    • wow, that’s so awesome, to be a reader for that many people!!! i totally get how that could impede you writing, though! 3-4k a day is really awesome….. I don’t usually average that, NaNoWriMo excepted. And you’re totally right: you have to love your project and your world, and be enthralled by the characters and their lives, or there’s no motivation at all.

      • Yeah, like I said, I have to limit it now, my time is as important as theirs. Its been tough on some days with only just making over the 1000 or 1500 mark, but for the most, they were good days. 🙂

        • hey, even 1000 words is great in my opinion! some days that’s hard in coming for me. I feel that as long as I’m writing each day, even if I can only squeeze half an hour in, I’m making progress and I can be at least appeased, if not happy.

        • I agree, anything is great 🙂

  2. Another great post, Victoria. NanNoWriMo showed me the “how” – write! I need a follow up month – the National Editing Month since I’m moving at a snail’s pace on things.

  3. Hey Victoria! In my years of writing novels, what drives me is how much my core idea and characters excite ME. I don’t start on a novel unless I have been struck down by a concept that makes me think ‘hey, if I saw that on the shelf, I’d grab it so fast I’d be arrested for stealing!’. I have thrown away story concepts by the dumpsterful because they stoke the fires in my brain.
    I need to know what will happen next, and that is what propels me through my outlining process. Also, in those few instances when I have had a deadline, I find that sort of pressure really motivates me to get up, turn on the PC, and get cracking. Deadlines, sweat, pounding heart – all good. You can complete a novel in a few months.
    But first and foremost, you gotta love what you’ve created.

    • Deadlines: what a great idea! Even a self-imposed deadline, if you can hold yourself to it and consider it a deadline, can work wonders I’ve found.

      I did that with my current WIP. I told myself I would finish the draft (my naNoWriMo draft) by the end of the year, and I wrapped it up yesterday.

  4. When writing the first draft, definitely setting a schedule to write a set number of words every day or every other day. That’s how I got through mine. Revision is a lot tougher, for me anyway — some people enjoy the process while I only enjoy the reward: progress. But all the rules go out the window. For that, I suggest working at least once a week for at least one session — whatever seems manageable to you if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Do one section, and then move on. Go back and reread to refresh. It’s OK to do multiple edits of a chapter, but learn the point where you need to move on for good! Just keep going, little by little.

    • word count goals per day definitely helped me through NaNoWriMo! And I’m like you…. for me revision is much more stressful and more difficult to pace than writing a draft. I prefer the writing part!

  5. Sheer bloody-mindedness, that no matter what life throws at you to distract or stop you, you doggedly forge ahead. Sometimes the distraction is external like family problems, sometimes it’s internal like self-doubt. But just keeping on keeping on. I think your advice on writing every day is a good one, but not always possible when earning a living and family demands enter the picture. But one I’m aiming for regardless. Oh yes, and find blogs like this one that so well describes what writers are experiencing.

  6. Pingback: I’m Writing A Novel! « Alex Wells. The Blog.

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