Or if you prefer Kung Fu Panda, there is no secret ingredient.
In writing, it took me an insane number of years and books and classes to find that, really, there is no secret ingredient to crack the code of writing a novel.
Okay, already I’ll take that back. The secret is that the first novel you write will inevitably be total crap. Big stinking piles of it. Get over writing the perfect chapter. Get over writing the perfect opening paragraph. Get over writing the perfect first sentence. Get over looking for the perfect first word. Just write.
If you were like me, those two words are a major thorn in your side: “Just write.” The sad part is, it is absolutely true. Writing every day is good too, but the trick really is to just write. I’ll let you in on the secret. Give yourself a goal. A real goal, not the pie in the sky goal. Meaning, don’t say “I will be published with a million dollar contract by the end of the year,” if you haven’t ever finished a novel. First goal? Get to “The End.” Second Goal? Evaluate whether it is total crap, or if there are any real redeeming qualities that you can salvage into a working novel.
Why are these the first goals? First, you HAVE to burst your bubble that you are the next best thing, and that everything you touch is gold. Sure, you read about authors like that, but take that article about how they never rewrite and go to the bookstore. Find their name on the shelf. Now look around you and all the other authors with books on the shelves around that prodige. Most of them have had to do all kinds of rewrites and polishing and more. If you’re struggling with that first novel, who should you be relating to? That guy with 6 inches of shelf space, or the 100 other authors taking up the rest of the section’s wall?
To tackle the “just write” thorn, for me, the trick was to have both a starting date and an ending date. The kind of fun example is NaNoWriMoor National Novel Writing Month. In there, if you haven’t heard, you have 30 days to write the rough draft of your novel. It must be at least 50,000 words and to really do it right, you should have the last two words be “The” and “End”. Nanowrimo occurs in November, but if you want to try the idea, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it some other month, and in fact, there are several sites out there doing it.
For me, though, the initial burst which makes the challenge so much fun is not the end date, but the start date. Part of the challenge is to start “real” writing on the given day, and not a second before. So, what do you do the week or more before the challenge? You plot. You build characters. You build scenes. You think through the whole process. But you don’t write a single word that will be in your novel! By doing this, by revving your creative writing engine, when that gate opens and you CAN start the real writing, you are so jazzed that you can slap down a few thousand words before you know it.
You have a really short deadline, so you can’t edit much if at all. You tend to forget all those carefully laid structures and designs that all the writing books tell you is the way to write and you just write! You can put in pointers like “I need to add a scene here,” or “wow this will need rewritten” etc. but when word counts per day is your goal, you tend not to use that delete key. That’s for NEXT month. This month, you just need to get the story out of you and on paper (or in its file, etc.)
Now, for those of us with “real jobs” who can only spare a few minutes here and there, 50K is kind of a daunting number. After you do it a few times (yes that means multiple years and multiple books!), you can see that you get into a workable structure on your own that is probably some kind of amalgam of all the writing books and courses you’ve read and probably quite a bit of things you never read but have come up with all on your own. Congratulations, you are now a writer and hitting 50K in 30 days will be a cakewalk for you. (I’m not quite there yet.)
This last year, the book I wrote didn’t flow well, but I pushed through and made my 50K. It was exiting and I really liked the plot and most of the characters and the interaction. Over December I started thinking about what I wanted the book to “do” and realized I totally missed the mark. So, I know I have to totally rewrite it to get the structure I want right, but I now have the general idea and know where to go from here.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this book will not be my first edit job though. It is actually a sequel and I’m editing the first one now. The first one was a Nanowrimo novel from two years ago with, actually, a hell of a lot going for it. Now, I just need to follow my own advise and give myself a start AND end time.
Next installment: the thorn of “write what you know.”