After a certain amount of obscuring time, most writers that have written a novel allow themselves to be convinced by the people who say they’ve done a semi-mystical thing. After all, who doesn’t want to be a semi-mystic? And with a shrug, they give in to the pressure and accept the adulation as if it’s deserved.
So before I cave in, I’m going to lay down how I went about it. It’s a process which has as much slog as sublimity, as much mundanity as marvellousness. If you are frightened of being irreparably influenced by my method, read no further — that’s my only disclaimer, the rest will be unabashed opinionatin’.
Fighting the Voices In Your Head
The trick to novel writing is maintaining faith in yourself as a writer and of the importance of what you are doing. You have a lifetime of conditioning to fight, which will keep telling you that you are wasting your time putting hundreds of hours into something you may never get paid for. Another voice will snidely remind you of all the novels uncompleted, and all the completed novels unpublished, and all the published novels unsuccessful. Another will tell you that the very stuff of your being is unworthy, your soul too thin and your brain too thick. These voices are not yours — they’re the echoes of the status quo, ground in by endless repetition. You can fight them with a good argument or you can get a partial lobotomy.
The Alternative to The Scalpel
“Look, punk, you need to write that book. The one you’ve been dreaming, thinking, talking about for the last couple years. It’s hard — fucking hard — but that’s part of the reason why you should do it. There’s a certain type of person who writes novels fairly easily, and he’s generally male, arrogant, school-coddled and privileged. The stories he tells will all have similar life experiences underpinning it. Some will be great, some will be awful, but that’s not the point — they’re drawing from the same well.
“[Ahem] As society is little more than a consensus about the relative importance of common myths, the absence of new stories makes for a monotonous and confining culture. So those people who have the hardest time writing — because their experiences are undervalued and their self-confidence often low — consequently have the most new material to add to the Tapestry O’ Tales. Writing a book is a political act, and because it’s entertainment, it’s a subversive one. If it’s successful, the potential to cause individual change is several magnitudes higher than selling Socialist Worker on the streetcorner. Ed Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang spawned Earth First!, so don’t underestimate the power of a good story to imagine itself into reality.”
Here’s What Really Happened
First off, I had written two 80 page novellas and one short story collection before I attempted my first full-length novel. This was useful to prove that I could complete a longer story as well as learn things like how to pace the action. I published them all myself so I had a lot of feedback and felt my writing improved. Starting small allowed me to build up faith in myself and made the time commitment manageable. (Novellas, however, will limit your options to self-publishing ones, since publishers will rarely touch them. Short stories are ideal because they’re relatively easy to complete and get published — it’s a kick to see your stuff in other zines.)
I decided I wanted to write a full length novel. I didn’t have a story in mind, but that didn’t bother me. I knew from previous experience how much money I needed to live comfortably for a month, and I knew how much time I needed to write 100,000 words (a 250 page paperback), so I did the calculations from there. I saved that much up, quit my job, and got down to my real work — novel writing.
My food, rent, and a modest entertainment allowance taken care of, I lived a life of leisure. For about a week. Then I started to structure my life — it was difficult to adjust to having twice as much free time (16 instead of 8 hours) but I knew that the best way to fight apathy and boredom was to create a loose, freeform structure.
The first month I decided to write whenever the mood struck me. I found I did a lot of journal writing, but stayed away from fiction because it felt a little like work (oh, the strange ways your mind functions!). At the end of the month I assessed my situation — it was a very pleasant month socially and emotionally, but I wasn’t satisfied with my amount of writing.
The second month I gave myself a strict schedule. I would write between the hours of 1-5, M to F. I would often skip it, rebelling against my own chafing harness, or clock watch. At the end of the month, I had endured quite a bit of stress and guilt with no more output than I had garnered the previous month.
I entered month three with slight nervousness but a constant faith in my writing ability (not to be confused with my faith in my writing talent). I knew I was able to complete stories, and I knew from school that I could produce writing on a regular basis. If I could schedule time for an essay every week, I could do the same for my novel. So my third experiment was to complete 5000 words, or a chapter, per week. That was a reasonable four hours work for five sessions.
This method was a smashing success. I usually wrote M-F but sometimes I would have fun stuff to do during the week, so I would work on the weekends instead. Sometimes I would finish early, and take the rest of the week off. In fact, I found that it wasn’t much extra to write 1250 words a day instead of 1000, so I ended up doing a chapter in four sessions.
Don’t go thinking that it was nearly as coldly scientific as it sounds. I was walking around in a pie-eyed fugue far more often than I was calculating hours. But the structure is helpful for a number of reasons. It validates your art as a semi-job — because even if you’re not getting paid, at least you have an occupation. This can counter your own (and other’s) accusations of laziness. Also, if you can see a body of work building up and can even predict when it will be done, it does wonders for your confidence.
As for me, it took me 21 weeks to write the 20 chapters of my novel. When I missed a week I didn’t beat myself up about it nor did it start a precedent of missed weeks.
About a quarter of the way in, I gave the first draft to Marieke with the request for her to set phasers on stun. I didn’t want a brutal critique at that point — I didn’t want to have to fight her doubts as well as my own as I wrote the next three quarters of the book. Marieke, however, is very sympathetic to my writing, and she was able to tell me what was wrong in a way that made me feel that it was recoverable. Her enthusiasm for the good things (many confirming my own feelings) burned away a lot of my worries. So if you have someone similarly skilled and sympathetic, you might consider this early feedback gathering — but keep in mind how ego damaging it can be if you choose the wrong person.
After finishing it and editing it once by myself, I made hardcopies of my manuscript (don’t be stingy — it’ll cost money, but it’s worth it) and gave them to an elite cadre of canny editors, incisive readers, and literary sparks who had given me good feedback in the past. There were twelve — another benefit of publishing smaller books is that I had met many skilled critiquers. In a cover letter, I asked them to be as vicious and comprehensive as possible, and gave them a month. A month later, all twelve of them returned them, marked up.
When I sat down to do the biggest editing job of my life I had twelve voices in my room. I went through them page by page, comparing their suggestions and reactions and making adjustments that I felt were improvements. When I was done, I had the confidence I needed to send my novel out to cold-eyed strangers.
An Infinity of Choices
So much for the how, here’s the what. I wrote several beginnings, all for very different novels. Looking at them, I asked some questions: Which of these will provide the most opportunities for writing about things I want to write about? What do you want to write about? If you really want to write about riot grrrls, don’t set your novel in the 18th century and say you’ll write about it next time. The subjects you’re most excited about now will have a better chance of of exciting the reader.
I also asked: Which of them will I be able to sustain in a way that is natural and believable? If you’re a funny person, don’t use a third person voice that makes humour difficult. Don’t handicap yourself — use all your talents, tricks and charms. Using a voice that is far from your own is fine for a short story, but it’s very hard to keep up in a novel. If you do do it, make sure you have a good rationale for it.
One of my beginnings was about a young university guy who, when you meet him. is drinking coffee at a Toronto diner. He’s reading Kafka in the hopes that it’ll offer a clue as to why he’s able to turn into a housefly, but really he just wants to get up enough nerve to talk to the waitress.
The narrator was enough like me to make it easy to get into his head but different enough so that there was enough creative challenge to keep me interested. The housefly twist was absurd enough to be appealing and also offered the opportunity to involve my considerable fondness for superheroes.
I finished the first chapter, and it still felt good. Wanting a 250-page paperback (anything less limits your publishing options), I figured on twenty 5000-word chapters and sketched a structure accordingly. At first it was only a list of plot points, then as I wrote on I started to designate two or three scenes per chapter for a few chapters in advance (Chapter III: -go dancing! -secrets discussed in a booth, -Jack and Ryan go to Who’s Emma). It was basically just a bunch of things I thought would be neat to happen to my characters.
My structure went through five versions before the end of the book — I always felt reassured after writing one because I could see that I had enough interesting material to see me through. It’s this kind of reassurance (as well as the help with pacing it gives) that makes it well worth the ten or fifteen minutes it takes to scribble out.
Quality of Life=Quality of Work
I can write for eight hours straight, and had for previous novellas, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable. My writing quality suffers if it isn’t surrounded by life, pressed close with the warmth of real events, real people, real action. When I wrote Flyboy, I was hanging out in cafes with the local wits, wandering around the city with open eyes, helping out with activist stuff, being inspired by art, reading dozens of novels, sleeping late, having my heart broken, visiting my mom, cooking good meals, making collages… living, in other words.
Writing a novel has to be fun. If it’s not, then when you finish and it doesn’t pay you back in money and recognition, you’ll be bitter. Even worse, you may quit writing. So save up a little extra and make it a positive experience. You deserve it, what with the time and energy you’re investing in the collective braintrust.