Whether you’re interested in the ‘Next Great American’ variety or the ‘take THAT, people-who-said-I’d-never-amount-to-anything’ variety, novels – namely, those you’ve decided to write yourself – are tricky mistresses. Admitting you want to write one is a good first step (well, it’s actually more of a pre-step, since, as you well know, it’s all too easy to make a grand plan, only to abandon it in favor of Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice), but what does it take to actually get past vague dreams of a hefty cash advance? More than a pension for sitting in coffee shops all day and a fondness for whiskey, that’s for sure.
If you’ve decided that it’s high time you made a name for yourself in the literary world, then by all means, start by advertising your intentions on your Facebook status, Twitter feed, tumblr page, whatever. Then, step away from the social networking media and let this quick-n-dirty list guide you towards making your authorial dreams come true.
1. Get in the habit of writing every day
Writing is a skill that only improves with practice. From Milton to Grisham, writers become great by trying, failing, trying again, failing again, and continuing to try and fail (and edit and rewrite) until something finally works out. If a writer claims he doesn’t write drafts upon drafts of a manuscript before he feels it’s fit to print (or if he claims he’s ever 100% finished with any project, for that matter), then he’s no writer you need to emulate. When done correctly, the process of putting pen to page or keystroke to cursor is akin to bloodletting; you should feel like you’ve given away something precious by the time all is typed and done.
To get in the habit of putting your thoughts into coherent sentences, you must adopt a daily writing practice (even through seemingly non-creative pursuits like journaling or transcribing song lyrics). By forcing yourself to write on a regular basis, you’ll clear out the mental cobwebs and make way for your novel to come trickling, spilling or cascading out, and once you hit your creative stride, being in the habit of writing every day will ensure that you carve out time in your otherwise hectic schedule to pen your masterpiece. If you’re serious about your goal, then make a daily date with yourself to practice your craft.
2. Read lots of things written by other people
Reading the work of successful authors is second only to adopting a daily writing practice in its ability to improve your facility with the written word. You’ve learned by example your entire life (walking, driving a car, cooking dinner, whatever), so you would be remiss to expect yourself to be able to fashion a novel without an adequate model of how to do so successfully. Make time each day to read the work of your favorite authors, as well as some iconic books that are generally considered ‘great’ (there’s a reason certain books have that distinction, so take a chance and read one to figure out why). You don’t need to force yourself to read something you don’t enjoy, but you would do well to expand your literary horizons beyond the genres and authors with which you’re already familiar. Writers are examiners of the human condition, and you can’t very well examine much of anything if you refuse to go outside your intellectual comfort zone.
3. Join a community of writers
Writing is a solitary activity. You’ll want to connect to other like-minded folks at various points during your journey, both to get constructive feedback on your work and to stay sane amidst days spent rooting around deep inside your brain canyon. Whether or not you want others to actually read your novel (some people love outside opinions, some want nothing to do with anyone’s feedback but their own), joining a writing community gives you access to everything from sample pitch letters to forums in which you can discuss the finer points of grammar and syntax. Online communities provide resources you can access at your leisure, but if you’re more of a hands-on, face-to-face kinda guy, then you can usually find in-person writing groups on websites like meetup.com. Nation-wide ‘competitions’ such as National Novel Writing Month can also provide a fun, structured way to get into the novel-writing process with very few attached strings.
4. Outline your plot
Telling an engaging tale is as simple as remembering what you learned in elementary school: every story must have a beginning, middle and end. You’ve probably figured out a vague outline for your novel, but before sitting down and getting dirty, take a few moments to build yourself a road map so as to avoid taking your readers on a meandering and unsatisfying journey through poorly-formed-plotville. Your outline can change, of course – new events, characters and crises will probably crop up as you write, and you’ll need to adjust your map to include them – but your outline will serve as the foundation to your house of words and imagery. The stronger and more detailed your outline, the tighter your story will be.
5. Know your characters
The beauty of writing a novel, among so many other things, is that you get to play God; you can tell your characters to say and do anything you want, at any time you want. In order to keep things interesting for your reader, though, you’ll want your characters to have distinct voices and personalities (as opposed to creating 29 players who all sound like variations of you). To do this, you need to spend some getting to know your characters before they can truly speak through you. Approach your characters like new friends: create character sketches for each one and then think about what you’d want to know about them if you had just met them at a bar (for example, Character X’s most formative childhood experience, or Character Y’s biggest fear). If your characters are fully fleshed-out, then you’ll find you have emotional reactions to their actions and reactions, ensuring that your audience will, too.
6. Get on it… and stick with it
Your sticktoitiveness, or your ability to keep writing even when times get tough (or you lose interest), is the best tool you have in your writer’s toolbox. Writing a novel isn’t easy. You’ll suffer through moments (or hours, days or months) of writer’s block; you’ll find holes in your plot that aren’t easily fixed; you’ll get bored with something that previously excited you; and you’ll probably want to quit before you’re halfway done, since that’s the way these things usually work. It’s vital, however, to work through these times of frustration (you might not believe it at your most desperate moment, but your motivation will return) in order to avoid the perilous trap of the Unfinished Novel. If you force yourself to finish – or at least keep going – then eventually you’ll end up with something that, while perhaps not exactly what you dreamed it would be, has a beginning, middle and end, and can reliably be referred to as “your first novel”. With the specter of Goals Not Accomplished safely vanquished, you’ll be free to begin your next work, or take a break and return to your first piece with fresh eyes.