*I am in no way claiming to be an expert on novel-writing. When I started, I had not a clue on how to do it or even how to approach it. I hope these lessons I’ve learned can help another writer who’s starting from the beginning.
Know your audience… but don’t write for them.
It’s important to know your audience as far as genre is concerned. Sci-fi and romance are genres written in different ways because they cater to different audiences. If you’re targeting an audience of romance, you don’t want to hit them with hard sci-fi; it’s not something that specific audience desires to read. That said…
In a general sense, when you write thinking about what the audience would like, you’re chasing the audience. And you don’t even know if they’ll really like what you think they’ll like. So don’t worry about the audience. Write for yourself. Write something you would enjoy reading. When other people read it, they may enjoy it as well. When that happens, your audience comes to you. In essence, write for yourself and let the audience chase you.
It’s difficult as all hell.
You will definitely feel challenged and maybe, at times, overwhelmed. It’s not like writing a short story in which the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen from the start of the tunnel. Not long into the process, you’ll find yourself in that dark tunnel with no apparent light whatsoever. This may push you to want to quit and just forget about it. But as long as you keep making progress, you’re chipping away at it bit by bit. Just keep chipping away, page by page, chapter by chapter. You’ll eventually see the light. Hopefully.
Patience is required.
Some days you get something, some days you don’t. You just got to roll with it.
You have to think in slow burns.
Unlike writing a short story, time must be taken to expand conversations and any little things that are happening. You can’t just jump into something or jump past it quickly. Details are a good thing to have and being detailed means that a scene is going to take a lot longer than you’d expect it to; maybe a whole chapter, perhaps. You really have to put a lot of thought into what’s going on and why. A story is crafted, not accidentally spilled onto the page. Okay, the first draft can be spilled onto the page, but that’s it.
You get to do fun things…
…like looking up the word “douchebag” on the Internet to make sure you’re spelling it correctly.
The battle is uphill.
At the start of writing a chapter, you’ll probably have bits and pieces of what you want to put in it, but at the same time you’ll have no clue how to start it. When that finally comes, it’s daunting thinking about all of the pages you have to fill; it’s like climbing up something high and looking down along the way when you really shouldn’t.
You will struggle.
There will come a time, or many times, in which you sit there and say, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m out of ideas. I got nothing left,” and you’ll want to just stop. But you can’t do that and you know you can’t do that because there is that other side of you, the voice in your head that sounds like the Mr. T of motivational speaking exclaiming, “I pity the fool who don’t keep writing!”
Am I the only one who hears Mr. T in my head?
The flood will likely come later.
It’s when you’re nearing the end of writing a chapter that you’ll look back on what you have and start getting more ideas for what you can add or what can be fixed. That’s the point when you start cursing anything out because… Why couldn’t all of this shit have come to me when I started?
In other words, writer’s block…
…is not what you think it is. If you find yourself constantly struggling to come up with something, let it go. When you start thinking you have writer’s block, you’re likely to begin over-thinking and trying to force things. That can lead to more frustration when you feel like you can’t come up with something or something you do manage to come up with falls flat. Let it go. Let it go. Sing “Let It Go.” Take your mind off of your writing. Writer’s block may just be your mind wanting to take a rest from doing all of that writing. Take your mind to the zoo or something. Feed the giraffes. Both your mind and the giraffes will appreciate that. Come back to your writing later. It can wait, and ideas will start coming to you again, in their own time.
Solid feedback is priceless.
If you’re not in a writing circle, get in one. Bother a few people with your novel, one chapter at a time, so they can give you some instant feedback on what you’ve written. Remember, whether someone loves or hates your work, it’s the ‘why’ that’s important. You may find you want to include more detail and explanation to clarify things, or the reader may be wading through too much detail and explanation and you’ll want to remove some of that so reading doesn’t become a chore. And make sure the feedback is of a good quality and isn’t just, “Hey, that’s great!” Why is it great? “Hey, that doesn’t make sense.” Why doesn’t it make sense? Questions and comments are a big help, especially those that make you reflect on what you’ve written so you can make good changes and find and fill as many of the plot holes as possible. You can also gather if people are getting the ideas and feelings you’re attempting to pass along. In short, quality criticism is always helpful.
No matter how carefully you plan it out, your story will have plot holes.
If you listen close enough, your characters will talk to you.
As you’re writing, if you let your characters tell their stories, they’ll tell you things about themselves of which you weren’t aware. For example, when I was thinking of a name for a certain character, the name I got was Amy. At the time, I really thought her name was Amy. That is, until I was in a later chapter where another character informed me that it wasn’t her real name.
Wow, Amy never told me her real name. I just started calling her that ‘cause she kinda reminds me of me and ‘Amy’ totally sounds close enough to ‘Hey, me.’
Once I found this out, I asked her if she wanted to reveal her real name at the end of the story and this time she told me her real name. Yes, I am aware that I sound completely insane right now.
Music can help.
If you’re looking to focus on bringing out a certain emotion, listen to some music that brings out that emotion in you. More than likely, it’ll put you in the mood to write what you’re looking to write.
Setting a goal may be a worthless endeavor.
I’ve heard that it’s good to set a goal like, “Write 1,000 words per day.” I did, in fact, set this goal the first day I sat down to write my novel. The goal was punctured inside of said day. As I said before, things come when they come and they don’t when they don’t. If you’re not the type of writer who can sit down and write 1,000 words per day just ‘cause, forcing yourself to try to put something on the page is the fastest road to frustration. However…
Setting a structure is a big help.
When I sat down to write my first chapter, I had no idea how long it was going to be, nor any other chapters. By the time I felt like the chapter was finished, I hit 3,800 words. As I wrote more chapters, I found that I was pushing 4,000 words and even went as high as 4,500 words. The point here is to set a framework for how big your chapters are. In my case, it ended up being around 5,000 words. So there came a time that, when I sat down to write, I would start with the notion that I was going for about 5,000 words. This helped me to plot things out within the chapter and keep things flowing up until I felt like I needed to start wrapping it up. However…
Your structure does not have to show signs of your OCD.
It’s just my obsession with order and neatness that drives me to making sure each chapter is about the same length. Your chapters can differ in length, by wide margins even. As you’re writing your chapter, when you feel like you’ve come to the end of it – hit a solid stopping point, a good cliffhanger – that’s when it’s done.
Always leave them wanting more.
Speaking of cliffhangers, every chapter should end with a reason to want to go on to the next chapter and find out what happens next; not just for the reader, but for you as well. It’s like a way of inspiring yourself to keep writing.
You’ll constantly be thinking about chapters already written. Nothing is set in stone. It’s likely you’ll be in the middle of writing Chapter 10 when you think of something to add to Chapter 1. Or you’ll have an idea to put into Chapter 10 that makes you have to change something all the way back in Chapter 1. Always be open to change.
You have to constantly ask “Why?”
You have to ask “Why?” so you can discover the motivations of each character and the conflicts that arise between characters, and to answer whatever questions the reader may have. Why someone takes the actions they take is incredibly important and helps to shape the character.
It’s a living being.
Your writing is living and breathing, constantly changing in smaller ways and sometimes larger ways along the writing process. It’ll want to be brought out and written and it’ll want you to bring it out and to write it. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. But why would you want to? Not to mention, once it’s fully written, it’s still going to be changing. You’re going to want to constantly revise, correct things, and fix your corrections.
Rewording is an important exercise.
Always look for places where rewording could strengthen your writing. Extra-long sentences, for example, can likely be shortened. Brevity in describing action can add more immediacy and impact to your writing. If you find that you’re repeating a certain word too many times, go to thesaurus.com and look for some synonyms.
The little things become a big deal.
While I was writing the last chapter of my novel, I wrote a bit about my character grabbing her keys from a desk as she was leaving her apartment. At that point, I realized that, given that I didn’t mention what she did with her keys in the first chapter before she went on her unwanted adventure, and the fact that she lost her jacket and cell phone, the exact location of her keys throughout this whole adventure was unknown. So I had to go back to the first chapter and write in a small line about her shoving her keys into her pants pocket. That way, where her keys are is established and there’s no question in the last chapter of whether or not she had lost her keys along with the other stuff she lost. Simply put, she didn’t. They were in her pocket the whole time. Yes, the location of her keys became an important detail to me.
When looking back, you’ll constantly wonder why you did that.
So, I finished the actual writing and then immediately dove into the revision phase. The writing portion took about seven months. Obviously, I’ve had plenty of time between writing the first chapters and writing the final chapters. That’s why when I started revising the first chapters, after not looking at them for so long, I found tons of errors I was making that I knew not to make as I was writing the final chapters. In other words, the things I learned along the way weren’t applied to my earlier writings. Also, I found that I wasn’t wording my sentences as well as I hope I am now.
You may also wonder why you wrote a character doing or saying something that you now think is out of character or just completely lame. There are plenty of bits of humor I removed or changed in my novel because, looking back on them, I felt like they didn’t work, didn’t fit, or didn’t add anything. However…
When looking back, remember that surprises are gone now.
…you should be careful when editing humor. A joke you’ve read twenty or thirty times can be unfunny to you, making you think you should remove it. In actuality, though, someone reading it for the first time may laugh their butt off. I think the same rule may apply to tension as well. If you know what’s going to happen in a certain situation – how it turns out – the tension, for you, may be dialed down some.
I was hanging out at a bookstore café, talking with someone who mentioned that she would wonder what to do next after finishing a novel. My first answer was that, to me, my novel will never be finished as long as it goes unpublished. If I can still go back and find things I want to change – which is usually the case with what I write – then I’ll make changes. My second answer to her was that, while people tend to ask the question, “What’s next?” with the idea that a long-term or even short-term future must be decided upon, I like to think of “What’s next?” as a question that’s better answered in smaller steps. So if I’m hanging out at a bookstore café after having just finished writing and revising my novel, the answer to the question, “What’s next?” would likely be, “A bagel sounds good.”
Like I said, it’s never finished.
Even if you get your wonderful novel published, you will always think of something that you’d like to fix, add, or change. Revision never stops. No matter how completely perfect the work, an artist will always find a flaw in it. You’ll just have to find a way to live with that.