How I Write a NovelMay 23, 2012
"How do you write a whole book?" I get asked this a lot, and I thought I'd take a moment to answer it specifically rather than with my usual generic answer, "A little bit at a time." While this answer is true, I don't think it's very helpful. It certainly wouldn't have been for the younger me, the one who only wanted to write but could never actually seem to get her butt in the chair to do it, and when she did finally get seated at the desk, usually just ended up playing Solitaire.
But dude! I just finished my sixth book. SIXTH! So I've changed. It can be done.
This is my process. It works for me. Your process will be different, but if any of these tips help, I'm glad to share them with you. (And in the comments, let us know what techniques work for you!)
1. Don't Wait For the Muse.
As Nora Roberts says, "Sister Mary Responsibility kicks the muse's ass every time." The muse is a fickle beast, and she usually only strikes me in the middle of the night. I'm a GENIUS at three in the morning. However, since I never write down what she says (because I know I'll remember it later), I don't get that much from our relationship.
In my mind, the best way to write would be to find a whole day or better yet, a whack of days, during which I could lock myself in a hotel room overlooking the ocean and write the better part of a book.
That doesn't work. The time never comes. I spent, oh, ten years trying to find the perfect block of time, convinced it was always coming up in the next few weeks.
Instead, the only thing that works for me is to just work every day. Every day. I work from 1 to 8 hours, usually more on the 2-3 hour side. (This gets me two books done a year while still working 60 hours a week at the day job. But I've got no kids and I don't have cable. Your mileage will vary.)
On the days when I go to the day job, I work on my breaks, only as much as I can fit in. I don't stress too much about those days.
But on every day off, I get up and go to the cafe. Getting out of the house is key for me -- if I'm home I'll find something to clean or organize or DO. At the cafe, they frown when I start to organize the paper cups.
Of course, I could always lose myself in the internet at the cafe, which is A Bad Thing, which leads me to...
I've written about this a million times, but it bears repeating. This is a $10 program (with a free trial) for the Mac and PC that kicks you physically off the internet. You tell it how long to go offline, hit your password, and you're locked out. The only way to get back in is to actually shut down your entire computer and reboot (which, let's face it -- we've all done it once or twice).
So I get to the cafe, grab my coffee, and allow myself to check email while I eat my carrot muffin. Then WITHOUT THINKING or arguing with myself, I hit Freedom, enter 45 minutes, and enter my password before I can talk myself out of it. Bam. I have nothing else to do but work. And if, while I'm working, I think of something that I must know from the internet, I jot it down, thus clearing it from my brain.
After 45 minutes, the computer bonks and DING DING DING, twitter and email messages fall from the skies like confetti. Then I give myself 15 minutes to screw around.
Then I do it all over again.
3. Write or Die
Also ten bucks (or free if you use the online version), this is THE ONLY WAY I write a first draft. It's simple. Write or Die is like a sweet little cattle prod to the imagination. It makes you keep writing. I like the intermediate level, where your screen turns red and then it makes a terrible noise if you stop writing. (I do NOT use the level in which it erases your words if you don't keep writing, but it amuses me to know that it exists.)
See, I just lose track if I'm not using it. I open a document and start writing. An hour later, after taking long sips of coffee and absentmindedly staring at people with weird hair in the cafe, I will have 500 new words on the page. And I'd swear to you that I was doing the best I could, writing as fast as possible.
Then I turn on Write or Die (for first drafts, I usually dive into Freedom and Write or Die at the same time, for 45 minutes) and three quarters of an hour later, I have 1500 words or so.
Yep, some of these are crap words that I won't end up using, but I would have written those anyway. And it's astonishing -- your voice is your voice is your voice, whether it's a "good" writing day or a "bad" one. You end up using a lot of those words. Some of them are exactly what you needed and never would have come up with while staring out the window. There's something about the pressure of having to keep the cursor moving to the right that makes you figure out solutions to the problems on the page in ways you wouldn't normally think of.
(I just finished writing a novel, and the first draft was so difficult for me at one point, I had to go into Write or Die for 15 minutes at a time. Just 15 minutes. I always got more words that I thought I would, and I got through that slump. You do what you have to do.)
It's that idea of Flow, right? Getting into the state where time disappears and everything disappears except the work in front of you. I have the best chance of doing this when I'm forced to work fast, which disables my inner editor (oh, I hate that cranky bitch). Another thing that helps me is:
For me, every book has a soundtrack. I listen to music on my iPhone since my computer is offline while I work. But whatever media player you use, the key is this: use the music as a way to drop right back into the writing. Don't end up procrastinating (I see you over there!) by making the perfect playlist. Drop three or five albums that you think might work into a list, hit shuffle, and start writing. When a song doesn't work? Hit skip, and later, when you're done writing, throw it out of the list. Later, when you hear a song on the radio that would be perfect for the list, add it then. Your playlist grows organically that way, and when the book is close to being done, the list will be pretty much perfect.
5. Do the Math
I just finished my sixth book, and I know that it takes me about six months per book (three months for a horrible first draft, two-three months in revision). You know how I know that? Math. I know my novels are around 95,000 words. Writing 2000 words a day (approximately eight pages), it'll take 48 writing days to complete, which even gives me days off in my goal of first draft in three months.
But what about revision, you say! No one can strap a time frame around revision! Well, it might be a little bit more slippery than its friend, the first draft, but you sure as heck can.
I try to do a full (major) revision in a month (because I write really crappy first drafts -- I know people who revise as they go, and end up with very clean first drafts -- that is not me). I also try to do this because I know, from my process, that I might have to do this two or three times, and I'd better get crackin'. (My revision method is outlined here. Gawd, I love revisions.)
So I look at the calendar. Suppose I have 15 days off in a month. That means I pretty much have to revise 6000 words a day. Yep, that's a lot. But I can get that done in four hours if I'm working hard, more if I'm brain-dull that day. It's doable, for me. These are my numbers, and yours will be different, but again, it comes down to math. I know, we English majors don't like that, do we? But it works, I promise.
Now, if your goal is to write a book in a year? OH MY GOD! You're going to have so much fun! Aim for six months to a first draft -- that's only 527 words a day! Then you'll have another six months to revise! That sounds delicious, right? You know it does. The key is not to let it be some nebulous, undefined "year." Make it a year from today. Starting now.
6. Just Do It
Again, writers write. I completely, totally understand wanting with all your heart to write and not writing, because I did that for (too) many years. It's such a frustrating feeling. But the only way to get that urge out of your system and feel satisfied (finally!) is to do the work. Even when it's shitty work (and it will be, at first. All first drafts will be shitty. It's the law). Just sit your arse down and do it. A little at a time. It's like knitting -- the words add up, just like stitches do, and eventually you have something to show for them.
*Pro tip: If you say I can't write this way because I have to make everything perfect before I move on, that's fine by me ONLY IF this method works for you. In other words, if you are completing what you set out to complete, then yay! But if you want to write books but are stymied because of the whole "perfection" thing, then barrel through a really horrible first draft. Your method isn't working. Try a new one, friend.
So. What's your process?