When You Have Absolutely No Idea How To Write A Novel

how to write a novel
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Maybe you have no idea how to write a novel, but decide to write one anyway.

But – hopefully – in an informed way. You don’t want to write a BAD novel.

Maybe you’re even a professional writer already, like me. But not of novels. Perhaps it’s crystal clear to you that you have no idea how to sit down and structure a novel, even though you’ve been reading them forever.

You really want to figure that out. You want to teach yourself how to write a decent novel. So, first thing is you read many many books about writing.

Straight off my bookshelves

Here are some really good books on craft and inspiration that I’ve read over the years.

On craft and inspiration:

   how to write a novel how to write a novel    how to write a novel      how to write a novel   how to write a novel   how to write a novel    how to write a novel

This one is “the classic guide to writing nonfiction,” but the 30th Anniversary edition I have has an extra chapter about writing family history and memoir, which I love, and I think the whole book is excellent.

how to write a novel

Because maybe learning how to read literature well helps you write it well.

how to write a novel

Subtitle: fiction workshops and thoughts on the writing life.

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing has interviews and articles by all sorts of interesting novelists, including Margaret Atwood on “As a Writer, You Must Do What Beckons You;” Sue Grafton’s, “The Use of the Journal in Writing a Novel,” John Updike’s, “Whatever Works, Works: Kurt Vonnegut on Flouting the Rules of Fiction,” and more.

how to write a novel

Really have no idea how to write a novel? Read these

Learn about some of the basics from the Writers Digest “Write Great Fiction” series:

how to write a novel        how to write a novel    how to write a novel

And read the kind of books that tell a (real or fictionalized) account of family history or historical fiction or whatever type of story you are writing. Here are some of the family history-style books that have inspired and taught me, although there are a lot more, too.

how to write a novel   how to write a novel   how to write a novel   how to write a novel

But then, after you skim/read/listen/take notes/overdose on all those books other people have written, it’s time to get busy.

That’s the key, of course. Getting to work. You can read about how to write a novel forever, but there is a point where you need to stop and become that person who actually does it.

You check out the right tools. For me, so far, it’s Scrivener,

a great journal,

how to write a novel

and some nice pens.

Just do it

It’s time to, finally, to take action. You lounge in a comfy chair with your journal. Or you sit at a bench in the park on your lunch break with your yellow pad. Or you open your Scrivener program at your desk and start a new fiction document. (I do all of these things.)

And you begin making notes. Novels don’t generally come to mind fully formed, although I guess once in a while that happens (I’m looking at you on the delayed Manchester to London train, J.K. Rowling). More often you start with a kernel of an idea and then think about some of the important scenes that will appear. Then carefully, strategically, you consider which scene will lead to what happening next, and why. The birthing of a novel is not magical. It means sitting down and doing organized, painstaking, structural work.

You start taking notes about your characters and seeing each one in your head and on paper. What are they like, and why? What motivates them, both internally and externally? What are they trying to achieve, and what keeps them from it? How do they overcome those obstacles?

You figure out your settings in a similar way. What does it look like, smell like, feel like? How does your setting emphasize your story’s theme? How does it drive the conflict?

And then you (okay, I) go over and over and over your outline until it works. Really works. (This is where I’m at right now.) It’s rough and brief and leaves lots of room to discover how the story will unfold. But the broad outline keeps you (me) going, I think. It gets you from A to B to C to End.

Because the most important thing is getting to the end. Even if it’s not great yet, you have to write the thing before you can make it better and better. You cannot work on improving your novel until there is a novel. So much of writing is revising. I know that part, already.

Now to follow my words above and get myself through and to the end. 

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Make It Happen, Step 1: Choose the Path

Make It Happen
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

It’s time to make it happen.

It’s one week into 2019, the year in which I proclaimed I’m going to write (and actually finish) a novel, and I thought I knew my plan.

Suddenly, though, I have two projects to choose between. I need to make a decision.

Let me tell you about the first project, A few years ago, during NaNoWriMo, I wrote a full draft of a children’s book. It’s a middle grade novel, to be more specific.

When I finished, I sketched out two more books in the series and wrote their first drafts. And then I mostly just left it all alone.

Last year, I showed the first couple chapters of the first book to a literary agent at the ASJA conference and she gave me some good feedback. She suggested changing an aspect of the plot, which she said was a little too dark for that age reader. It made sense. She said after I did that, she’d like to read it again.

I reread the trilogy a few months ago and realized that while it needs a lot of work, I still like the story. I should get back to this, I thought.

Then the other day I realized that another idea, the story I have been trying to write for half my life, is actually a novel. Suddenly I am really excited about writing that novel and cannot get it out of my mind.

But then—there goes that seesaw again—last week I got an email saying the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Hawaii was going to start offering meetings here in Hilo.

Other writers, right here in Hilo!

I went to the first meeting and felt my body relax into an, “Ah!” While I have many writer friends, most live outside of Hawaii. It can be lonely writing on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific. When I looked around that meeting, I wondered if maybe some of these children’s book writers and illustrators could be on-the-ground writer buddies.

We met in downtown Hilo’s former Koehnen’s building, an elegant 1910 building that takes up a whole city block. It’s a lovely, gracious, and well-maintained Renaissance Revival style building with koa walls, ‘ōhi‘a floors, and a grand koa staircase. Originally it was the Hackfeld Company, then Koehnen’s, both retail enterprises.

Now, it’s the National Oceanographic Institute’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, which interprets the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their surrounding marine environment.

We gathered upstairs, under the very tall, open-beam ceiling and next to huge, unscreened windows that let in the breeze. In the distance, beyond coconut trees, I saw two canoes full of paddlers glide slowly across the gentle, gray ocean.

There was a reminder of the building’s current marine science focus in the corner—a large, papier mâché “rock” sporting orange, gold, and green coral.

Listening to Richard Peck

Among other things, we watched a Master Class interview with children’s author Richard Peck. Decades ago, when he and I were both much younger, I once heard him speak in person at Henderson Library in Torrance, California.
Make It Happen

I was already a big reader and fan then, and he was already a successful novelist. He went on to write an astonishing 41 books for young people before he passed away last summer.

Here’s some of what he said in the video that interested me:

• In a children’s book, the young person has to solve his/her own problem and find his or her own way.
• Their parents must be kept in check—supportive, but in the background.
• You should write from observation, he said, not from experience.
• He said he always sits behind young people on the bus, and hangs out in malls. That’s how he gets the dialog right.
• Take yourself out of the story by always writing in first person. Then it’s a child’s diction.  Make It Happen
• He said he was born listening. “I grew up under tables and behind doors, listening.”
• He loved to listen to the old people and now, he said, the grandparents and great-grandparents were coming out in his writing.

I really liked hearing that last bit. I am all about the family stories, the generations, and the connections across time. They come out in my writing, too—my children’s book trilogy has all of that. So does my other novel idea, actually.

After the SCBWI meeting, a couple of writers talked about starting up a critique group, something I’ve been thinking about lately. It had me thinking seriously about choosing to work on my very rough children’s novel for this 2019 project.

What to do, what to do.

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you about the other possibility. And I’ll make a decision already!

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How (and Why) I Will Finish Writing a Novel in 2019

finish writing a novel

 

 

Why make it a goal to finish writing a novel? The quote below explains why Wyl Menmuir and I are into the whole novel-finishing thing.

Q:What made you decide to start a novel?

Wyl: I read somewhere that action tends to happen when the fear of not doing something overtakes the fear of doing it. That was true for me – I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember and I’d reached a point where I realised if I didn’t just sit down and do it, I’d end up as a frustrated would-be novelist rather than someone who had at least given it a good shot. The other side of it was about knowing I had the right story to tell.  

Yes! EXACTLY THAT.

Menmuir is an English writer whose debut novel The Many was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. He achieved his goal, and he’s on the other side now.

I’m a professional writer (of nonfiction) with a Big Goal for 2019: I will craft a novel from some ideas that have been swirling around in my head for years and years and years.

By the way, I don’t know Menmuir. I just read his quote, and it was like a cartoon anvil swung into my head.

Strategies

I also liked reading his article How to Finish a Novel, where he talks about the tools he used to write, and finish, his novel. He was very strategic. He used software that blocked his social media access; a word tracking app; set daily goals, and more. It worked for him.

Ninja Writer Shaunta Grimes also recently wrote something interesting about why you should finish writing a novel, if that’s your thing. She wrote, “A finished manuscript, whether that’s a novel or a blog post or a social media post for a client, is pretty much the only hard MUST. We all know of writers who make boatloads of money off of poorly written crap—but all of those writers finished writing the thing.

Of course, she’s right. Whether it’s an, um, “valiant effort” or a brilliant masterpiece, you have to finish it or there’s zero chance of publication or boatloads of money.

I don’t know that I can write a novel that’s brilliant (or even valiant), but at the least, I will have succeeded in completing my “practice novel.”

An Eye-Opener

I also admit to being slightly fascinated with an idea I got from Gretchen Rubin, who does the podcast Happier. It made me realize why I have been finding it so difficult to finish a personal writing project.

Rubin says people fall into one of four personality types regarding how they respond to the idea of a rule, whether it’s internal or external. She calls these personality types the “four tendencies.”

  • Upholder
  • Questioner
  • Obliger
  • Rebel

Knowing which one you (or the people around you) are helps you answer the question, “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?” She wrote a whole book about this and it’s interesting.

I’m not one to follow every pop-psych trend, but what she was saying made sense to me, and so I took her online quiz. I learned I am an obliger.

Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

Obligers meet outer expectations just fine (give me an assignment and a deadline, and I will meet it), but resist inner ones (even when I very much want to finish writing and revising a novel, I don’t).

The answer for us obligers, says Rubin, is to create systems of external accountability.

It makes so much sense. It was the cartoon anvil to the head again. It’s why, for instance, I take regular walks every week. Though I like walking by the ocean, I only go because my friend Angie is waiting for me.

To finish writing a novel, I need external accountability. That’s why I’m going to keep writing about my 2019 writing goals and how I’m doing with them. Because it makes me feel accountable.

I feel like I have people expecting me to achieve these goals now. And I meet external expectations.

Here we go!

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Books on Writing

I guess it’s no surprise there are so many books about writing. We writers need something to write about, and some of us write about writing.

Writing is a craft that I continually work on. In college I majored in journalism, and since then I have continued to take writing classes (both in person and online), participate in professional writers’ groups and online forums, and sometimes in local writers groups — and I also read how other people have succeeded as writers. How they do it. Their tips.

They’re just like us, most of those other writers. We’re all just people sitting in front of a yellow pad of paper or a laptop, starting with a blank screen and a head full of ideas. Reading over the years about how some people have accomplished what they’ve done has helped me set goals for my own writing, and reach high.

I could read about writing until the cows come home. (“What cows?” asked my then-four-year-old with a puzzled look, once, when I used that expression.) Though it’s best to put down the books and hit the keyboard from time to time.

Here are just some of the writing books on my shelves, which I’ve loosely grouped into categories here. I have learned from or been inspired by many of these.

BUSINESS

Early on I realized that you are only a hobbyist, and will likely get nowhere as a professional freelance writer, until you accept that it’s a business and you need to be businesslike (in setting goals, where you focus your efforts, calculating your overhead and knowing how much to charge, protecting your copyrights, handling accounting, paying taxes and much more). Some creative sorts have to really force themselves to buckle down and learn the business aspect of being a self-employed writer. Here are some books that can help:

  • The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, ed. by Timothy Harper
  • This Business of Writing, by Gregg Levoy
  • Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glazer
  • Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger
BY WRITERS ABOUT WRITING
I don’t know how to group these books, some of which inspired and convinced me I could quit the day job and live happily as a writer (they were right!):
  • Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
  • Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
  • Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers, ed. by Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman
FICTION/NOVEL WRITING
What pondering these titles from my bookshelf tells me is that I have long wanted to delve more into fiction and novel-writing. But I knew that already.
  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writing the Novel, by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen
  • The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, ed. by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest

MAGAZINE/NEWSPAPER WRITING
I have done an awful lot of this. I started out, long ago, writing an occasional freelance piece for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and then got a regular freelance gig working for Hilo’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where I wrote features and entertainment articles every week. That was terrific in teaching me how to just sit down and do it. When I had several articles due each week, I also got over my reticence about calling people to ask questions. That was worth it all right there.

After that I started writing for magazines. More interesting, more in-depth, more time for craft. Yet it doesn’t always pay enough to pay the bills. There are a few people who only write for national magazines and make a good living, but you cannot count on that these days. If magazine freelancing is your plan, you’d better start out with some other income, too.

  • The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell
  • Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin
  • Creative Nonfiction, by Philip Gerard
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean Fredette
  • You Can Write a Column, by Monica McCabe Cordoza
  • The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  • Travel Writing, See the World, Sell the Story, by L. Peat O’Neil
  • Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer
MEMOIR
  • Living to Tell the Tale, A Guide to Writing Memoir, by Jane Taylor McDonnell
  • Inventing the Truth, the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. by William Zinsser
ON WRITERS
It’s aways fun to read how other writers do what they do. Computer? Typewriter? Pencil and pen? Schedules? Rituals? Isabel Allende always starts writing a new novel on January 8th, because that’s the date she started her very successful (and wonderful) novel House of the Spirits. (It’s one of my favorites.)
  • Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times
  • The Writer on Her Work, by Janet Sternberg
  • The New New Journalism, ed. by Robert S. Boynton
COPYWRITING
Some of my work falls under the category of copywriting. These books were somewhat interesting as I started out writing for businesses, but I’ve found that I figured out a lot of it by myself, along the way. The Well-Fed Writer is currently a bible to some copywriters.
  • The $100,000 Writer, by Nancy Flynn
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman
  • Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Bob Bly
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Bob Bly
RADIO
This is one of the few books from my long-ago college journalism days that I’ve kept. I have worked in public (and commercial) radio a little bit, and really enjoyed it. I keep the book in case I want to get back into it one day. Cool book.
  • Telling the Story, the National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism
LASTLY
And, my favorite title of all:
  • Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous to Steal: How to have a great life as a freelance writer, by John Clausen

Image © Tanjaru | Dreamstime.com

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Selling The Book

MoneyThis Wall Street Journal article How Authors Move Their Own Merchandise, by Joanne Kaufman, is about how much effort writers put into marketing — selling — their own books these days. It’s out of necessity; the publishing world has changed a lot.

It starts:

To gin up sales for her 2009 essay collection “Bad Mother,” Ayelet Waldman rewarded those who preordered the book with such lagniappes as a donation to a scholarship fund or a copy of a novel by her husband, Michael Chabon. “I think all of that got ‘Bad Mother’ on the New York Times best-seller list,” Ms. Waldman said.

Ayelet Waldman is one author who has learned the benefits of giveaways and social networking.

Eager for lightning to strike twice, she began working the Facebook rolls before last summer’s publication of her novel “Red Hook Road.” Those who preordered (or sent an email explaining their lack of interest in preordering) were entered into a drawing to win an iPod loaded with music thematic to the book. Read more

My favorite is the part about the writer who put up a slideshow on his Facebook page. It showed famous people reading his novel. I just love that. Watch for that when I’m peddling a novel one day.

Read the whole article here.

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The Orwell Blog

I love that someone who’s been dead since 1950 is posting daily to a WordPress blog. 

George Orwell (1903-1950) is not doing the posting himself, of course. It’s his diary entries that are being posted, one day at a time, exactly 70 years after they were written. What a neat idea.

From the blog‘When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page’, wrote George Orwell, in his 1939 essay on Charles Dickens.

From 9th August 2008, you will be able to gather your own impression of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries. The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

Must go reread some Orwell now while I follow along.

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Isabella Bird & Other Historical Non-Fiction to Read While Traveling

I have a good friend coming to visit here on the Big Island next week, a history buff like me, and I’ll have to find out if she’s ever read Isabella Bird.

isabellabird

I love reading an interesting book about a place while exploring it, and I highly recommend Isabella Bird’s book if you’re planning to visit (or if you live in) Hawai‘i.

I can remember reading Sarum when visiting Salisbury Cathedral, and Jane Austen in, of course, Bath. And Michener’s Iberia (or parts of it anyway; I remember a great section on gazpacho that sent me seeking the stuff at every turn) while in Portugal. And, oh, The Agony and the Ecstacy while in Rome — that was a wonderful decision.

Isabella Bird was born in England in 1831, and (from Wikipedia), “was a sickly child and spent her entire life struggling with various ailments. Much of her illness may have been psychogenic, for when she was doing exactly what she wanted she was almost never ill. Her real desire was to travel.”

Gotta love that. 

She sure did travel. Among many other adventures (and writings), she was in Hawai‘i in the 1870s, and later wrote the book The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six months among the palm groves, coral reefs, and volcanoes of The Sandwich Islands. She was a thorough, descriptive and upbeat writer and I enjoy reading her accounts. I also admire her for traveling alone as a woman in the 19th century and having so many great adventures.

Here’s a description of Hilo from her book:

What Honolulu attempts to be, Hilo is without effort. Its crescent-shaped bay, said to be the most beautiful in the Pacific, is a semi-circle of about two miles, with its farther extremity formed by Cocoanut Island, a black lava islet on which this palm obtains great perfection, and beyond it again a fringe of cocoanuts marks the deep indentation of the shore. From this island to the north part of the bay, there is a band of golden sand on which the roar of the surf sounded thunderous and drowsy as it mingled with the music of living waters, the Waiakea and the Wailuku, which after lashing the sides of the mountains which give them birth, glide deep and fern-fringed into the ocean. Native houses, half hidden by greenery, line the bay, and stud the heights above the Wailuku, and near the landing some white frame houses and three church spires above the wood denote the foreign element. Hilo is unique.

Hilo still looks pretty much like that! I can picture it. It’s a great book if you’re interested in reading more, and it’s easily available in paperback.

What books have enriched your travels? I’d love to hear.

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