Make It Happen, Step 2: Time to Start Actually Writing a Novel

writing a novel
Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Getting started on writing a novel, it turns out, can be hard.

Step 1 of my goal to write a novel in 2019 was to “choose the path.” I was trying to decide between two ideas, and I chose the one I am more excited about; the one I’ve already been researching in my spare time for years.

Next, I started writing about my ideas in a notebook. What it is, the main characters, their story lines, what it all means, and more. Writing this stuff down is so concrete and good. It means grabbing a hold of the ideas that flit into your mind, seem interesting, but then flit out again. It makes a big difference.

Writer Shaunta Grimes happened to write today about the writer Jack London and what he said about keeping a notebook, and I feel exactly the same way:

“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory. – Jack London

I find a notebook really useful.

But I can’t just write about it in my notebook all year. Now it’s time to move and do the real work. I need to start writing the novel itself.

Writing a Novel

Writing is not a sudden whim of mine, and I’m not starting from zero. I’ve worked professionally as a writer for 20 years now, and wrote for years before that, too. I have a degree in journalism. I was even editor of my high school newspaper. I’ve always been a writer.

But I don’t have experience as a novelist. Mostly I write nonfiction, which is very different. A novel has its structure and rules that I know of from reading about novel writing (and from reading novels themselves), but I don’t yet know in my bones how to create that structure, the way I understand structure in nonfiction writing.

When it comes to, say, an article, I completely understand why it works or doesn’t work. I can glance at something I, or someone else, has written and tell you about how many words it is, how it holds together or doesn’t, and what it’s missing. That comes from having worked as a nonfiction writer for so long, and it’s a great feeling to be at this point in my career.

But I’m not at that point yet with novels, although I hope I can get there. It will take practice and some hard work to figure out how exactly one structures a novel that holds together and is, hopefully, well-written. I’m excited about it, and at the same time it feels a little daunting. (Mostly, I’m excited about it.)

Opening Up Scrivener

I use a physical notebook for ideas, but for writing projects themselves, I use the inexpensive yet incomparable app Scrivener. A writer created it for his own projects, which is probably why it makes so much sense to me. You write each scene as a separate section, and they are easy to view and rearrange. When you are ready to print, you “compile” your manuscript into a Word document or similar. It even formats text for publication as an ebook.

When I have pieces of research for my story – a block of text, a link, a photo, an MP3, or something else – I can store it right there where I am working on the story. I can use the split screen function to look at the piece of research right alongside my blank document as I write. There are so many other features, too. It’s an amazing piece of software. I wouldn’t dream of starting a big project like this without it.

So, Step 2: I’m off to create a new project in Scrivener, and then folders for each chapter, and character and setting profiles. I’ll also start loading some of the research I’ve already done into the program.

I find this exciting! Once my novel has a structure that shows its chapters, right there on the page, it’s just a matter of filling each one in, right?

How’s that for optimism? It might be a bit more work than I just made it sound, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.

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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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