I was asked to do a post about tips that have helped me as I attempt to write a novel. And, to be completely honest, I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. More often than not, I don’t really like what I’ve written. Ironically, I feel better about what I’m working on now than I have about anything else I’ve worked on before. And I’ve learned a lot of things – both on my own and from others – that have helped me with my writing and writing process. I’ve included both below.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott Card
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” – William Faulkner
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London
First of all, the obvious: READ. Read everything. Don’t think “that’s not what I want to write” because you need to figure out why you don’t want to write that. You need to know what you like and what you don’t, and if you limit your reading, you limit your ability to create in new ways. But know this: being a reader does not make you a writer. Use it, but don’t rely on it.
Second, don’t throw out ideas (something I am guilty of). Save the for later. Even if they do suck, they’re worth a shot. There’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that always comes to mind: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” You might think it’s a dumb idea, but someone else could turn it into a novel. A good novel. One of the biggest things I’ve learned throughout this process is if you want to write something unique, you need an idea that seems a bit crazy. Trust your crazy ideas.
On the Process:
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” – Stephen King
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway
“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” – Neil Gaiman
“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.” – Harlan Ellison
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” – George Orwell
“I just sit at my typewriter and curse a bit.” – P. G. Wodehouse
“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” – Neil Gaiman
No matter how much I mentally prepared for this process, it wasn’t enough. I doubt I will ever feel like I know what I’m doing. Sitting down to write each day is like voluntarily jumping into a well and having to figure out how to climb out. You fall back down a lot. It’s frustrating and long and sometimes seems impossible. It is not glamorous, and it, sadly, doesn’t feel like making magic. But, somehow, it also feels worth it. Even when I feel like crying, there is a sense that what I’m doing might someday pay off. And that’s what keeps me going. Don’t go into this thinking it will be easy. If it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong. And if it’s hard, don’t give up.
On First Drafts:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner
“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.” – Margaret Atwood
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” – Anne Lamott
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett
My biggest struggle was having the courage to let my first draft be shit. If it sucked, I’d either give up or edit it to death before it had even come to life. Writing something you don’t think is amazing is more challenging than you’d think. I spent so much time sitting at the computer, staring at my writing, devastated because it wasn’t good. It wasn’t something I was proud of. I wanted to delete/burn it. But, luckily, I didn’t. That feeling is the reason I’ve never finished anything. I had to learn that if I didn’t just get it out, I wouldn’t ever finish something. The first draft will never be great. That’s what editing is for. Write it now, fix it later.
On the Words Themselves:
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King
“Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.” – Hunter S. Thompson
“The difference between the almost right word and the rightword is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain
“No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence or whose attitude is patronizing.” – E. B. White
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekov
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” – Stephen King
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” – Thomas Jefferson
I love words. And, as Margaret Atwood once said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” But only if you choose the right words. To do this, I had to suppress A LOT of instincts I’d acquired from years of academic writing. Verbose does not equate to good. In fact, it more often takes your writing over the fence into bad or boring. There are so many amazing words out there, which means there is very likely one that says exactly what you want it to mean. The way to learn these words is not through the thesaurus (if you don’t know exactly how to use a word, believe me, someone will notice), but through reading. If your vocabulary doesn’t rival an SAT prep book, don’t worry, just work on it. And concentrate on crafting sentences with the ones you know. Also, don’t follow Dickens’s lead and use more words than necessary. He was getting paid by the word, you’re probably not. You want to convey your ideas, not bury your story in a mountain of descriptors. “Very hungry” is far less effective than “ravenous.” Trust that your readers are intelligent and there is no reason to explain things to death. If you’re writing creatively, you’re painting a picture, not giving a lecture. Choose words that mean something.
“Good writing is rewriting.” – Truman Capote
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” – Elmore Leonard
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” – Stephen King
“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” – Don Roff
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” – Stephen King
Killing your darlings doesn’t necessarily mean killing your characters. If you’ve ever tried to write, you’ll know how easy it is to become attached to each and every word. You wrote them. They came out of you. And now, you have to kill them. Delete them, and it’s as if they were never conceived. Sometimes, this means a word or two to make a sentence cleaner, more precise. But it can also mean scrapping entire scenes, characters, or subplots. It can be heartbreaking. But it’s necessary. And, if you do it correctly, your reader will never know. If you have to, step back from your work. Let it sit for a few weeks, change the font, or print it out. And then rip it to shreds. The more brutal you are, the better your writing will be. Even if you don’t think you need to rewrite, you do. Words must be sacrificed for the good of the story.
I hope you found this post helpful! Feel free to share any writing tips or tricks you use in the comments!