What Have I Learned After Writing Ten Novels?

 

Before I get rolling I should inform those of you who might have clicked on this looking for easy answers, handy tricks, or magic spells to make your novel fill reams of paper then you can stop reading now. There are no short-cuts.

 

Okay, if you’re still here, I’ll get on with it.

When I started writing seriously I decided I would take the many things I’d learned while becoming a good guitar player and apply them to my new craft:

  1. Read about authors I admire to learn their influences, and approaches to writing.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Set reachable goals.
  4. Break the different story aspects down into small parts, and then drill on them.
  5. Put in the time and do the work.
  6. Accept the realities of what writing a novel and getting published means.

I had the advantage of learning from my mistakes as a guitar player and changing to not make the same ones as a writer:

  1. Get your work out there. Don’t wait until it is perfect.
  2. Hang out and share with other writers.
  3. Take a few structured classes (in my case, all of them).
  4. Do your own thing; never write to the market just to get published.

Starting with #1, after about the tenth Paris Review author interview I noted a common factor among many novelists, which was that most had written between four and seven novels before their first one was published. Of course I thought I would be the exception, but around the end of my fourth novel I started to understand why that number made sense. Sure, I could put together a comprehensive, complex story, but there was usually something missing. I didn’t figure out what that was until after my sixth novel. There was a depth that was absent. I wish I could explain what I mean by this, but the bottom line is that my writing lacked the weight I wanted.

So I soldiered on.

The last three novels began to fill in closer to the way I wanted them to.

Another thing that all successful authors have in common is they finish whatever they’re writing no matter how bad it is, and I understand this completely. I learn more from my bad writing than I ever can from the good stuff. Understanding how a piece failed, and where it failed has helped me sniff out a failure in progress, and I can kill it on the spot now.

An essential truth is there is no such thing as wasted time writing.

Numbers 2, 3, and 4 all run together. When I was learning guitar I played every day for an average of four hours, often more, and I usually had my guitar within reach. I learned new songs each week, and I ran scales endlessly. Taking that into writing I made a point in the beginning to write every day, and try to write a new short story each week. This lasted for two years, and I still write something almost every day.

If you wonder what a drill is, this means writing short scenarios relevant to the type of story you want to tell. I write a lot of action, so I would write car chases, shoot-outs, guys sliding down ropes in the dark, getting punched in the face, punching someone else in the face, and other things that my characters might end up doing. I would write in the styles of my favorite authors like Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Poe, and Elmore Leonard, and I would write a the same scenario using their voices.

It’s like trying on different shoes.

The payoff comes when I’m writing and a car chase ensues I’ve already done the work, I’m ready for the roaring engines, squealing tires, and the smell of burned rubber. I don’t have to waste time figuring it out because I have already the work. If you write stories about a person who hunts frogs then you should drill on writing about swamps, ponds, lakes, wet socks in wet shoes, what pond water smells like, what the air around the water smells like on a summer day as opposed to a spring day, the smoothness of the frog’s skin, and how that smoothness is different when the frog is in the water (yes, I’ve caught a lot of frogs). Whatever your chosen world to write about is you should be drill on the parts and action that are sure to take place.

I started this piece out by stating that there are no short cuts and #5 is the ground’s truth. The more you write the better you get. The more you read and write the better you get, just a little faster. Your story will not write itself, I have spent hours staring at my screen waiting for words to appear, and it never happens. Never will. I parked my but in front of my laptop for an hour or more every day and wrote. Today I average 1,500 words each day while I’m writing a novel. This is the perfect pace for me, and I get results…like I said, I’ve finished ten novels. You have to find your pace, and for some it’s 2,000 words per day, and others it might just be a few sentences. As long as you keep working on your project that is all that matters.

Getting to six, the fact is that after all of my past and future work there is no guarantee I will ever get published. If that day comes the reality is that I won’t make enough to quit my day job. I don’t care; I’m going to write anyway. My dad played golf every weekend, and he never played in a tournament. Most golfers never do. The same is true with runners, there are runners who could run and win marathons, yet never have the stones to sign up for a race. There are people who are great cooks who will never see the inside of a restaurant kitchen. The golfers still golf, the runners still run, the cooks still cook, and I’m going to still write no matter what.

I have successfully applied all of these things and have generated ten novels.

My next novel I will consider my first. Ten novels is the perfect foundation to build a library upon. I have a clear and sober view of what is ahead of me, and I’m excited by what I see.

This is supposed to be about what I’ve learned after all of that work, and here it comes.

  1. It doesn’t get easier. Each novel is different; new story, new locations, new characters, and each come with a unique set of problems. Four of my novels have featured the same characters and each one was a different experience.
  2. Outlines are a good idea. I write by the seat of my pants most of the time, but an outline saves a lot of time not just by knowing where the story goes, but because you’ll know what kind of engine the car in your story has, or when trout season is, or where the fire exits are at the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Looking those kinds of details while actively writing kills momentum.
  3. List your characters on a spreadsheet, and keep it updated with which chapters they appear, and what they did in those chapters. This helps prevent plot holes.
  4. Line-edit as you go. A line-edit is where you look for typos and other grammatical screw ups.
  5. Keep learning. This means read Writer’s Digest, Paris Review, and other writer’s blogs. One thing I learned from guitar that is true with writing is that no matter how good you get you can always learn something new, and you can always learn something from just about anybody.

Most of these are straight forward, but I want to talk about #1 a little more. It doesn’t get easier and that is counterintuitive. Two of my novels I banged out during NaNoWriMo, one even being completed in seventeen days. My last one took me eight months, and it’s not the kind of story that should have taken that long. In this case the presidential election threw me off my game for a few for a while. Like I said, each story is different with its own set of obstacles navigate. This used to bother me, but now I realize that a story is going to regulate how fast and easy it is done, not the writer.

The other reason it stays hard is that with each work complete you mentally raise the bar for the next one. This is compounded by the new books you read in the meantime which inspire you to write better, and you work that made you happy in the first novels no longer meets your new standard. Since this all began I have discovered a dozen more authors whose writing has inspired me and left me in awe. They’ve made me want to step my game up with every new book I read.

I love this, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before I sign off I want to address a side issue.

The biggest excuse I hear from people is that they want to write their novel, but they can’t find their voice. Here’s the good news: You already have one, now get writing. I know, your expensive how-to books, or your Ivy League MFA have told you to find your voice, and that your work will languish until you do. Here’s the thing, the more you write the more refined your voice becomes.

Waiting until you find your voice is a chicken-shit excuse.

A great example is Elmore Leonard. I love Leonard’s work, and he is my primary inspiration, and my go-to author for when I get stuck. Two years ago, after he passed away, a collection of his unpublished short stories was released in a book titled: “Charlie Martz and Other Stories”. Some of these were his first works which came well before he was published, and while you can tell they’re Elmore Leonard stories his voice isn’t quite there yet. The narrative is flat. Even when reading his early westerns if you start chronologically you can watch his voice sharpen with each one. Do this with your favorite author, read their first book, and then compare it with their latest novel, and you will see it.

So get out there and write, or don’t, I’m not the boss of you.

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More Novel Writing Stuff

At the moment I write this I am three quarters through my sixth novel. Since the first week of November, 2013, I have finished five novels, and revised the first. They range in subject matter from paranormal commando thrillers, to a western, an apocalyptic sea critter yarn, and a Hollywood fantasy. If your time is brief, this is what you need to know about novel writing:

Anybody can do it. You just have to be persistent.

That’s it, that is all there is to it. Uh oh, I can hear you guys right now muttering negativity. Look, I know it’s hard. Not “Hard” like giving birth, building a house, milking a King Cobra, just hard in the way that getting good at anything is hard. Once you find a story that demands to be told all you have to do is write it.

I write, or try to write every day. On the few days I don’t, I’m still thinking about the story. My routine has been broken up so that I can get to writing earlier, take a break by showering, and then returning to writing with new ideas I got while in the shower. I’m reading a lot more now too, I have to refill the brain. Now that I have a process I’ve begun to push my writing harder, and that means tackling subjects that are more real. Viewing this as a challenge is what drives me. I could be that guy who writes his first novel, and then rewrites it, and revises it for years, but at right now I want to show potential agents and publishers that I can write productively. Writing a bunch of novels has built my narrative muscles, and I couldn’t be happier.

I’m going to share some things I’ve learned about getting the novel together, and keeping it all going.

  1. Start with a good story. Good characters will drop into your head from the either to be in a good story. A good story drives everything else.
  2. Once you have your main characters, take time on the side to polish them up. I write short stories that take place before my novel begins to put them through their paces so I can see who they are. From these stories I draw up a profile page to refer to when writing the novel.
  3. Keep a character list. When the story begins rolling new characters will pop up. Write them down on a separate page with a brief description, and page and chapter number they first appear in. If needed, keep a reference of all of the chapters they’re in. The list comes in handy, it saves you time when you get stuck trying to remember the name of the cop from back in chapter five. The other thing is does is gives you people you can come back to when you need something. I have had minor characters turn into key players later in the book from scanning my list and realizing I already had someone for the plot development.
  4. Stop every 10 chapters and read the story. It keeps you honest, and often I have found something to use in the later chapters.
  5. Give yourself a break. I said write every day, but realistically there are days it’s not going to happen. Take those days off. Take a walk, paint the house, pet the cats, see a movie, or whatever. Just get back to it the next day.
  6. Pull out your DVDs and play them with the director’s commentary. If there’s a writer’s commentary play that one too. Listening to Ridley Scott discussing why he made lighting choices, or put the camera where he did can enlighten you in your quest to tell your own story. The writer’s commentary should drive home the fact that there’s a lot of rewriting involved. All movies start with a writer and a story.
  7. Talk to other writers. You should have writer friends. Join a group or take a class at the local junior college to meet people. It will help.
  8. Don’t over think it. The thing that blows me away is that every story is different, with different challenges to overcome. Some writers swear by a strict outline, others just sit down and wing it. At this point I’ve done both. Being too attached to a single process can and will get in the way. Do what the story dictates. You have to treat it as a living thing.
  9. Have fun. If you’re not having fun then your reader won’t either. And yes, you can have fun while writing a story about your childhood trauma. The fun comes from knowing you’ve created art, and if you’re crying like a baby at the end of your daily writing session you are winning the game…and that is fun.
  10. Don’t write the easy stuff, even when you’rewriting the easy stuff. What am I talking about? Read some Elmore Leonard.