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:
- Read about authors I admire to learn their influences, and approaches to writing.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Set reachable goals.
- Break the different story aspects down into small parts, and then drill on them.
- Put in the time and do the work.
- 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:
- Get your work out there. Don’t wait until it is perfect.
- Hang out and share with other writers.
- Take a few structured classes (in my case, all of them).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Line-edit as you go. A line-edit is where you look for typos and other grammatical screw ups.
- 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.