Teachable: How NOT to Write a Novel

Icon_NOTWhy I’m an Expert on This Subject:

It took me something like ten years to finish my first novel, with the actual writing time being more like two years. When I wrote my second novel it took less than a year. I didn’t get better at it, I just got real at it. For me the value of experience is to pass it on in the hopes that other’s can benefit from your mental disorders. So, read on to (as it’s said in”The House of the Rising Sun”) not to do as I have done!

1. Talk a lot about how you’re writing a novel

1_TalkA great way to kill your momentum is to start blabbing to everybody that you’re writing a novel. For a lot reasons. One of them is when you talk about your book, you’re getting a lot of the inner juice you get when you actually write it. In your head it’s almost like you’ve actually written something. You can walk away from the talking thinking “wow, that really is a great idea, I’m so talented”, then go months without committing words to paper (or binary code). Another drawback is the weird effect on your ego, frankly, just saying you’re writing a book immediately puts you in the “I’m a big man” category. It’s juvenile, like a kid clopping around in his dad’s shoes saying “I’m a business man”. When I finished the third legit draft of my first book (which I love) I felt great for a minute, then went right to work on the next one. Talk is cheap baby, and you can talk yourself out of finishing your work.

2. Wing it

2_WingitUs European-types have been writing novels for, like, five hundred years – I think the Japanese beat us to it five hundred years before that. There’s plenty of known strategies for writing a book – pick one! DO NOT do what I did, which was rely on passion, inspiration and delusion as the architecture for my approach. I can’t stress this enough. I had no way of knowing where I was in relationship to the end of the book, making it (in my imagination) either imminent (so I don’t need to write today) or so far in the future that writing today seems meaningless! That’s what setting a deadline is good for, it puts a context, a boundary around your work. Think of writing like swimming. If you’re in the middle of the ocean with nothing but endless water in every direction, your decision making, motivation and ability to pace yourself are all guess work. But if you were in a massive swimming pool, where you can see the edge, it’s a whole different ballgame. No matter what you’re writing, I recommend “The Weekend Writer Writes a Mystery”, only because it happens to be the book I picked up – it gives you strategy after strategy for keeping yourself on track. Or find another resource, I don’t care, just don’t wing it!

3. Slave over every word of your first draft

3_SlaveI can’t begin to describe the ludicrous extent to which I poured over every word of my first draft. I’d write a sentence, then rewrite it, then stare at it, then get up and get some coffee and think about it, then I’d clean the room, then I’d rewrite it, then I’d decide I really needed to get it right so I’d better just stop for the day and hit it fresh in the morning. Long story short, I’m pretty sure that with a few exceptions, not a single word made it through the second draft untouched. ALL of that effort and time was wasted, and if I’d simply given myself the freedom to “just write” I would have been through the first draft in a year or so – not the nine-ish talk and angst filled years it actually took.

4. Equate thinking about writing with writing

4_ThinkThis is the spiritual brother to number 1., but I think it’s even more pernicious. Sure, you have to think when creating new worlds, but you can think and write at the same time. And the difference between thinking and writing and thinking about writing is the same as thinking about sex and having sex. Thinking about a thing is an idealized, perfect dream – and like a dream it dissipates like the ether. This is a side tangent, but related: make a deal with yourself to never have a good idea you don’t write down. Writing it down quickly separates the “great idea for a paragraph” from the “great idea for a novel/short story/script”. I’ve had ideas that I thought were killer, then upon writing noticed they had no coherence. But since they were written, could easily be lifted and dropped into longer pieces that needed some zip. Bottom line – if your thinking time is even close to your writing time, start writing more!

5. Recreate the wheel – your genius will win out

5_RecreateThere’s a natural creative instinct that says “I’m so creative all I got to do is sit down and let the genius spill out!” I think this kind of self-love is great, but it can easily lead to delusional thinking (“I just wrote a killer blog, now I’ll sit back and wait for Hollywood to come knockin’!”). Process is a boring topic, but it’s the thing that’ll really let you create the work you want, repeatedly, predictably. I heard this process for moving yourself from novice to master from a guy who does dating seminars (David Deangelo the nom de plume of Eban Pagan) once, and I’ll paste it here verbatim:

  1. Imitate the best until you are getting consistent results.
  2. Learn how to make finer and finer distinctions until you can clearly see why each approach works or doesn’t work in each situation.
  3. Learn to assign higher and lower values to behaviors, results, mistakes to create an internal values system to guide you.
  4. Learn to create variations of great ideas and to combine great elements of great ideas to evolve improved versions.
  5. Innovate. Come up with your own ideas.

The insight Pagan provided was that people tend to want to flip the order, starting with innovation and only working backwards through the list as they meet failure after failure. Well, I’m that guy. The only thing I can say in my defense is I wised up, and now I’m comfortable sitting down to do any kind of project. And I want the same for you, take advantage of all the knowledge out there so you can truly let your genius flow!

Create the life you want to live, be kind, be excellent!