By Rob Loughran
Not time for only sex; but for all those things we are obligated to do on a regular basis: job, family, exercise, finances, changing the catbox. I just used “sex” in the title to get your attention.
The first step in writing your novel is to realize no one but you can write it. A writing teacher friend of mine begins each of her seminars by placing a pencil on 300 sheets of paper and saying, “Novels never write themselves.”
The second step is realizing that a novel isn’t written all at once. Let’s dust off some math skills. Say your book will be 80,000 words. At 250 words per page, that’s 320 pages or a page per day for 10.66 months. Allowing five weeks for research and outlining, writing up some character background, etc., that’s a novel in a year. If you started writing today, one year from today you could be printing out your novel while scouring your market guide for publishers.
That’s simplified, of course: you must rewrite.
But you’ll also have days when you write 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Jack London wrote 40 books by adhering to this simple principle: A daily writing stint of 1,500 words, every day, before breakfast. Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mystery series, mainstream novels, and books on religion and philosophy recommends getting a give-away-calendar from the auto parts store and hanging it in a prominent place. Then start writing your prescribed-daily-quota (PDQ) and don’t go back to rewrite until your first draft is complete. Every day you reach your quota, you X out that day on the calendar. That Xed out calendar will provide a visual, daily reminder to yourself of your novel’s progress. And a blank week or two will goad you out of procrastination.
Adhere to your daily stint and you’ll have a novel PDQ.
To Outline or Not to Outline?
There’s the story about the backyard inventor who worked for years on this machine that featured electrical and gas engines; wires, screws, bolts, and buckets of every size. One day his neighbor popped his head over the fence and said: “That’s a magnificent creation. What’s it do?”
The inventor smiled and said, “I don’t really know.”
Obviously, this anecdote dictates the need for an outline, but, conversely, Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
Who’s right? Should writers depend on creativity and spontaneity or plan as meticulously as an engineer? The answer (as to most of life’s dilemmas) is somewhere in the middle ground. If not a strict outline you should at least have a plan that includes genre, length, historical era, basic character sketches, and a short plot summary. All of which you can follow strictly or abandon when those all-too-rare moments of inspiration dictate that the story must take this direction.
But again, the most meticulous of outlines or the most profound artistic inspiration are squat if you don’t plop your butt in that chair and write.
How to Plop Your Butt in That Chair and Write
Okay, let’s take out pencils and a piece of paper.
Seriously, this is the hands-on part. I want you to make a list of the activities that you perform on a daily basis. Try to come up with 20 items. Include job, commuting, chores, school, leisure activities, etc.
Now give each activity a 1 if it’s CRUCIAL, a 2 if it’s IMPORTANT, or a 3 if it’s something that can be put on a BACK BURNER. (Example: 1=writing stint, 2=clean office, 3=watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Don’t just read this– try it.)
Okay, you’ve got 20 or so items ranked in value. Go back through your list and circle all the items you awarded a 2. Now, take these items and make them either a 1 (CRUCIAL) or 3 (BACK BURNER.) From my example above, I would take “clean office” and either do it now, or put it off until tomorrow, not on whimsy, but with good reason! If my office were so filthy I couldn’t write or perform another CRUCIAL item (i.e., make the car payment to avoid a late charge) it becomes a 1. If my office were merely in its normal state of dusty disrepair, but I could pound out a writing stint I’d make it a BACK BURNER item and attend my daughter’s soccer game.
Now, here’s the true impact of this exercise: Did you do it? If not, what does it say about your determination to finish that novel? Please go back and do it. And remember, the circumstances of life are constantly changing. Use this tool as often as you need.
Simple timesavers can add to your productivity. Wake up twenty minutes earlier or go to bed twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes! Not even half-an-hour! Use that extra time to write or do chores or bookkeeping which will free up time to write. That translates into more than two hours a week, more than one hundred hours in a year.
The television is a thief. Don’t blow it up; but do turn it off for an evening and see what you accomplish. Try watching just the second half of football and basketball games. Stop watching reruns. They’re reruns.
While commuting, use a tape recorder to plan chapters or polish dialogue. Listen to books on tape to learn from other writers.
Utilize “aggravation time.” Instead of fuming while waiting to pay for groceries, mentally compose a story about the person in front of you with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-less line. What color trailer does she live in? How many cats does she own? Which brand of canned cheese is her favorite?
If you’re blocked or stuck write a letter or a limerick. Just get to writing anything and it’ll get you back on that yellow brick road.
Mum’s the Word
Don’t show anybody your novel until it is finished, rewritten, and polished! The only result of “What do you think of my opening chapter?” will be doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Maybe it’s too wordy or sketchy. People will point this out to you. But you would have discovered and fixed that on a subsequent rewrite, right? Or worse, the person you’ve appointed Ebert will say she really liked it; it was nice.
Trust your judgment.
But there is a huge difference in hearing advice from a fellow writer and from Auntie Sarah. If there is someone whose opinion you value and honesty you can count on, then please avail yourself of his or her input. My wife (who is a voracious reader, but breaks into a sweat when writing anything longer than a Christmas card) and I have worked out a system. She sits sipping tea or wine while I read in a flat monotonous voice (you want your words, not your inflection, to have the impact) from my stuff. At any point where I lose her—for whatever reason—she starts snoring and I mark that spot in the manuscript. I trust her and don’t take offense. And she’s usually right.
Okay, she’s always right.
Remember what Gene Perret said, “Nothing is written until it’s rewritten.” Don’t pass an uncooked book around indiscriminately. It’s a recipe for disaster.
One essential book to keep by your keyboard is Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Here’s a sampling: an 1844 review of Huckleberry Finn: “A gross trifling with every fine feeling—Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.”
An 1814 review of Gulliver’s Travels: “Evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” From a rejection letter of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more substantial efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books.”
There will always be hope for your novel; get it written.
Novelist R.K. Narayan stated, simply: “You become a writer by writing.”
I hate pep talks.
I was always mystified and confused when coaches demanded 110%, so this isn’t a RAH RAH, YOU CAN DO IT! snappy pep talk.
Just the opposite.
How would you feel, one year from now, if your novel were still a misty someday-dream with not a single word written? Project ahead five years. You still haven’t finished (have you even started?). How does that make you feel?
Now, think how you’ll feel, if when you finish this article, you put a calendar on the wall, and by this time next week see five or six X’s?
Then a month’s worth?
A year’s worth?
Writing instructor Lew Hunter wrote:
We all have talent. How we use it and don’t use it is what the game is all about in writing and in life itself. We must not get beaten down by those who choose to simply take up space on this planet, by those whose lives risk counting for nothing.
Rob Loughran’s mystery novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He blogs at The Foul Mouthed Bard.