Regular readers will know that I love to write. I’ve written more short stories than I can count, at least a few of which don’t suck, along with two novels (both of which do suck), and two more in progress. None of my stuff has been published yet (here’s hoping, though!), but I like to think that I’ve gained a lot of useful experience these last few years. So, in The Life of a Math Major tradition, I present yet another bulleted list of tips for writers. This time, though, the advice is geared more towards novelists, the marathon-runners of the writing world. Like running a marathon, writing a novel takes a lot of practice, a lot of determination, a good bit of self-delusion, and you’re going to come to the starting line and chicken out a few times before you actually manage to run your first race. So, in order to help other aspiring novelists, here’s a metaphorical cup of Gatorade to keep you from conking out at mile ten (yes, I am sticking by that metaphor. It’s a good metaphor. Don’t give me that look, it is!):
- Even arbitrary deadlines help. I discovered this the first time I participated in National Novel-Writing Month. NaNoWriMo offers no prizes other than bragging rights and a nice certificate, and there are no measures in place to keep people honest. And yet, that goal of fifty thousand words in thirty days always drives me forward, somehow. Before I discovered NaNoWriMo, I found it impossible to maintain the necessary momentum to finish a whole novel. With the arbitrary deadline hanging over my head, though, suddenly, I could do it.
- Enter contests. NaNoWriMo is a good one, but any writing contest will do. If you don’t have one available, start one. Once you know that you really can write a whole novel, you won’t have to worry about it, and you can concentrate on writing something good.
- Never give up. While writing my current novel, something unprecedented happened. About a month ago, I got a nasty case of writer’s block, followed by insomnia and a really busy period at school, so I stopped writing for a month. With every one of my previous novels, that’s been a death sentence. This time, though, even though I knew I’d have trouble getting back into the spirit of the novel, I started writing again. And it worked. The novel is now resurrected. The moral: never give up on a novel. If you want badly enough to write it, you can, no matter what gets in your way.
- Start with a good idea. This connects to the “if you want badly enough to write it, you can” thing in the previous bullet point. Let’s face it, a novel is really hard work. You have to put a lot of energy into it, so don’t try to write any story idea as a novel unless you really, really (really) like it. If you have an idea you’re not sure of, write it as a short story to test it out.
- One piece at a time. When you sit down to work, try not to think about the fact that you’re writing a novel. That’s a good way to get overwhelmed. A novel is a daunting project, and until you’re finished, it can be hard to feel like you’ve accomplished anything. So what I’ve done with my current novel is to write it one chapter at a time. Not only does this fit nicely within my limited attention span, but it allows me to feel like I finished something, like I’m going somewhere. As long as you make sure the chapters dovetail nicely with one another, then this method shouldn’t do any damage to your plot.
- You have to actually write stuff. Every writer who gives advice ends up saying this eventually, but it’s true. To keep a novel alive, you have to write, preferably every day. If you don’t, it can be hard to get back into the right mood. And just as importantly:
- Don’t be afraid to write rubbish. In all likelihood, it’s not rubbish. In my experience, most writers think the stuff they write is crap. Don’t worry about that. Even if what you’re writing really is rubbish, keep writing it anyway. You can fix it in your revisions. The important thing is not to let it stop you. A novel with a few rough patches is better than a novel that never gets finished. At least the latter can be fixed. If the plot starts to wander away from where you wanted it to go, gently push it back and move on.
I wish I also had some advice for how to revise your novel, but I’m still stuck on that step myself, and don’t even get me started on getting it published. For that, I’d need someone to give me some bullet points. For now, though, I hope you find these tips useful.