Writing 101: So You Want
to Write a Novel
Part 2: Writing a Novel
By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
You've got your plan in
place as we discussed in the July edition of Vision. You've taken your
idea(s), developed some characters, setting, and conflict. From this you
have created an outline to the level that you currently feel comfortable
with. You know where to begin the story. It's time to face the blank
page and start putting words on it.
Be aware that right now,
before you start, your novel is a perfect piece of art. Not long after
you start writing -- perhaps five minutes -- you'll see problems. You'll
wonder why you ever thought you could do this. You'll be certain you're
the worst writer on the planet and that all those people who encouraged
you to fulfill this dream should be taken out and shot.
Please know that this is a
normal stage to go through. Don't let the combination of frustration and
fear stop you before you even get started.
Even in this electronic age,
a number of writers prefer to hand-write their first draft on paper.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this method, at least if your
handwriting is legible! It will take longer this way, but if it works
for you, go for it. You'll likely find yourself doing light editing as
you type it into the computer later.
Most folks create directly
on the keyboard using some sort of word processing program, such as
Microsoft Word™. At this stage, don't worry too much about how to format
the document, though I'd recommend turning off all variations of "Smart
Quotes" (under preferences) before you start. These are difficult to
dislodge later and are the cause of the funny little squares and odd
characters you'll sometimes see in forum posts and emails. It's best to
get rid of them before they grab hold.
Use whatever font and size
feeds your creativity--whatever helps your mind know that this is Novel
Time. Simply the act of double-spacing lines helps me to create this
mindset. It's simple to format the manuscript later to meet agents' or
Envision your first scene as
best you can, and start typing. Realize that you'll need to fix it
later. It doesn't have to be perfect. You just do the best you can
today. Don't worry about description, or the balance of dialogue, or
showing versus telling. Don't worry about making sense. Today's job is
just to solidify that first scene, to introduce the main character(s),
and to get the action rolling in whatever way comes to mind.
Don't worry about chapter
breaks unless you want to. If you look in published novels, you'll find
chapters as short as one page and as long as fifty. Do think about
scenes, though. A scene takes place in one time and setting, and has
various combinations of characters, dialogue, conflict, and change.
Scenes are the basic building blocks of the novel. Chapters are simply a
way to group one or more scenes and aren't intrinsic to the story
Mark your scene breaks with
a simple # on its own line. This will make it easy to find later, and
can be formatted to whatever standards are required at submission time.
THE LONG HAUL
Writing a novel is a
long-term process. Even if you're a fast typist with a lot of spare
time, expect that you'll need thinking time in the middle of it all. I'd
advise trying to set times when you will write, then do your best to
meet those times. If all you can set aside is half an hour, three times
a week, do so--and guard those brief moments with your life. If you can
set aside an hour a day, 5-7 days a week, you'll find momentum. Do the
scene visualizing ahead of time so when you sit down, you're ready to
spill out the words.
There are times when you sit
at the keyboard and you have no idea what comes next. You look at your
notecards, and wonder what drug you were on when you wrote that drivel.
The only thing you know for certain is that you're not writing what is
on that card. This is especially likely to happen at the 10-15K (K in
writing word count means thousand) mark, when the characters have come
alive on the page. You now visualize them standing there with their arms
crossed, shaking their heads. They are not going to play the game by
What to do? Free write. Open
a new document, and pour out your frustration. Write what you want them
to do, and why they won't do it. Write what they want to do. Write the
repercussions of going their direction. Write whatever comes to mind for
a period of at least fifteen to twenty minutes--or longer. You'll most
likely discover a route through the story that works for all of you.
Sometimes at this stage you
look at what you've written thus far (say, a prairie romance) and
suddenly get the urge to throw in some flaming dragons. It may be best
to set aside the dragons for another story! It takes a fertile, active
mind to create a garden bed where other ideas may take root and grow.
But don't fall into the pattern of deserting your current story to work
on what is new and shiny or you'll never finish anything. Make a few
notes about the fabulous new idea, and close the new file. Then back to
the current story. If, however, flaming dragons would fit the story
you're writing and would jazz it up in a positive way, feel free to add
There are two halves to your
brain: the left, logical side, and the right, creative side. First draft
writing demands the attention of your creative brain. This is no place
for applied logic, especially if you've already got some semblance of an
outline. The left brain had its chance for input then and will have
plenty to do in later drafts. For now, send it on vacation. It's your
right brain's turn to do its job. Trust your creative mind (your muse,
if you will) to churn out the good stuff, to connect the dots you can
barely see, and to pull genius out of thin air.
Some writers have difficulty
finishing a first draft because they endlessly fiddle with what they've
written thus far. Resist the impulse, because this way lies madness. If,
as you go along, you think of something cool you should have added in
chapter three to create a deeper conflict in chapter seven, make a note
of what it is, then carry on as though you'd already written it that
way. You can fix it later.
First drafts are supposed to
be messy. Don't let your Inner Editor tell you otherwise. When it pokes
in its nose, remind it it'll have plenty to do later. For now, just
follow your outline, follow your muse as it feeds you the story line by
line over the course of however many weeks and months it may take to get
to the other end. Keep at it! Remember the adage: You can eat an
elephant, one bite at a time. Writing a novel isn't for quitters. It
takes a lot of time and dedication.
It's rarely a good idea to
have anyone reading your draft as you produce it, whether it is your
best friend or your critique group. You stand the very real likelihood
of getting mired in their vision for your story instead of your own.
Trust yourself, and keep writing. The time for other people's input is
coming, but it isn't here yet.
Coming up in the Writing
101: So You Want to Write a Novel series include: Revising a Novel,
and Submitting a Novel.