William Faulkner outlined chapters of A Fable by writing on the walls of his office. Fearing he’d miss his deadlines, Victor Hugo locked himself in a room with just a pen and paper for company. A writer’s process is often as unique as a fingerprint; there’s no one way to pen a novel.
Still, there are some fundamental obstacles almost every novelist faces at one point or another. We interviewed ten talented authors about the ups and downs of writing a book, and in the process, we put together this guide to drafting a debut novel. Read on for their top tips for emerging writers.
#1: Get to know yourself.
“The most important things I know about writing are summarized in two words: Know yourself,” New York Times best-selling author Mike Maden says. “If you know yourself, you can answer these questions: Why do you want to write—and why aren’t you writing? What story do you want to tell, and why do you want to tell it? And what’s at stake if you don’t write it—what effect will it have on you and the people in your life watching you? Are you completely passionate about the story you want to tell, and if not, why should anyone else be?”
Bonus Tip: Before you start writing, consider your answers to core questions about your motivations and write them down so that you can easily refer back to them whenever you need a reminder.
#2: Set a schedule, and stick to it.
“For years, I had a thousand stories to tell, but I dreamed about writing a lot more than I wrote,” western/noir crime writer J. Todd Scott tells us. “The problem was that successful writing was a mystery to me; an enigma. I somehow imagined all the books I loved so much appeared fully formed, perfect, almost effortlessly. However, whenever I sat down to write, it was more often a struggle than not. It seemed to be magic for everyone else, and merely work for me.
“But once I put myself on a consistent schedule (kickstarted by the 2011 National Novel Writing Month), the mere act of writing–daily, consistently–demystified it for me. Finishing a book wasn’t magic anymore, it was–when all is said and done–merely work. And I learned that good writing is always hard, and although you can’t will your way to inspiration and creativity, you can will yourself to sit down and put one word after another.”
Bonus Tip: It doesn’t necessarily matter how much you write or how good it is. In the beginning, it’s just about getting something on the page on a consistent and regular basis. Many of the writers we spoke to recommend setting realistic goals, like 500 words per day to start.
#3: Listen to your gut.
“Trust yourself,” Jessica Andrews, author of Saltwater, stresses. “Write the story that feels most true to you. If it scares you, then you’re probably onto something important. Don’t force your work into a particular form–the best structure will begin to emerge naturally.”
#4: Learn to accept imperfection.
“Let your drafts be messy, especially first drafts,” best-selling young adult author Mason Deaver suggests. “Drafts have to be messy, disgusting things for you to go back to and make better later. You have to give yourself the room to write something that you aren’t happy with, that’s imperfect.
“That’s the whole point of a draft. It’s not the finished product, and regardless of how much work you do, when you sign with an agent or work with an editor, they’re going to want to change things. So you have to be willing to accept that your drafts have problems, and things might not make sense at the end of the first, or second, or even sixteenth draft. And that’s okay!”
#5: Give it time.
“It’s not a race,” New York Times best-selling author Emily Duncan says. “Take the time to make your good idea into a great one. I’ve found that those initial sparks of a story always need time to grow into something truly unique. Any book I’ve ever written to the end started out as an idea I had at least three years prior but could never get to work. There’s something about letting things simmer, letting the ideas gather bits and pieces and grow until it’s not just ‘this would be a cool thing to write about’ but it’s a question that you need to answer.”
#6: Join a writer’s group.
“Writers groups can be so useful on many levels–for support and encouragement, or to talk you down from a writing cliff when you are struggling,” Marlene Adelstein, author of Sophie Last Seen, says. “And hopefully your writers group will read more than a chapter or two at a time. What’s most useful for me is to hand off the whole bloody thing when I’m done with a draft. Multiple drafts! A good writers group can be invaluable. Mine feels like my secret weapon to finishing my book.”
#7: Let your characters talk it out.
“There will be times when you become stuck,” science fiction and fantasy author Michael R. Johnston explains. “Even if you’ve got a detailed outline, you’ll wonder how to get from where you are to where you need to be.”
Luckily, he has an exercise that helps him make sense of it all. “One trick I’ve picked up is to write a scene wherein the characters discuss what they should do next–often over a meal–and I let it be as out-of-character as I want,” he tells us. “Once, I even had the characters discuss my shortcomings as a writer.
“Eventually, things will click into place, and then you can delete the scene and move on from where you left off, or you can even incorporate the scene into the action if it fits well.”
#8: Embrace the revision process.
“The number one piece of advice I’d give to any writer is to learn to be comfortable with, or even love, revision,” Swati Teerdhala, author of The Tiger at Midnight series, tells us. “Whether you’re a first time writer or have a few published novels under your belt, revision is the key to finding the heart of your story and creating the best work you can.
“Published authors can do anywhere from five to 10+ rounds of revision on their novels before they go to print. It’s easy to think that if a novel doesn’t come out perfectly, it’s no good. But writing is rewriting. Revision is the step in the writing process where you get to refine and perfect the story you want to tell. Learning to love it made writing my first (and second, third, and fourth) novel that much easier, and it’s an important skill to have as a writer.”
#9: Find experienced readers.
“When you’re ready, seek out critique partners and beta readers to help you elevate your work,” fantasy romance author Maxym M. Martineau says. Look for people outside your inner circle, including writers you admire, as opposed to friends and family.
“The writing community is an invaluable resource,” Martineau continues. “In fact, it’s the one thing I wished I’d become a part of sooner. If I could go back in time and give my wide-eyed, younger self one piece of writing advice, I’d say to join Twitter and get involved with all the writers who hang out there. Check out hashtags like #WritingCommunity, #PitchWars, #AmWriting, #AmEditing, etc.”
Beta readers usually aren’t paid, but you can return the favor by reading their novels and offering notes of your own. Martineau explains, “There’s nothing quite like having someone who loves your words almost as much as you do, who’s willing to go through the wringer with you and support you through the ups and downs associated with this industry.”
#10: Try everything, then do what works for you.
These tips are suggestions–not rules. Try them on for size, and see what fits your own schedule and workflow.
“I think there are many people who get an idea in their head of what their process should be, and get frustrated when it doesn’t yield results,” fantasy author Marshall Ryan Maresca tells us. “Anyone who tries to impart some kind of formula that’s ‘guaranteed’ to give you the secret to writing a novel is a snake oil salesman. There is no secret. There is no formula. There is just the application of hard work, learned skill, and discipline.
“I think one of the hardest parts of becoming a writer is determining what your process actually is, and then honoring that. Don’t smash your head against the wall trying to do it a certain way if that isn’t yielding results. Experiment. Try different things until you find a rhythm that works for you.”
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