Of the six novels I’ve written in my life, two have been published. I’ve heard writers say that you have to relearn how to write a novel every time you do it, which I think is true in some ways, but there are some basic guidelines that can help you find your way—and novice-type pitfalls that you can avoid. The advice I’m about to give you won’t work for everyone, or for every book, because fiction is art and art cannot hew strictly to rules and guidelines, but if you need a little help getting started, here is my Very Serious Guide to Writing a Novel.
1. Know what’s important to you.
I don’t mean, like, your cat or your sister or chocolate—these are all great things, but we’re not talking about personal tastes here. I mean: Why is the story you’re writing interesting to you? If you had to boil it down to a few sentences, what would you say?And I’m not asking you to summarize the plot; I’m talking about the juice in the middle of the plot. Take my newest book, The Vacationers, for example: It’s about a family taking a trip together, but what it’s really about is how people present themselves to one another, how we all want to show the best, most flattering sides of ourselves, and how that doesn’t always work, and how we love one another despite that. The important part of your story might change as you’re writing, but I find it useful to have that little nugget in mind from the get-go, because sometimes writing a novel can feel overwhelming, and it’s nice to be able to come back to your earliest intention.
2. Make an outline.
Many writers I know totally disdain outlines, but I like them. I start by taking lots of notes about my characters and imagining different ways the story could go. When I find a path that feels right, I start a new text document and write out the whole story in a very condensed form, in paragraphs. I like to have a beginning, middle, and end in mind before I dive into the real writing. This outline doesn’t have to be well-written or even complete: Mine are riddled with sentence fragments and things like ADD GOOD SEX SCENE HERE MAYBE. Here are two versions of my outline for The Vacationers. The first one is really just a sketch:
The second is more fleshed out, because I had started to think about specific scenes:
Some of this stuff is exactly what ends up happening in the book, and some of it isn’t. An outline is a fluid document and can change whenever you need it to.
It’s also helpful to know what the ending of your story is. That way, you know where you’re going.
3. Set attainable goals.
This is where a lot of people go off track. It’s tempting to drink a lot of coffee and say, “I’M GOING TO START WRITING A NOVEL TODAY,” tell your friends that you’re going to write 10,000 words a day, and then do that for three days and give up. This is why it’s vitally important to give yourself sustainable goals.
How much time do you have to write? Do you have an hour every day, or three hours on Sundays? Can you write a page a day? Can you write 20 pages a week? Figure out how much time you can realistically spend on your book per week, or how many pages you want to write, and stick to it, no matter what. You’re not always going to be operating at full speed. You will get the flu. You will go on vacation. You’ll be in a fight with your best friend. None of that matters to your novel. You need to be able to sit down and work anyway.
Self-discipline is the hardest part of being a writer. If you find it truly impossible to do it on your own, buddy up—find a friend who also wants to write, and do it together, sitting next to each other on the floor of a library or in a coffee shop or in your bedroom. Whether or not you have a pal to hold you accountable, make goals and stick to them. No one is going to force you to turn something in, so you have to really want to do it. Anyone can sit around and say, “You know what? I have a novel in me,” but it takes serious dedication to sit your ass down and get it done. There have certainly been times when I’ve given myself a writing project and not stuck to it—ahem, feel free to open the SCREENPLAY folder on my computer—and I know for a fact that it’s because whenever I’ve started those projects, it’s been with a belly full of fire and no plan whatsoever. It happens to all of us! Afterwards, it’s our job to start the NEXT project with a little more planning and a lot more confidence.
This is the fun part. Write whatever the hell you want. Write about things you know about (spiritually and emotionally, that is, not necessarily a roman à clef about your high school/family, though you are certainly welcome to do that too), things you know nothing about, your hometown, Antarctica, the secret love lives of cats, your older brother’s hot best friend, a cheesemonger on the moon. Write whatever you want, and enjoy it. Write a book that doesn’t exist, but needs to. Write a book that you would want to read.
Here are a few extra tips, just because. As with the above, this advice is not for everyone. Pick the rules that work for you and ignore the rest.
- Don’t name your characters Julio and Juliet, or Belinda and Beloonda, or, as I did in the third unpublished book I wrote, Tom and Tom. It’s your job to make sure your readers always know who you’re talking about. Don’t make their lives more annoying.
- Dreams are fascinating. To you. When you wake up. They are rarely fascinating on the page. You know how it is when you’re having breakfast with a friend and they are endlessly describing their dream to you, and how meandering and boring that is? It’s a hundred times worse in books.
- You can skip stuff! It took me a long time to learn this one. You don’t have to start a scene where someone wakes up and follow them for every second of the day. You can start wherever you want! You can start with “Beloonda picked her tooth up off the hallway floor.” You can start with “Belinda peed loudly, the way she imagined a Hawaiian waterfall might sound.” Then you can go somewhere else entirely! You can fast-forward six months! You can do anything you want.
- Read everything you can get your hands on. Read your favorite books over and over again. Read the writers you love, and want to be like. Don’t worry about being derivative. In the early stages, inspiration is important. Try to figure out how your favorite writers make you love their words—is it their humor? Pacing? Dialog?
This fourth step might take a really long time—maybe years. That’s OK! One of the best things about being a writer is that no one is timing you. Donna Tartt writes a novel every 10 years, and Joyce Carol Oates writes one every 10 minutes. As long as you remain committed and serious about your project, don’t stress out about how long it takes you to complete it.
5. Find readers.
When you finish your first draft—surprise!—you aren’t really finished. It’s time to edit. (This was the hardest part of writing a novel for me to learn.)
Find a couple of smart people who you know will be honest with you, and let them read your novel and give you notes. These can be friends, teachers, and/or people you hardly know. Try to avoid showing your work to family members at this stage—your parents are not going to give you unbiased advice.
And when people give you the feedback you asked for, don’t be defensive! If you’ve chosen good, kind readers, they will not be mean to you for no reason. They just want to help you make your book better. Listen to them and understand what they’re responding to. This can be hard, but it’s a fascinating part of the process. You get to see if your intentions made it onto the page, and what else came along for the ride. For example, if you thought you were writing a hilarious dark comedy about funeral parlors competing in a hearse drag race, and your friends thought that the book was really about the pseudo-mother/daughter relationship between the rival funeral parlor owners, that’s interesting, and maybe you tease that out even more in the next draft.
Between this step and the next, close your computer, or put down your pen, and walk away. Give yourself a break. It’s necessary to get some distance from your story in order to see it clearly. Take at least a week before coming back to it—preferably longer.
6. Revise that sucker for as long as it takes.
This might take a while. I know it’s not fun to hear, and believe me, I am so with you. I like everything to be done as quickly as possible. Fight that feeling! Settle in! Along with your notes from your trusted readers, think about what’s working (the orphan!) and what’s not (the dream sequences!). Remember that outline? Now is the time to go back to it. Rewrite it so that it actually resembles your finished book.
When your outline looks like your current draft, it’ll be easier to see (all on one or two pages) where you need to spend the most time editing. This outline can be more detailed than the last one. That way, you’ll be able to tell where the gaping holes are. Do you zoom from one plot point to the next? Do you skip over a tough scene that you’re scared to write? Now’s when you ask yourself those questions. Ask those nice people who read your book once if they’ll do it again, or ask someone new. The world is full of great, smart readers.
Once you’re done reviewing your outline, revisit the novel itself. Get in there and get your hands dirty! When I’m revising, I like to start over from the very beginning of my novel, but you can start anywhere you want. Switch the whole thing into a new voice, or change the setting, or completely restructure the whole book. (Note: Remember to save these giant swooping changes under different file names, so that you can always go back if you decide you were right the first time.) Repeat as necessary until you’re happy with it. Congratulations! You’re done!
7. Give yourself a gigantic pat on the back.
It’s hard to write a novel! When you’ve finished, go buy yourself an ice cream cone. I celebrated finishing my first two books (neither of which sold) by taking myself out for a Coke and a hamburger. Those meals rank up there with the best of my life. Each time, I was alone, eating a $5 dinner…and feeling so, so proud of myself.
Writing is a weird, lonely job, and it’s a life filled with rejection and criticism (my drawerful of unpublished novels, yes, but also the rejections that still roll in all the time…and Amazon reviews), but who cares! I love it, and wouldn’t want my life’s work to be anything else. Art is important. Go write a novel. ♦