Today, I’m going to rely on the wisdom culled from other writers to dive into the kinds of habits that transform aspiring novelists into published novelists.
(Or at least novelists who have completed a novel… publication presents its own set of challenges).
I’m going to start by paraphrasing Walter Mosley from his MasterClass on Fiction & Storytelling. He advises writers to start simple, because complexity will come naturally as you add details and complications.
Another way to think of this: If you write a novel one scene at a time, the demands of a solid scene will naturally add complexity — e.g., foreshadowing an event happening in the next chapter, the dialogue that brings characters to the brink of open conflict, the description of the setting and how it affects the characters.
So beware of adding tons of complexity to your plot — your characters, if you bring them to life, will flesh out the plot’s bare bones. And since your first draft will be rough anyway, you can count on revisions to add even more meat.
“The first draft of anything is suspect unless one is a genius.”— Bernard Malamud
You should also “start small” if you are attempting to establish a writing routine alongside a busy day job or family responsibilities or other demands on your time. It’s easy to get discouraged and not write at all. Some might think, “If I can’t carve out three hours of solid writing time, it’s not worth it.”
But Anthony Trollope urges us to set aside small chunks of time every day. Each minor effort will add up to a larger result. Trollope was famously productive — even as he worked a time-consuming job for the postal service.
“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”— Anthony Trollope
Anthony Trollope’s modest efforts require discipline. In my experience, when I’ve had 15 minutes to write on my lunch break, it was considerably easier to make excuses than when I set aside two hours on a Sunday morning. Steve Higgs, an indie author who might be as prolific as Trollope (if not more), applies his military training setting goals.
“Set a word count target and if you haven’t hit it, don’t go to bed.”— Steve Higgs, indie author
This is a different approach from measuring your accomplishments in blocks of time. Decide what works best for you. But whether you set goals based on time or word count, the most important thing is that you sit down and write. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike.
“The muse visits during composition, not before.”— Robert Ebert
I don’t entirely agree with Robert Ebert’s claim above. In my experience, the muse visits at the strangest times. Going to the bathroom at 1 am. Picking out tomatoes at the supermarket. Stopping on the sidewalk to tie my shoelaces. But one thing is for certain: Only when we devote time to our writing does inspiration transform into story.
Give what you have
I’ve sabotaged my writing practice many times. Days, weeks, months, even years would go by, and I would dream of writing that novel, but I’d find an excuse not to get started. The list of excuses was impressively long:
- I’ll just finish watching this series on Netflix.
- It’s Friday night, I’m going to hit the town. (Related: It’s Saturday morning, I’m too hungover to write.)
- I’m too tired to write well.
- I’ve got too much work.
- I don’t know where to start.
- I should read more books, do more research, outline more before getting started.
- I don’t have the right tools — there’s got to be something than Word or Scrivener or my Moleskine notebook.
- I’ve got chores to do. Have you seen the state of the bathroom?
- The world is falling apart. Who needs another fanciful story?
- Nobody will want to read this. Nobody will want my story.
Let’s look at the last one. I’m going to let Longfellow address it:
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Netflix may be to blame for the silent death of millions of creative projects, but the self-doubt expressed in “nobody will want this” is maybe the most pernicious excuse. Whenever I’ve voiced it, I’ve had plenty of “evidence” to back it up. Look at how many great novels are released every year. Look at how shitty my drafts are. Even my ideas are unoriginal.
But Longfellow’s advice is spot on. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to the writers we admire. It tends to be a recipe for disaster. Instead, draw inspiration from their books, and write a story in your own words using the skills you have now, not the ones others possess (and which you yourself may have in 5 or 10 years). Will your book live up to Madame Bovary or Middlemarch? Probably not. But is that the goal with your first book? Instead, it may bring delight or insight to someone out there who isn’t looking for Gustave Flaubert or George Eliot.
“I have the thought: Ah! How I’d like to write like X! Too bad it’s completely beyond my capabilities! Then I try to imagine this impossible undertaking, I think of the book I will never write but would like to read, to put beside other beloved books on an ideal shelf. And suddenly some words, sentences appear in my mind…”— Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino expands on Longfellow’s advice, and if we combine them we have a kind of three-part mantra for discouraged writers:
- Give what you have.
- Think of the book you would like to read. What are some words and sentences that could begin that story?
- Once you’ve written a page, keep going…
Writing is hard. Seeing our shitty first drafts can be discouraging. But even more discouraging is letting a week go by — or a month or a year — in which we write nothing.
So, go give what you have. Many of us will be pleased by what you’ve got inside.