Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, February 27, 2016

How To Write Your (First) Novel



You know when you want to do something, like write a novel, but you aren't sure whether you can pull it off? So you think about it, you talk about it, you read books about it, but the one thing you don’t do, is actually sit down and write.

Now I know a lot of people would think – ah, you're lazy. That’s why you talk about doing something, but never get around to doing it. I don’t think you are lazy though. I don’t think I am either. It isn’t laziness that holds us back from doing something that is important to us, but is still something that we never make time for. Have you heard that saying – if it is important to you, you make time for it?

Well, in this case, that saying is wrong. I have read every tough love piece of advice out there regarding writing, and I can tell you, bullying or coercing yourself to sit down and do something that for some reason you can't even imagine doing, isn’t the solution. You know why? Because you are held back by fear. Fear of the unknown. You don’t know how to write a book. You don’t have a blueprint. You have no clue how to go from the vague storyline in your head, to the first sentence that you type into your computer. Or the next sentence. Or the one just before you type "The End".

The problem is that because you technically know how to put together a sentence, you assume that you know how to write a book. It is like me saying that because I know how to beat an egg, I can make a Beef Wellington. That's a big leap to make. But it doesn’t mean that I can never learn how to make a Beef Wellington. Or that you can't learn how to write a novel.

It's just that you can't use the same method for both.

There are no recipes for writing a novel. There are no videos you can watch. But that doesn't mean that you are doomed to be an aspiring novelist forever.

Here's the thing with writing. Unlike cooking, you get many do-overs. And much like making pancakes, you have to discard the first one. Don’t start the process thinking that you are going to write a brilliant book that will change the course of the universe. If that happens, amazing! Please send me a signed copy of your book. But what's more likely, you will write something that has some potential, some really great bits, and a lot of meh – stuff you need to fix or throw out. But that's fine, because you will have a finished draft.

So although this post says that it will tell you how to write a novel, I think it's more accurate to say, how to write a finished draft.
1.                   Keep It Simple
Keep the premise of the story simple. You are a beginner, learning to juggle characters, setting and plot. You don’t need to bring in the cast of War and Peace, or decide to do original research in the backroom of the Library of Congress to write your novel. Start with something that is familiar to you in some way. Take your idea and simplify it. I'm not suggesting you make it boring, just doable, unless you want to complete your first draft in the summer of 2020.
2.                   Put Away the Red Pen
Give your inner editor a holiday. The reason that Nanowrimo is so popular is that the crazy schedule of writing a novel in a month forces you to disentangle the process of writing from editing. You can go back and worry that the timeline is off and your characters are inauthentic, once you have a draft. For now, just keep going, other than to correct minor typos. Even better, if you do have an idea for how to make the scene better, instead of deleting what you have, just write it again from the new angle. Keep both scenes and decide later which one is better. For now, just keep going.
3.                   Draw From Experience
Creating a whole new world is challenging enough, make it easier on yourself and draw on your own life experience wherever possible. Julia Cameron always says that writing is large enough to hold anything you throw at, so don’t be afraid to put in stuff from your life. While writing my Nanowrimo novel last year, I was desperate for anything that would help me to make up my word count since I was hideously behind. I shamelessly cribbed whatever was going on in my own life and chucked it into the novel; for instance, the characters met properly for the first time at the gym, only because I was spending a lot of time at my gym at the time, and found it easy to write that scene.
         4.      Don't Write Chronologically
One of the main reasons I couldn’t complete my book ideas for many years is because I mistakenly thought that I had to write the book in chronological order – you know, "begin at the beginning, go on till the end, then stop". That may be how the reader reads the book, but that is no reason for you to write that way. I spent months trying to figure out the first scene, the opening sentence. And it didn’t help that I read articles about how important it was that the introduction really hooks the reader, that you must convey the essence and flavor of the story in that first page. All that is true, but what I didn’t know, is that you don’t need to do that now. When you're just starting out writing, you don’t know what will make a good opening scene. Forget about that first sentence. For now, you just need to have something written. One scene. Any scene. The ones that you know you will include. The ones that make you excited about the book. Go ahead and write those.
As you put down the things that come to you, more ideas will get sparked from your writing. Sitting frozen imagining what you will write won't get you any closer to a completed manuscript. Writing it will. Put down whatever you can think of, and after you have a finished draft, you can worry about that perfect opening scene.

So there you have it. The four things I did to help me finally write a complete draft of my first novel, as well as how I completed six non-fiction books. Every time I start a new draft of a new book, I still feel fear. I still put it off. I still dream of getting the book published and how amazing it will feel. And then, I start writing. Because nothing can help you become a published author if you never actually go ahead and write that first draft. 
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