A friend recently asked me how one goes about writing a book – he had a solid idea, and he’s recently begun a fairly regular writing regimen, and so he figured it was as good a time as any to get cracking, and he was right. There is no one way to write a book except for the way that everyone writes a book, which is to just dig in and do it.
With that in mind, I’ll tell you what I told my friend more-or-less in the order in which I told him.
1) When confronted with a blank page, put some goddamn words on it.
Every novel has an opening line. Some are powerful and concise, some are mincing and weak. Some get right to the point while others conjure up a bit of mystery. This is completely unimportant when you are writing a novel as this is only an early draft and the only thing that matters is getting that first line on the page. Go ahead and let it be sub-standard – in the first draft of a book, something is always better than nothing.
2) Go back before you go forward.
The very first draft of a novel, for me at any rate, is usually a sketch. It’s not very deep, and it usually only runs about 15-20 pages. Provided it doesn’t work as a short story on its own, and it has enough meat to be a book, then I go back and write biographies for the characters and guidebooks for the settings. I may know in the earliest draft that I just need a guy named “Charlie” to talk to my protagonist “Sam,” but after I know that I go back and develop Sam and Charlie – I give them hopes, wants, needs, and histories beyond those which are diegetic. Sometimes this changes the way characters interact and sometimes it doesn’t, but it always makes the experience deeper moving forward.
3) Be sure of the story you want to tell.
As my friend explained the essentials of what will become his novel, he gave me a great number of details and several significant points of action. While most of what he told me is probably essential to the story, it is up to the writer to come up with creative ways to relay that information without overloading the reader with irrelevant detail.
One of the best examples that comes to my mind now is that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment – we know that he’s a student, and that he’s read philosophy in a certain vein, though we’re hardly privy to specifics. Still, it is enough to balance and motivate the character. We don’t need to know more about his childhood than what spills out in occasional dialogues with his mother and sister, and we don’t need to know anything more of his studies than what he reveals himself in his thoughts and actions. It is an excellent example of knowing what not to say.
4) Worry it the way a dog worries a bone.
You’ve got to hammer on it every day. If you can’t bear to put pen to paper, then re-read it, go back and do some high-level edits (not too many: you’ll second-guess yourself). It’s got to be as natural as eating and sleeping, which means that just like eating and sleeping, you’ve got to do it every day.
There are roundabout ways to get at it, too – in fact, if you find yourself staring at a blank page for more than five minutes, you’re not doing yourself any favors. As I already said, you can re-read or edit and in that way jump-start the process, but I personally like to start writing something else and then come back around to the task at hand. This works for me because I…
5) Keep it fun.
A lot of advice I’ve received has to do with keeping a sense of “play” while writing. If you think you’re sitting down to do something grave and serious, it’s very likely that you have a passing fancy to write something gray, and that fancy will pass with the first ray of sunshine you see. Writing that comes from a distinct mood or point of emotional impact tends to be self-absorbed and esoteric. To that end, remember that this is craft, and not introspection. Introspection belongs in your diary, craft belongs on the page. It is work, yes, but you should love your job. If you love your job, it quickly becomes play.
6) To write a good novel (or story, or poem), first give yourself permission to write a bad one.
My friend dove headlong into writing and then texted me later to say that what he’d written was “barely English,” which is exactly what should happen your first time out. The first one is not going to be very good – my old writing prof at Wayne State expressed some puzzlement over this pressure on an author’s first novel because that used to be considered the warm-up novel, or the test-run novel, the one that had a short, small run to test the waters and prepare a marketing rush for the second novel, which was expected to be immeasurably better.
Now it’s a sort of sink-or-swim game, which works fine for radio, television, and the internet where audiences are both captive and diverse, but book readers are a more established and discerning crowd. They are likely to recognize a first novel as such, and forgive its flaws and transgressions if the essence is good. The second has to make up for those flaws, but the first, if tolerable, is tolerated. Expecting gold out of someone’s premier book seems to me like keeping someone in a shark tank and expecting them to swim (the sharks here are editors and their accounting departments ready to tear up a contract at the first show of weakness).
The author should expect no better of himself than an educated reader might – in fact, as a writer is his own worst critic, he should expect significantly less. It’s going to be a big hot mess that you put on that page, and later you can clean it up. The important thing is to get it out!
A Look Back – 19 November 2021
This post was one of the first to incorporate images – I abandoned the old suck.com model of text + links in favor of images with captions. I then deleted the captions on this repost because they weren’t funny.
Looking over the old SSS posts has been a daunting task for a few reasons – firstly, there are just so many of them, second because some of them are mean, and third (closely related) many of them also feature bad convictions, bad political opinions, or some combination of the above. As a result, they stay unpublished in a literary trash heap of insecurity and regret, while others can be salvaged into something workable.
However, I find a lot of the posts on writing still have a lot to agree with insofar as they urge persistence, dedication, and tolerance (especially self-tolerance). Thus, they seem to make up sort of a bulk of salvaged SSS pages. So be it! I’m a writer, I like writing – some things just make sense.
If I had to take issue with this post, it’s that I still haven’t published a book. I’ve put out quite a few short stories since then, and done a TON of copywriting – but no book. Well, so it goes. I am working on one now (no jinxing), but that data point is actually informed by those preceding, namely, that it turns out I don’t write all that well when I’m desperate, hungry, and anxious.
Rather, there’s a primal sense in the work – when I can channel that anxiety it makes for some interesting wordcraft, but not always. Additionally it is borderline impossible to keep that up for an entire novel. I have the scars to prove it, so to speak, in the form of my MFA thesis and a novel project I drafted back in 2013. Both are so terribly uneven – and they’re uneven because I couldn’t give them the time and energy to revise and edit them properly.
So yes – yes to everything I’ve posted above, BUT ALSO: get support. Get help. Get a job. Get your life in order as much as you can. Get stable. Get loved. Get therapy. Get a good meal, and then get to work, and also:
Get systems in place that allow for this! I am writing from a position of major privilege right now and I know it. I have a good job, I have a loving partner, I have not skipped a meal in a long time – I’m happier, and that’s because a lot of problems have been solved…but no two ways about it, I’m one of the lucky ones.
Get political. The space I have to explore art should not be mine alone, nor should it only be the provenance of the well-to-do. Poor people deserve to have their voices heard, and also to not be poor. Our whole collective way of thinking about who gets to do what with their time is so busted – and only with a strong social safety net and a safe, healthy environment is it going to ever be fixed.