Getting it done — how to write your first novel
by Patricia McLinn
Hands down, the top issue beginning novelists encounter is they don’t begin.
This problem comes in two flavors:
- Not starting your writing session
- Not starting your novel.
Take those in reverse order.
Not starting your writing project.
How should a writer start writing? With an outline/plan/synopsis? Or diving in with words?
Countless would-be writers have spun writerly wheels deep into inescapable ditches while contemplating these questions. Don’t let wondering where is best to start keep you from starting at all.
Some folks see this as Story vs. Craft or Characters vs. Structure. Pfft. Good writing needs both. I view it as writing from the Inside Out (from connecting with characters at a gut level out to story structure) or the Outside In (from structure into character.) Either way, you need both inside and outside. The difference is how you get there.
I’m an Inside Outer. Outlines stop me dead. How do I know? Because I’ve tried. I have writer friends who are Outside Inners, who become lost in the wilderness if they start with characters. How do they know? Because they’ve tried.
Only you can figure out which approach works for you. You figure out by doing. So get in there and start something (outline or scene), then try something else (the other one.) Which feels better? Which makes you want to keep going? Go with it. But also know that at some point, you will need both. Where you start is just that – a start.
Beware I: How-to books, charts, writing exercises. These elements are helpful if they aid your writing, not if they replace writing.
Beware II: Over-researching. Research is fun. It looks like you’re doing something productive. It can also be a grand excuse to not write. I do broad-brush research before starting. Only after I’m into a story, do I know what details it requires – I research those. Remember, research serves the story. Not vice versa.
Beware III: Thinking you need to be a better writer before you can start writing. Nope. You have to write to be a better writer. What you write doesn’t have to be perfect or even good at the start. It just has to be that way at the end.
Not Starting Your Writing Session
Paraphrasing John Gardner, the hardest 15 minutes in writing are the 15 minutes before you start writing.
There’s a good reason for that, as shown in two quotes about writing. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said all you had to do was “sit in front of a typewriter and open a vein.” Variously ascribed to Gene Fowler or Doug Adams, the other quote advises “staring at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
We’ve left typewriters and paper behind (mostly), but blood’s still part of the program.
You dig into the guts and souls of characters who live in your head with the hope of connecting them to unknown readers. How can it not be hard? How can it not be wonderful? How can it not be terrifying to sit down in front of the computer and prepare to do this?
So don’t. Instead, put the big, terrifying, wonderful important stuff out of your mind and concentrate on other matters. In other words, play mind games with yourself.
Find a routine. Keep your writing place and time sacred and only for that. Play the same music over and over until you’re as conditioned to write when it plays as Pavlov’s dogs were to salivate.
Use guilt. For many of us it’s a renewable resource, so don’t stint. You have an ability to write and you’re not using it? How dare you waste that. You have a dream to write and you’re not pursuing it? What kind of example are you to your children. You have characters in your head and you’re not letting them out? How cruel of you to condemn them to everlasting solitude.
Most of all, remind yourself of this writing essential: BICHOK.That’s Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. I do an entire workshop on BICHOKing. But here’s one trick:
In each writing session, leave something unfinished. Don’t polish the end of a chapter, then close your file and be done for the day. That leaves a wall of inertia to climb the next time you sit down. Instead, go on to the next chapter, next scene, next whatever and start writing. Doesn’t have to be a lot. Then – and this is vital — write whatever else you’re thinking about or know about that chapter/scene/whatever. Think notes, scraps, fragments. This is for you alone, so the next time you open your file, you have reminders of what was percolating in your brain. I particularly like fragments of dialogue strung together with ellipses. Filling in those ellipses, along with supporting notes and comments left like breadcrumbs from the previous session return my thoughts to where they were at the end of the previous session. That makes the next writing session much easier to start.
So get started!
Patricia McLinn, or PA McLinn as her readers know her, is a writing instructor and the author of several romances including the Bardville, Wyoming series.
See her finished work here.