In “How I Read” for The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks gives advice on reading actively, pen in hand, searching for connections in the text, parsing metaphor and meaning:
I do believe reading is an active (more…)
Anyone who tells you that writing a novel is easy has probably never written one. Here are the five most common statements I hear from people who are struggling to write a novel:
I don’t know where to begin.
I’ve written a few chapters, but I can’t figure out where to go from here.
I have a great idea for a novel, but the idea of actually sitting down and writing it feels too daunting.
I’ve heard you’re supposed to write an outline for your novel, so I did. Now what?
I’ve actually written a novel before, but I put it away because it isn’t good enough to send out.
No magic formula.
If you find yourself nodding your head to any of these statements, I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a novel. Writing a novel comes with no guarantee of publication, of success, of sales, of an audience. But if you’re reading this email, you probably know all that already. And I believe that you’ve already made up your mind about one thing: writing a novel is worth the time and effort, the headaches, the inevitable state of not knowing what will happen to the book into which you’ve poured your heart and soul.
You don’t have to know where you’re going.
Too often, novels don’t get written because writers think they have to know exactly where the novel is going before they begin. I worked on my breakout novel, The Year of Fog, for more than a year before I knew what would happen to the child who was kidnapped in chapter one. A year! Most of the how-to books on novel writing will tell you to sit down and write an outline first, and start writing your novel later. My approach is the opposite. There actually will come a time to write an outline, but not until you’re deep into the book, with some key chapters and scenes already written.
While I’ve never found a formula for writing, what I have found is a process. It works for me. It has worked for many of my students.
Here are the 4 basic principles.
1.Get some stuff on the page. Write a few key scenes, and fill them with significant detail. Don’t write what you know, necessarily, but write what you care about.
2.Figure out who your characters are and what makes them tick.
3.Put it all together using a process of arrangement that involves your primary story arc, at least one subplot, and thematic associations that add depth and interest to your story.
4.Revise the novel using a revision checklist. Make sure the first 50 pages will catch the attention of one (or all) of these three key people: agent, publisher, reader. Send it out.
I call this process The Paperclip Method.
What’s different about The Paperclip Method is that it doesn’t ask you to know what your story means or where it goes when you begin. It is, instead, a highly intuitive process that requires you to simply enjoy the writing first, and make the tough decisions about what goes where later. Sounds like procrastination, but it’s really about discovery. So often, when working with private clients, I’ll praise a particular section of the book for its naturalness, for the fluidity of the writing and the complexity of the characters. Often, the surprised writer will say, “But that was one of the easiest chapters to write!”
Letting go of the inner tension
I think what’s happened in these sections is that the writer has let go of the inner tension of trying to make the passage fit into a predefined idea, and has, instead, written about what mattered to them in the story.
Forget you’re writing a novel.
So, if you’ve been holding back on your novel because it scared you, or because you got stuck, or because you simply didn’t know where to go, my primary advice would be to forget for a moment that you’re writing a novel.
Instead, begin here:
“I want to write this story because…”
Follow that up with:
“I care about these characters because…”
Then, see where it takes you! You might be surprised.
No one writes a perfect story, essay, or novel the first time around. That’s where revision comes in. The first draft contains everything you wanted to say. The final draft contains everything you needed to say—those things that are essential to the story.
The first draft is likely to have more abstractions, while the final draft should be brimming with significant detail.
The final draft should not contain every detail you find interesting or clever, every detail that came to you during your many inspired and challenging hours of writing. It should, instead, contain relevant details that add meaning. Purple flowered couch may be less meaningful, for example, than the broken pot beneath the window. The purple couch is merely a matter of taste, whereas the broken pot indicates that something has happened—a break-in, maybe, or a more general state of disrepair in the lives of the characters.
The final draft may be longer or shorter than the first draft, depending on your inclinations, but it should be more focused.
I usually edit out many thousands of words over the course of my revisions, but some writers create a skeletal first draft and flesh it out later. I tend to write an overblown first draft and pare it down over time. Whether you pare down or expand upon your first draft, in the end, your final draft should be more focused. The associations among the various parts of your narrative will be clearer, and the themes will have been strengthened by the actions and observations of the characters.
The first draft is your baby, the thing you can’t let go of. The final draft is your concession that a book must be interesting, it must be cognizant of an audience, and it must make the reader want to keep turning pages.
By “concession” I do not mean that you have sold your literary soul, only that you have found a way to combine your best vision and your hard-won narrative skills, in order to make a thing of beauty that is both meaningful and entertaining.
Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels and two story collections. Get her weekly writing and publishing tips, or sign up for an online writing class.
The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is that there’s no magic formula. Every novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world. If you’re ready to take on the challenge, here are 10 steps to get you started. (See related article: 5 Great Gifts for Writers)
1. Consider the setting.
Setting encompasses not only place, but also time. Where does your novel happen, and when?
2. Consider the point of view.
Who is telling the story, from what distance? Do you have a first-person narrator who is at the center of the action, an omniscient narrator who is able to go into the thoughts of any character at any time, a limited third person narration that sticks closely to one character?
3. Consider the conflict.
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, there is no novel without trouble. Every story begins with conflict. What’s yours?
4. Consider the stakes.
What is at risk in the story? What does your protagonist stand to lose or gain? What does he or she want, and why is it important? The stakes must be clear if you want the reader to care.
5. Consider the protagonist.
There has to be someone at the center of the action. Generally, this will be someone your reader ends up rooting for, no matter how flawed the character may be. (And he or she must be flawed in order to be realistic.)
6. Embrace fragments.
Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged chapter in the early stages of novel-writing. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, allow yourself the freedom to think in small bits. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 1200 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator,” or “Today I’m going to write the last paragraph of the novel.” That last one is kind of weird, right? But the point is, you don’t have to write in a linear fashion. You can piece your novel together later. For now, get some stuff on the page.
7. Write what you don’t know.
The old adage is, “Write what you know.” Okay, sure, it’s pretty good advice. But you also need to be willing to write what you don’t know. In the spirit of discovery, allow one character to work in a field about which you know very little, or allow some element of the plot, or a subplot, to delve into something you find unusual. Then research it. Sure, you could make your main character’s sister a struggling writer, something you presumably know a thing or two about, but that’s a little boring, isn’t it? Why not make her a welder instead? Then go online and research welding. Take a welder out for beer. Write five paragraphs that can be sprinkled throughout your novel that embrace the lingo and physicality of welding. Voila–you’ve created something interesting and textural, something that may just take you in an unusual metaphorical direction you never would have imagined if you were sticking to what you knew.
8. Set a deadline, but be realistic and kind.
Not for the completion of the novel, but for the first fifty pages. Set a second deadline, far enough in the future, for the completion of the second fifty pages. Be kind to yourself and set yourself up for success by setting realistic deadlines.
9. Forget the outline.
Outlines are good, unless they are bad. The nice thing about an outline is that it gives you a direction. The bad thing about an outline is that it limits your novel’s possibilities. For the first fifty pages, at least, work without an outline. See where the story is beginning to take you. Try The Paperclip Method.
10: Find one or two trusted readers.
One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is showing their early efforts to anyone who will look. I know, it’s tempting. But be patient. For a little while, at least, you need to protect your novel. Find one or two trusted readers–a professional or a friend who knows good books–but resist the urge to ask for advice from your mother, your uncle, your girlfriend, your best friend, your taxi driver. Give yourself some time to get your own vision onto the page before too many other visions interject. Many novels are written by collaboration, but, unlike screenplays, most are not written by committee. It’s your story; hide it in a drawer until it’s ready to see the light.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, Golden State, and four other books of fiction. She is the creator of the NaNoWriMo Daily app and The Paperclip Method, a series of workbooks for writers. Get Michelle’s weekly writing and publishing tips delivered to your inbox.
Stories are like relationships: the beginning is always so much fun, and the ending is fraught with turmoil.
When I sit down to start a story, the first sentence just sort of comes to me. The second sentence too. If I’m lucky, the third swiftly follows. The inimitable short story writer Kate Braverman once visited a class I was teaching and told the graduate students that she channels her characters. They speak through her and onto the page, she said, as if she isn’t even there.
I, unfortunately, channel nothing. It is all rough work after sentence three. By the time I’m in the middle of the story, I’m feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Where am I going? Where have I been? Have I gotten lost in the labyrinth? Probably, yes.
Somehow, I find my way through. The characters do things. They meet with hardship and grief, or maybe they just meet someone challenging in a Laundromat. They get into trouble, maybe out of it. Probably not. I find myself feeling that they have done all they can do. Not much more can be said. The action has fallen. We have all had our dénouement (which, by the way, is a French term meaning untying, from Middle French desnouement, from desnouer – to untie – from Old French desnoer, from des- de- + noer meaning to tie, from Latin nodare, from nodus knot.) And here we are in the labyrinth again, attempting to untie the knot, unwind the rope, escape the not-so-fun funhouse.
It’s time to write our way out.
One wants to resolve things, after all.One feels a deeply human need to conclude. After the falling action, there is often something more. Something unexpected. And here we come to what I have been meaning to say all along: a good ending is layered. The reader thinks she has discovered everything she can possibly discover about a story, but then: another image appears, another paragraph hums along, another question begs to be answered. One is left with the feeling of having walked out of the dark theater into the light, only to realize there was something else playing after the credits, some secret part of the film, some final moment. You can hear it through the door, vaguely, but you can’t get back in. You’re not sure what you’ve missed, but you’re certain that you’ve missed something, that the reel kept on playing, the story kept on going, after your departure. You were only an observer, a brief malingerer, there but not there. The lives within the story carry on.