Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing a Novel: It's Hardest the First Time

I wouldn't say that I know how to write a novel just because I've written one. That's something I'm still trying to figure out. But after editing my first book for the fifth time, I've realized a lot about what worked well and what I should do differently in the future.

One of the newest things about writing a novel was just working on such a long-term project. It took me a year and a half to finish the book. Before that, the longest I had ever spent on a project was a few weeks. I have daydreamed and played around with the same idea for years, but in terms of actually working on something, I had never focused on one project that long before. One of the hardest parts was just figuring out a schedule and how to get the book done. Giving myself personal deadlines (even though I missed every single one) was probably the best choice I made. With all of the unfinished projects I have accumulated, I was really worried that my first novel might turn out the same way. I gave myself unrealistic deadlines because I was worried about not finishing. Looking back now, there was never question of not finishing my novel because having a deadline was what set my novel apart from everything else that I have tried to write. My unfinished projects never had deadlines - they were stories that I had fun working on when I had the chance, that I figured I would eventually finish, but that I never set a goal of finishing. Unrealistic or not, having deadlines made me take my novel more seriously than any other project and helped me finish within a reasonable amount of time.

That said, the reason that I missed every single deadline I set for myself was that I didn't take my writing pace into account. I want to finish by the end of summer vacation, before graduation, by the one-year anniversary of when I started - dates that meant something to me, but had nothing to do with when I could logically finish the book. One of the reasons that I didn't take my writing pace into account was that I didn't want to accept how much slower my writing pace was than what I thought it should be. I had yet to realize the major difference between writing a short story and a novel.

I spend a lot of time daydreaming and playing around with story ideas before I write anything down. When I wrote 20-page short stories for fiction writing class, I usually had the entire story mapped out in my mind already, including dialogue. I remember one time in particular, I had spent so much time ruminating about a particular story that when I sat down to write it, I felt like I was just typing the story from memory. All those times I had written 10-15 pages in one day, I was really just editing an unwritten first draft.

The trouble with writing a novel is that it is very difficult to get a grip on the whole story. It seemed like no matter how much planning and character development I did, I couldn't get the entire story completely straight, let alone walk around with 250 pages of dialogue in my head. I got frustrated when I couldn't keep up what I thought was my normal writing pace.  But this time, I had to actually decide what would happen next as I was writing rather than copying the first draft in my head.

I can daydream about something for years without ever writing it down, but once I begin outlining on paper, I get really anxious to start writing the book for real. I think the best thing for me to do would be to write and outline at the same time. For my last book, I had the first 20 pages or so mapped out pretty clearly (which made me in a hurry to write them down), but then I hit a wall and proceeded without really knowing where I was going. But planning doesn't have to end just because you've already started. Maybe what would work the best would be to write out the parts that I do have planned, and then plan out the rest. Some writers write scenes separately and then paste them into the right order in the end. Perhaps that would be something to try.

For my next book, I also want to keep a running outline as I go along, meaning that I will keep a list of events and scenes that matches what I have actually written (which is usually different from my original outline). When I was editing my last book, I had a very hard time keeping track of the order of events, and just remembering every single thing that happened. I could remember individual scenes clearly, but I couldn't give a detailed summary of everything that happened in the correct order. I couldn't tell you what happened in chapter nine because I didn't remember where I had put the chapter breaks. This made it difficult to change the order of events when I needed to. It was also challenging to make sure all the details were consistent. In a short story, it's much easier to add or remove a detail or subplot. But when I added or removed something from the novel, it was hard to find every single sentence that would change as a result of the addition or deletion. Looking back on it, I think that keeping a running outline would make editing much easier.

It's been a while since I've discussed my writing process on this blog, but when I learned that writing a book is the second most popular goal on 43 Things, I figured it might be a topic of interest. If you would like to write a book, my best advice is to start. Start outlining or start writing, and figure out a reasonable schedule and deadline. But most importantly, don't be afraid, and don't stop writing if you feel like the story isn't working.  It's hardest to go from nothing to something, but once you get something on that page, you can edit. You can make it better.

Like with most things, the first time you write a novel is probably the hardest. One of the greatest obstacles you may face when trying to write that first book is the question, "Can I actually do this?" And answering yes to that question is essential for writing. If you sign up for the school musical even though you aren't a good singer, you know that the show will go on - that whether you're scared or not, whether you're good or not, you will have to perform. But if you decide in the middle of writing your book that you can't do it, then there won't be a book. Writing requires you to believe in yourself and to know that you can write. Every bestselling author had to start with a first book. Your book may not be brilliant. You may not have the entire process figured out by the time you're done. But you will know that you can write a novel. And from then on, you'll always know.

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