WWC: How To Write A Novel Without Having A Breakdown
There are many bloggers who aspire to greater things, who long to become part of the literary community and enjoy the fame and respect that this entails. In a pinch, most of us will settle for one of those (hint: It’s usually not respect). But that’s easier said than done. At its heart, literature is a form of controlled madness, waiting to be harnessed. Many are the accounts from authors famous and undiscovered alike on the trials and tribulations of the pen. They may be interesting, but they are seldom helpful.
So today, I’d like to present a illustrated guide to writing a novel without driving yourself to alcoholism and psychosis. I make no promises of quality to anyone innocent enough to follow my advice, only that the project will be completed at some point before the end of time.
1. Establish an idea. If you’re here, presumably you’ve already formed a concept in your head. This is necessary to complete this step, but not sufficient. At some point, you’re going to have to take that big, painstakingly developed idea and explain it to someone, preferably in as few words as possible. This is important not just for promotional reasons, but so that you can establish a clear and straightforward goal. Otherwise, you will never finish. One day, they’ll break in the door and find you slumped over the keyboard, up to your knees in the meandering pages of your five million word manuscript. Don’t think it can’t happen to you, friend.
Ideally, your idea should be something you can put across in a single breath, for even in the literary community, brevity is appreciated. For instance, my next novel is about a party at the end of the world. It’s actually much more than that – covering small town life, modernism vs. tradition, surveillance, demographic tensions, theodicy, the promise and perils of scientific achievement, and the ennui of youth – but if I brought any of that up, people would start faking headaches to escape my presence. Most of you probably just autopiloted over that clause. I probably would.
2. Plan it out. This is the step most people skip. There’s something romantic about sitting down and letting the ideas pour out, but it seldom works that way. A major cause of “writer’s block” is a failure to anticipate where the story is going, and the best way to avoid that is to chart it out. Everyone has his or her own method of planning – outlines, note cards, electronic filing, audio notes. piles of paper scraps wadded up and scattered across the room – each of which has its pros and cons. It’s a matter of personal preference as much as anything.
How much needs to be sketched out is also personal. I, for one, might be accused of overplanning. There are those who say, “Is it really necessary to know the complete background history, family tree and daily schedule of a character who appears twice and is never mentioned again?” To which I might respond, “Yes it is.” Oh sure, it might seem unnecessary to detail out every storefront on a block, knowing in advance that only one of them will ever be explored, but it’s all part of the invisible worldbuilding that makes it feel real. There is no such thing as too much detail . . . Well, unless you’re taking inventory of the contents of a character’s pockets. That might be a bit much.
3. (Optional) Travel several thousand miles away. This one’s not for everyone. Many authors appreciate doing their work in unfamiliar surroundings. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I feel that the only way an author can truly dig into a story is to work on it while chasing his tail in an unfamiliar city where they don’t speak his language and people think lying to foreigners is funny. That may be a bit much for most people – a smaller trip can work as well, just so long as it ends in an emotional admixture of rage, regret and confusion. Your work will suffer until you stop crying, but when that happens, you’ll be in a fantastic position for our next step:
4. Make excuses. This is easily the most important step in the process. By now, you’ve spent months honing your story, designing the setting, building characters, and planning every fine detail down to the last letter. Now it’s time to form excuses for yourself and others as to why you haven’t actually started writing it yet.
This part is deeply personal, and it’s not something that can be forced. Some beginners throw themselves down with a notebook and pen and resolve not to move until they’ve dreamed up a substantial list of transparent lies. This is the wrong approach. It needs to be more organic, more individual. Go for a long walk, run some errands, and wait for the rationalizations to come to you. Procrastination is as much an art as anything else, and therefore it must come from a deeper place. Sadly, I can not make your excuses for you, but perhaps these might serve as a jump-off of sorts:
- My workspace is in disarray.
- My computer is acting strange and I’d like to run diagnostics first.
- I woke up/came home from work/school late; I’ll start another day.
- There is a new blogging prompt up.
- I haven’t checked my email in thirty minutes.
- Adaptation just came on and I think it might inspire me.
- My last piece of writing just got two stars on GoodReads and I’m trying to process it.
- I just realized that my hard drive is full of past failed attempts to write a novel and I’d like to clear those out first.
- I need to rearrange all the books on my shelves. For inspiration.
- My backup flash drive is a bit grubby and I think I should clean it first.
- I just had an existential crisis. I’ll start writing when I’m convinced I’m really sitting here.
5. Write the book. Having finally overcome your attempts to sabotage your own work, all that remains is to take 100 hours or so and actually write the book. I’m sure you know how to do this already, so I won’t insult you with any further explanation. Simply follow the standard process for converting your ideas into dialogue and exposition using the medium of your choice, then publish it using the method of your choice. You should find it a painless and straightforward process.
Congratulations! You’ve just written a novel. If you’ve enjoyed this, please check out the Weekly Challenge for other equally useful illustrated guides and strategies.