Monday, February 1, 2010

Getting Started :: 10 Tips to Get Your Novel Going

I was reading Gretchen Rubin's blog for The Happiness Project this morning and found the list she made last Wednesday of ways to find more reading in your life. It's a fun project she has going and she came up with a great list with a lot of ideas on how to manage your time for books. 

For the past few weeks, I've been nearing the completion of one project and contemplating the beginnings of the next. Which brought to mind my own list of ten things, in this case, ten ways I've found to get from "I've got this idea..." to "So now where do I mail this completed manuscript?" 

Pursuant to my stated goal of getting you to write this year, I present to you my little list... 

Ten Tips to Get Your Novel* Started
  1. Be interested in your story. Writing is hard work and before you commit to spending long hours sitting in a chair stringing tens of thousands of words together to tell your story, you'd better darn well be sure it's a story that interests you enough to make that worthwhile.
  2. Feed your brain. Your brain generates stories from the stuff you cram in there. Give it the fodder it needs to make new and interesting stories and well fleshed-out characters. Interview everyone you meet, explore every place you go, try new things.
  3. Everything is research. Accept it. Pay attention. Take notes and snapshots. You never know when you'll need the story about the waitress and the deep-fried Converse sneaker.
  4. Ideas are not sacred. Don't get so attached to an idea that you're unwilling to allow it to evolve. A story idea is less like the directions from a GPS and more like finding your way through a new city with written directions scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin.
  5. Write now, edit later. Just sit you butt in the chair and put the story on the page. Editing is inevitable, but it is a stage of its own that can wait until later. Your initial goal is to get the story out of your head, everything else follows that.
  6. Take little bites. A big idea can choke you if you try to eat it all at once. Writing anything long form is a lot like the old adage about eating an elephant: Start at one end and take it one bite at a time.
  7. Make stuff up. Research can be a very addictive drug. It's easy to get so wrapped up in the intriguing minutiae of your subject matter that you forget to write a book about it. If it ever gets shelved in a library or bookstore, your novel will be in the fiction section, this gives you license to fake it... within reason, of course.
  8. Keep everything. Create a file on your computer (or in your filing cabinet if you're a luddite like me) of the random ideas or characters that occur to you as you're writing. Not everything you create while writing will fit the story you're working on. Hang on to those tidbits for later use in this or another story.
  9. Step away from the Television and/or the Internet. That might sound odd coming from me, but these mediums are specifically designed to catch your attention and hold it. I've recently begun doing my writing on a computer that is isolated from the internet to combat this. My writing output tripled when we got rid of TV and as a bonus we saved a lot of money each month.
  10. Write with the vocabulary you have. Put away the thesaurus, it's just slowing you down and making self-conscious. Finding your authorial "voice" is about telling the story the way you tell it, not the way Roget would tell it if he were writing it. Your vocabulary will grow organically on its own and in a way that is unique to you as you research and read. Language is a fragile thing and it will break if you try to force it.
It's easy to end a list with the words "And it's as easy as that!" but it really isn't all that easy or everyone would do it.  It's not as easy as that and I think that's an important thing to keep in mind at every stage.  Writing is hard.  It's supposed to be hard.  So don't beat yourself up when you find that it isn't easy.  This is job, a task like any other -- a task that must be performed before you can enjoy the results.  Because at the end of the day, it's the person who puts their butt in the chair and puts the words on the page who will win the race.

*I say novel because that's my chosen milieu. All the same, most of these should apply to any written fiction from plays to short stories to novels. As with anything I post here, use at your own risk and freely modify in a manner that best suits your needs. 

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).