On Getting Started

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I get a lot of questions when people find out I wrote a novel. One of the most popular is: how did you start?

So if you’re thinking of writing a novel, I thought I’d share some advice on how to get started.

Once upon a time…

I was a little kid who loved to write. Somewhere around high school, I stopped doing it. Why? I have no idea. I think I was too busy trying to be cool (at which I failed, FYI).

I remember thinking about it again in college. But I was too busy having the college experience to actually get any writing done. It wasn’t until the year after college when I moved to Saint Lô and had an abundance of free time that I began considering it again. I lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn’t a lot to do. My teaching assistant job was only 12 hours per week (and as a foreigner I wasn’t allowed to get another job). Perfect time to write a novel, right?

I wish. I spent that year traveling every weekend (which I don’t regret at all), taking long walks through cow pastures, drinking Calvados, eating galettes … and thinking about writing a novel.

I spent a year thinking about it. Reading books about it. Googling articles about it. A YEAR with more free time than I’ll ever have in my life. And I didn’t actually write anything.

But I was percolating. My first novel takes place in Saint-Lô, and I didn’t write a word of it while I was living there. I regretted this, at first. But then I read that Hemingway, who set his novels in real-life places he had been, didn’t actually write about a place until he had already left it. He wrote about midwest after he’d already moved to Paris, wrote about Paris after he’d moved to the south, etc. You need to give yourself a little distance from your subject. Time to percolate. And most importantly of all, time to commit yourself to it. As Stephen King says:

You must not come lightly to the blank page.

I got back from France, got a job, got bored, and got serious about becoming a writer.

Here is what I’ve learned about how to get started:

1. Do some research on novel-writing, but don’t go crazy  At the beginning, I read about twelve “how to write a novel” books, as well as countless articles online. In retrospect, that was WAY too many. Your head becomes crowded with advice, some of it contradictory (You must outline! Outlines are pointless!) However, writing books aren’t without their value. If you read one book on writing make it this one. On Writing is brilliant and funny and full of practical advice from someone who has had a bit of success in the field. But again, don’t go crazy on the writing books. I’ll quote Stephen King again:

I’ll be as brief as possible, because the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.

2. Read the kind of stuff you’d like to write  For me, that’s YA. I reread all my favorite YA books. I read every popular YA book on the market, even ones I didn’t like. I read stuff outside YA too, writers whom I love, those masters of beautiful sentences. Take notes of what you love, what works–and what doesn’t. Just because a book is published doesn’t mean it’s any good. I’ve gotten some of my most valuable lessons from poorly-written books. More on that in another post.

This is the easiest part of novel-writing for me, since I’m a voracious reader anyway. You should be too; why would you want to write a novel if you don’t enjoy reading them?

3. Write down your ideas  It doesn’t have to be a formal outline. It just has to be something where you keep track of all the wonderful things bubbling up in your head. Write down these ideas as fast as they come to you. And they’ll come to you in weird places. Half my ideas are in the Notes section of my iPhone. I’ve been known to stick my hand out of the shower to frantically tap out an idea on my phone before I lose it.

4. Organize your ideas into a rough summary/outline, but again, don’t go crazy  For my first novel, I wrote dozens of formal outlines. I had separate word documents for character, for plot points, for theme. Outlines for each character’s arc. Historical facts. Every time I got overwhelmed by the sheer number of documents I had, I’d start a new one. It got to the point where it was too much to really be helpful. And in retrospect, this is why it took me so long to finish–I kept going through my multitudes of notes, second-guessing myself, putting things in, taking them out, obsessing over theme, etc. You get the point. Don’t do what I did.

For my second novel, I keep one word document entitled “notes.” In it I have three sections: Characters, Timeline, Story. I keep track of each character in a little paragraph–age, description, temperament, any important facts I need. The timeline for births, deaths, important life events. Then in the Story part I write down whatever comes to mind. I take all my notes off my iPhone, any jotted down notes at work. Everything. Then I go back and organize it into (rough) chronological order, in a loose paragraph format. I cross things off as I go along, and discard whatever doesn’t work (keeping all discarded items in a “discarded” doc. I don’t often refer back to it. Its main purpose is keeping me from having a panic attack every time I hit the delete button.) I don’t have every element in the story in there–just what I’ve thought up so far. It’s perfectly fine to have holes. Desirable, even. Some stuff will only come to you as you write it. My second novel is moving along much more smoothly (and faster!) than my first.

5. Write This is the most important part of all. To write a book, you need to write it. Just start. Don’t spend time crafting the perfect opening sentence. Hell, you don’t even have to start at the beginning. Write a scene. Write another scene. Eventually, you’ll want to put them in order, edit them down, etc. But for now, just get your story onto the page.

6. Keep writing  I got stuck so many times. I changed my mind, then changed it back. I’d scrap entire chapters. (My “deleted writing” document was over 2,000 pages long–roughly seven times the length of my novel–when I was finished.) At one point I gave up and wrote something else.

But keep going. Write, write, write. When you get stuck, take a walk. Wash the dishes. Have a drink. The muse will return. Believe me.

7. Find what works for you  Outlining didn’t work for Stephen King, or for me. Some writers can’t write without it. Another piece of advice I’d often heard was “Don’t edit as you go. Keep writing.” You know what? I edit as I go. Since outlining didn’t work, I’d often propel my characters down the wrong path. Then I’d have to backtrack. I found I wasn’t capable of just carrying on with the story–I had to get them back to the right spot first. It’s just the way I write. It’s the way Tana French writes. It’s not the way Stephen King writes. And that’s ok.

8. Be kind to yourself  Novel-writing is a learn-as-you-go skill. This is your first novel. Write your ass off, but don’t be overly critical of yourself or your processes. You’ll get there. I did.

Was this helpful? Did I miss anything in the beginning-a-novel process? Let me know!

14 thoughts on “On Getting Started

  1. Great blog and great advice. Was your experience in France with TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France)? If so, I did the same program a few years ago with every intention of writing the next great American novel. I ended up watching terribly dubbed television shows and eating too much pain au chocolat, if there is such a thing. Keep posting! 🙂

    Katrina

    kateandfleet.blogspot.com

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! It was actually a while ago and I don’t remember the program I was with being called that, though they might have changed the name since ’07. It’s through the French Ministry of Education. Where did they put you? If I’d had a TV I’m sure I would have done the same. As it was, I was stuck in the worst apartment ever so I spent most of my time wandering around in the rain and drinking wine at the café. Ah, I miss it!

      Like

      1. I’m sure it’s the same program. I did mine in 2011. I was in Bourg-St.-Andéol in the Ardèche region. Basically south Rhône-Alpes, but I lucked out and lived with a really great host family and taught in the elementary schools. If I’d done it a second time around, I probably would’ve requested high school. You can only read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” so many times.

        Katrina

        kateandfleet.blogspot.com

        Like

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