While pursuing a career as a novelist, I did everything wrong, more than once.
In hopes of saving inspiring novelists the frustration of screwing up like I did, I humbly offer a few tips for writing a novel I learned in the creative writing school of hard knocks.
It’s my hope that your journey to success as a novelist is short and swift.
While these tips for writing a book are taken from my experience of writing novels they are probably useful for any large, complex project.
The Most Essential Tips for Writing a Novel.
Don’t go it alone.
When you’re completely immersed in writing a novel, you’re in your own world. It can feel as if you’re an old fashioned deep sea diver on the bottom of the ocean, wearing a brass helmet and leaded boots. You’re isolated. You’re vulnerable.
A hose trails from your helmet and feeds you air from the surface. You need to know with total confidence that someone you trust is on the surface watching your air supply and keeping you safe. This is your life support.
It’s no different for a writer. Someone you trust needs to stay firmly planted in reality while you immerse yourself in your fictional world. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose perspective.
Every writer needs a life support person to keep them grounded, and to remind them they are loved and appreciated even when their writing stinks. And, make no mistake, novelists produces far more crap than good stuff. Fortunately, we can edit and polish until the good stuff shines.
In addition to a life support person, you’ll need someone who’ll give you honest feedback on what you’ve written. That way you’ll know when it needs work and when it’s good. We’ll call this person the friendly critic.
And you’ll need cheerleaders. Friends who’ll cheer you on to the finish line, give you a hug or a pat on the back when you need it and celebrate with you when you’re published.
We all lose perspective occasionally and make stupid decisions. If you’re writing a novel and trying to have a life, plus keep a career, family or business going at the same time, it’s easy to become mentally exhausted, talk yourself into a funk and quit.
This is when you will truly need someone to help you find a balance and remind you that, yes, you really can write a novel.
One person can be a critic, cheerleader and life support all rolled up in one, but it’s important that they know that life support is their most vital role. That is their primary job.
The last thing you want is to come limping up to your life support person with your psyche in tatters and be confronted with a critic.
That’s painful if not disastrous.
When in doubt…
Your cheerleaders and life support people must know that when in doubt, they should cheer and support.
It’s best if someone you’re emotionally bonded with is your cheerleader and life support, like a wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend.
Find someone who you do not have a close emotional bond with to be your friendly critic.
If you don’t have a circle of friends to draw on, it is certainly possible to go it alone. However, I strongly recommend you find someone to be a cheerleader and support so you can do your best work.
For many, the creative personality has a dark side that manifests in anxiety and depression. At such times, your cheerleaders and support people may truly be lifesavers.
Make Writing a Novel a Priority
Keep in mind that writing a novel is hard work. It takes a lot of concentration and mental energy. You have to make it a priority and reserve time for it, otherwise, it won’t get done.
How to Begin.
Writing a novel is like putting a puzzle together, but first you must dream into existence all the pieces. Then, you must find where each piece belongs.
When you commit to writing a novel, ideas will come to you…ideas for dialogue, scenes, characters, titles…all sorts of stuff. These are the puzzle pieces.
At first, it might be only a trickle of ideas, but the more you keep the channel open, the more ideas will come.
Not all the ideas will be usable. Some ideas might belong to another novel, one you haven’t even dreamed of yet. You won’t know which ideas go where until you’re deep into the writing process.
The important thing is to capture all of the ideas as they come to you and keep the channel open.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urge that motivates you.
Keep the channel open.
─ Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille
How to Keep the Channel Open.
Keep the channel open by staying relaxed. This is the greatest tip for writing a novel I have learned.
The more you write and the more you keep the creative channel open, the deeper you can reach inside yourself. Go as deep as you can. That’s where the magic lives.
When you’re stressed, even a little bit, the mind shuts down and goes into fight or flight mode. Creativity is a luxury and gets shut down first when you’re tense, so stay relaxed to keep the creative channel open.
The ability to relax is the most powerful skill anyone can learn.
Listen to relaxing music or audios. Learn to meditate. Self-hypnosis audios have helped me a lot.
Record your ideas as they pop into your head.
I carry a small pocket notebook and pen with me at all times. My best ideas come to me when I’m walking, washing dishes, napping and doing other things unrelated to writing.
I jot these ideas in my pocket notebook as they come to me. I don’t edit or ponder over the ideas at this stage. I just get the ideas down.
I also have a larger spiral notebook on my desk. The pages in this notebook are the size of regular notebook paper and perforated so they can be easily torn out.
The pages also have three holes in the left margin so I can put them in a three ring binder when I begin to organize my ideas later.
At the end of the day, if I have ideas in the small pocket notebook, I transfer these to the spiral bound notebook. If the spiral notebook gets filled up with ideas, I start another one. This idea gathering stage can go on for months or years.
The spiral notebook encourages me to simply record my ideas and not worry about organizing them. Organization comes later. When I’m ready to organize my ideas, I move them into a ring binder that is divided into characters, scenes, story theme, general ideas, etc.
Create a Library of Names.
I also keep a separate three ring binder of people’s names. This has become my library of names to draw on when I need to name a character.
These are names I stumble across during my day; people I meet at the store, movie credits, tombstones, magazines, historical rosters. I’ll steal any name I like. However, if it’s the name of a a real, living person, I’ll mix and match first and last names before I tag a character with it.
The names are organized according to gender, ethnicity, region, country, first name, and last name. I’ve been collecting names for over 30 years. When I need a name for a character, I can usually find one within minutes.
A Glimpse into the Writer’s Mind.
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.”-Vincent Van Gogh
Writing a novel can sometimes feel like trying to make chicken salad out of chicken poo. The problem is your mind is infinite and multidimensional while a novel is finite and linear.
Writing a novel is essentially the process of extracting ideas, visions, images and dialogue from your mind and arranging them in a linear form, one word after another.
In the early stages of planning a novel, your mind usually serves up these visions in a jumbled, random fashion like puzzle pieces dropped on the floor. If you don’t know where the pieces fit, you might reject them.
Maybe, while you’re struggling with the first line of the first scene, your mind is trying to force on you a snippet of dialog that belongs in chapter 12 of the seventh rewrite. But, you don’t know this and reject it.
That’s a terrible mistake, because when you reject what your mind is creating it will soon shut down and not give you any ideas at all. Remember to record your ideas, even if you don’t understand them. Many of your ideas will lead to better ideas, but you won’t know that unless you make a note of them.
Long before you begin writing your novel, you must dream into existence most of the pieces. Like Van Gough who first dreamed his painting and then painted his dream, relax into the world of your novel, dream your story and then write your dream.
Spend days, weeks, even months or years if you need to, dreaming your story and writing it all down. Keep a notebook with you at all times, because once your creative mind realizes that you’re in the receiving mode it will serve up many, many ideas.
The more clearly you can envision your story and the more real it feels to you, the more real it will be to your reader. Invest the time you need to fully dream your story.
It’s All Just a Big Fat Lie.
Writing a novel is like practicing a big fat lie until it rings true.
As you dream your story, it will evolve. You may realize that the novel you thought you were writing really wasn’t the novel inside you at all. That initial story is usually just the beginning of the discovery process.
That’s because the true story that’s coming through you is too big for your conscious mind. You can only see bits of it at any given moment.
It’s like the pieces of a puzzle that are jumbled and out of sequence. That’s okay. That’s perfect. Keep the creative channel open.
More Novel Writing Tips and Advice.
Writing a novel is an adventure. These tips for writing a novel will help, but ultimately every writing adventure is unique. In addition to these novel writing tips, take time to master story structure and the moral premise, and continually study story theory.