Archive for June 4th, 2011

Saturday, June 4th, 2011 by Ken Scholes
So You Wanna Write Your First Novel, Part 1: Pre-Draft

Happy Saturday folks!

I recently ran a question through my Facebook wall calling for Genreality blog topics and writing the first novel came up as a topic of interest.  So I thought that I’d tackle that topic over the next few weeks.

This is post is aimed at the folks who’ve never finished a first novel but hopefully there will be residual benefit for those who have.

Anyone who knows me knows that I came to the novel with fear and trembling.  I was literally terrified, for no good reason, of committing my time and energy to anything longer than 15,ooo words.  Until 2006, the longest piece of fiction I’d finished was “Last Flight of the Goddess,” a 15k D&D tribute/romance that you can read here.

Oh, I had reasons.  They just weren’t good reasons.  I’d fallen under the belief that the skills to write a novel and the skills to write a short story were so different that my first 3-5 novels would be about as saleable as my first 3-5 short stories had been.  I’d fallen into the myth that it would take me six months to a year to write each of those novels and, for a guy who was selling a good amount of short fiction at the time, that looked like a learning curve of years and years and years to get good enough.

You know the story.  I was wrong.  I churned out my first novel in 6.5 weeks and was under contract for a five volume series within 13 months of starting the book.  Imagine my surprise!  Hell, I’m still surprised.

So here’s the first thing:  You have to decide you’re going to do it and make the commitment.  Writing that first novel (and probably all the ones that come  after) is largely a product of stubborn, unrelenting persistence.  It’s tricking, conning, bribing yourself into doing the work.  Don’t ask yourself if you’re ready.  You are and you aren’t but ready doesn’t come into it.  You only get more ready with practice.  To learn how to write a novel, you must…write a novel!

Still, when I was in the pre-draft stage, before I took the plunge and committed to the novel I was going to write, I did take a bit of time to study up.  I limited myself to two books on writing and then I studied the storytelling of others.  The books I chose were Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Story by Robert McKee.  I recommend them but I also recognize that you have to pick the books that resonate with your tastes and needs.  But here’s the deeper recommendation:  Limit how many.  One or two books.  Otherwise, you run the risk of spending all of your energy reading about writing novels instead of actually writing one.  And you will learn more from writing the novel than from reading about novels.  Trust me.

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re already writing at some level and have a space set up in your home where you can work comfortably.  But if you haven’t, this is the time to decide where that space is and put the things there that you need in order to keep you going.  And since novels are a longer time investment you may want the occasional change of scenery so you may want to identify a pub or coffee shop where you’re comfortable working.  Maybe not…some folks need their solitary cave to find words in.  But location — where you’re going to write — is important to figure out.  Along with the when.

Figure out when your best, brightest, freshest time of day is, brain-wise, and try to make that your when.   Add to your when this bit:  To stay on task and focused, you are probably best served to write every day.  But taking days off here or there due to illness, vacation, family needs, dayjob needs is probably important to factor in.   Just realize that the longer you’re kept from your words, the harder it may be to maintain momentum as you build the story.

Okay, next up:  What are you going to write your first novel about?  This is an area where I used to bog down.  I’d turn ideas over and over and over in my head and my brain would say “No, that’s just stupid” or “That idea is way too small for a big book.”  At some point, you just have to commit and tell the Chattering Head Monkeys Shut the Frak Up.  Pre-emptively dismissing the quality of a house before it is even built is…ridiculous.

So where to find that first novel?  Well, a lot of us find them in our short fiction.  That’s where I found mine.  If you’ve ever had a first reader or workshopper tell you that the short story would be a really excellent first chapter to a novel (I heard Dean Wesley Smith tell my friend John Pitts about his short story, “Black Blade Blues,”) then listen to them.  Especially if it’s Dean!  My muse tricked me into a five book series through a quiet little short story that I really wasn’t all that excited about.

Now, here’s another deeper recommendation:  Think but don’t think too long.  If you’re like me, you’re looking for any excuse possible to not start that first novel and you’ll gladly spend a year or two just trying to figure out what to write about…after spending a year or two reading books on writing novels or taking classes.  Stop it!  You’ll be in a nursing home before you finish at this pace and if you wanna shot at the major leagues you need to get to the drafting stage.

So, once you have the seed of an idea, you have to decide what kind of writer you are.  Do you need an outline?  Do you need to fly by the seat of your pants?  Maybe either works for you.  Maybe some combination of the two.  Whatever it is, you really can’t know for sure because you’ve never done this before.  For some, having an outline gives them a great big bunch of help when it comes to the drafting because they know where they’re going.  For others, the outline is stifling.

I say:  It’s your first time out.  Try the outline but don’t be afraid to toss it and fly by the seat of your pants if it feels more natural to your process.  Sketch it out in bullet points and if it feels like you need more, do more.  But set a limit to how long you will spend outlining your novel.  Because, again, it’s easy to distract one’s self from doing the work by pretending to do the pre-work.  At some point, you have to say “It’s time to sit down and write this book.”  So set a limit.  Give yourself no more than a month.  And every every day of that month sit down in your thinking chair and make notes about your characters, their problems (both internal and external), the world they live in, what they love and what they fear.  Look into the things you need to know about for this book — and set limits on how much reseach you’re going to do, as well.  And don’t sweat what you don’t know yet — you may be the sort of writer who discovers as you go.  That’s what I seem to be.  And don’t sweat what’s broken before it’s actually broken.  In other words, if you haven’t done your first draft you can’t really know for sure what’s broken or how to fix it because it only lives in your imagination at this point.

Last up, look at how long of a novel you want to write (most folks aim for about 90-100k words) and do the math.  I recommend at least 1k words per day.  It was good enough for Bradbury, King and a host of others.  2k per day will get you there faster.  And that means you can look ahead on your calendar and mark the day you plan to finish your draft.  50-100 days…you can do that.  Decide the way you’re going to measure, open up that file on your computer, set up your manuscript the way you work best (to this day, I still draft in New Courier 12, double spaced, with my document set up the way I intend to submit it), and then…start drafting!

Next week, we’ll talk about the drafting stage of writing your first novel. 

Until then, this is Trailer Boy signing off.