How to Write a Novel: First Impressions

I remember far back into my childhood when I dreamed of writing novels.  It couldn’t be that hard, I reasoned.  I could write a page every night after school, and more at the weekends.  It would be just like reading a book: I’d find out what happened as I went along.  And for the record, I still think there’s mileage in my idea of an alternate medieval universe in which everyone is accompanied by their own gargoyle, but I’m learning now there’s a lot more to writing a novel than one seed of an idea. In fact, how to write a novel is a multi-faceted question.

The novel I’m currently writing, working-titled Rosetta, is not then my first attempt at a novel.  Gargoyles aside, I did begin one in the winter of 2014 entitled The Chain.  I lost interest at around the 8,000 word mark but used many of the ideas in it for another novel, which I started in August 2015.  House of Crows is an idea I may return to; I love the idea of a haunted Scottish mansion riddled with secret passageways and dusty libraries.  But I lost momentum at around 12,000 words and, without an idea for where the plot was heading, gave up on it in favour of another idea I’d had.

A couple of days ago Rosetta reached 20,000 words.  After researching word counts in an earlier blog post, I think it’ll end up around the 60,000 to 80,000 mark but, as you can see, I’ve never made it that far before.  Anyway, it’s the furthest I’ve ever got in writing a novel and in a couple of weeks I think it’ll eclipse my published novella The Witching Hours. Already, I’ve learned a lot about how to write a novel.

Have a plan

I know some writers – the inspirational Stephen King included – like to think up a situation and to put their characters into it, working out the finer details of the plot as they go along.  I’m not one of those writers.  My last attempts at novels fell apart when I lost the inspiration to write, but with Rosetta I have a five-page plan that paints out the broad strokes of my plot.  So even when I’m not feeling so imaginative, I can use my plan to keep my writing moving in the right (write?) direction.

Build momentum

I started writing Rosetta when the idea was still fresh in my head.  Because it was exciting and new, I wrote a fair bit and really enjoyed it, and this set up a pretty strong momentum.  I’ve done my best to write every day – around the 500-word mark for weekdays – and I’ve set a target of 5,000 words a week.  It’s not a lot by full-time author standards – the aforementioned Stephen King famously writes 2,000 words a day – but on top of a full-time job it’s at least achievable.  5,000 words a week means I’ll hit 60,000 words in 12 weeks – when those weeks fly past, you realise the end is in sight, and that there will be a result to enjoy in the not-so-distant future.

Don’t let that momentum slow

A delightful city break to Prague interrupted my fourth week of writing.  I didn’t write whilst I was there and I’m glad – everyone needs a break sometimes, and I feel really refreshed after my holiday.  However, missing four days of writing broke my momentum entirely.  I wrote about 200 words a day for a couple of days before crawling back up to my usual pace.  The moral of the story: sometimes taking a day or two off writing is unavoidable, or justified.  But don’t stop writing for trivial reasons.  It’ll be harder to get back into it and you’ll wish you’d stuck to your book.

Stick to a routine

I’m a creature of habit, so I knew it would make sense to dedicate a similar time every day for writing.  I’ve developed a good system for my writing: I get up at six o’clock on weekdays and get to work by about 7:30, an hour before I actually start.  Then I ensconce myself in the cafeteria with a Thermos and my laptop and smash out some words.  There’s no Wifi at my office so there’s no online distraction, and if I nab my favourite spot in the corner by the vending machine I can even listen to a quiet bit of music without anyone noticing.

Write words, words, words

Books are made of words, and there’s nothing better than seeing that word count tick upwards.  Writing a novel feels like a marathon: there’s just so much of it do, and it helps to see your progress build up.  Previously, when I’ve had ideas whilst writing short stories, I think carefully about whether those ideas will serve the overall effect of the tale, and whether its themes are in keeping with the rest of it.  If not, I’ll leave that idea out.  A novel has room to sprawl though, and should explore multiple ideas – if I get one, I’ll write it in.  Even if I cut them out once the first draft is completed, they will still have helped my reach the finish line in the first place.

Trust your prose

This one links to my point above – in a short story, I’ll take great pains selecting every word I write, keying each one so that it forms the perfect little piece of the whole.  If I did this for Rosetta, however, it would take weeks to finish a single chapter.  I’ve learned to put more faith in my prose, trusting that what I’ve written is solid without fussing over every word choice or sentence configuration.  Those can be honed in the second draft.

Shelve other ideas

I get a lot of ideas for stories, and it becomes a real temptation to pause progress on the novel front and indulge in a short story or two.  But I know if I do then I’ll trip myself up and find it difficult to return to my main endeavour.  So I jot my ideas in my lovely leather notebook, knowing I can return to them later.

Love your subject

Rosetta indulges several of my interests – ancient Egyptian history, coffins, philosophising about the size of the universe…  Maybe one day these will become hallmarks of my writing, but for now writing about what I’m interested in really just motivates me to write more.   I’ve tried to strip out anything from my story that doesn’t interest me or that I don’t have the knowledge to write about, because I know I’ll otherwise lose my love for my book or get mired in research.

Well, that sums up a few of my early reflections on how to write a novel.  It’s certainly a challenge – I’m well under halfway through my predicted length and it feels like it’s taking more and more words to make relative progress.  But I know that I’ve set myself a good pace and provided myself with an idea I’ll enjoy working with.  If I can stick to my routine and my targets, I’ll never have had a better chance of finishing a complete novel.  Wish me luck!

Liam Smith

Writing twisted gothic tales and drumming whilst I think up more.

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