Writing Tips

Unusual Hobbies: Writing Novels

When I was in high school and college, I always talked about how some day I was going to write a novel.  It’s been nearly ten years now since I graduated from a creative writing program, and I have yet to get a book published.  But things are changing for me.  I have gone from hardly writing at all over the past several years to writing two massive lumps of words and pages that could each be expanded and polished down into actual books.

The thing I’ve discovered is that novel writing is not for everybody.  Solely as a hobby where the goal is to write a long story that takes up a few hundred pages, I find that novel writing has a lot in common with training for an athletic event.  Short stories and poems are like 100 meter sprints, while a novel is like a marathon.  It takes practice, discipline, and determination to complete.

I honestly think that anyone who reads and writes in a language is capable of creating a novel.  Think of how many words worth of Facebook updates, Tweets, or blog posts you’ve compiled so far.  If you had spent those words on a story, you probably could have written several novels already!  The hard part is buckling down and running the marathon.

Have you considered writing a book?  Here are some steps I recommend.

  1. Get motivated.
    If it’s something you really want to do, then do it.  One thing I’ve found different between writing novels and short stories is that with novel writing, it feels more like a job.  There are moments when the last thing I want to do is keep writing, and it takes a lot of willpower to keep going.  In this way sometimes, it feels more like an endurance sport.  Rather than giving up in the difficult moment, you have to commit and force yourself to come back to it.  Set goals for how much you want to write each day and give yourself rewards. E.g. “If I write 2,000 words, I can lounge around and watch a movie” or “If I finish this chapter, I can go have a drink with my friends.”
  2. Make time.
    Finding the time to write can be one of the most difficult parts of the process.  When you have family demands or job demands, you will find every excuse not to write.  Don’t let it stop you.  Make time.  One blog I read recently suggests setting aside 20 minutes a day, and if you write past that, then great.  I personally set aside an hour at a time twice a day, and I can usually crank out 2,000 words in two one-hour sessions.
  3. Find a place.
    The average person has so many demands on their life both at home and at work.  If you have an office or a kitchen table that you can work at with no interruptions, then good on you.  However, if finding time is difficult because of family demands, work, or friends who want to hang out, then make a point of working away from it all.  Go be the coffee shop cliche pounding away at the keys on your laptop, or you can go to the library after work.  Either way, you can find a place to escape from your duties and create a new routine.
  4. Give yourself a deadline.
    This is why I like the NaNoWriMo idea so much.  There is a deadline: write 50,000 words in 30 days.  Other deadlines I have seen are a chapter a week, or marking a date on your calendar.  Whatever works for you, do it.  Make a commitment to finish on time, and keep track of your progress.
  5. Keep notes.
    Have a notebook or an extra word processor file open to keep notes about your story.  Some things I recommend including are a list of characters, with their names and descriptions.  Other things you might include are notes about the places and settings, things you would like to change in the revision, a list of scenes with summaries, etc.  Anything you think you might want to remember, make a note of it and have it available for quick reference later.
  6. Have a plan.
    Know who your important characters are before you start, and know roughly where you want the story to go and how you want the story to end.  You can change the details as you go, and you can deviate from your original idea, but if you suffer from writer’s block, your plan can act as a road map for getting you back on course.
  7. Don’t worry if it sucks.
    Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, plot holes, or anything else that your internal editor will point out.  Just ignore it and move on.  If it really bothers you, make a note of it somewhere and fix it in the revision.  The first draft should be raw–it’s just you getting your ideas down so you can look at them when you’re finished.  When it’s all said and done, you may realize that it’s much better than you thought, but while you’re writing is not the time to worry about it.

Ultimately, I recommend treating your writing like a job.  Show up and do it whether you want to or not.  If you keep a good attitude about it and persevere, you’ll find that there are more “want to” days than “don’t want to” days.  You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about editing.  That’s because I haven’t gotten to that point yet in my own struggles, but I assure you that once I’m there, I will crank out The Tony Bird Guide to Editing Novels.

I’m sure there are plenty of other good suggestions for writing out there.  Feel free to add your own in the comments.


12 thoughts on “Unusual Hobbies: Writing Novels

  1. The best writing advice I’ve gotten (which is pretty much encompassed in your advice) is to write. Just keep writing. Even if you think it’s crap. You can fix that later or just scrap it later. But no one is going to get better without practice.

    1. Yeah, I’m with you on that. Practice and get feedback from someone who’s better than you. Once you get over the bruised ego, your writing will be that much better.

  2. This is all excellent advice, and very coherently/concisely written. I may need to write this down and put it by my desk (or on the lid of my laptop.) I personally like coffee-shop writing, just not sure what time to go. Thanks for this list 🙂

    1. Take the characters of your favorite story and change their names, and then put them into the plot of your second favorite story. Then make the setting your home town. I’m pretty sure you can run with that. 🙂

  3. I want to write a novel, but it seems like a lot of work. Wasn’t there some Stephen King book where people were writing novels in their sleep while their insides dissolved into alien goo? Why didn’t you list that as one of the steps?

    1. The problem with that method is that if your insides dissolve into alien goo, chances are you won’t be able to hang around for editing, so I try to avoid that step. That’s not to say others haven’t made it work for them, but it’s my preference not to.

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