Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Write a Novel in Two Easy Steps

1.  Write a page.
2.  Repeat until finished.

A few days ago, the always-amazing Maggie Stiefvater posted a link to an old blog post of hers about how to write a novel.  (Here.)  (Oooh, that worked!)  It got me thinking about how I write.  The Still Unnamed war book will be my 10th published novel, but, of course, I have a few practice novels stashed away.  When I'm asked if I've ever written anything that hasn't been published, and I say yes, people often titter, as though my response might make me feel slightly ashamed.  It doesn't.

I wrote my first-ever novel the summer between my junior and senior years at Smith.  I was working eight hours a day in the chemistry labs, and staying rent-free with my best friend in an apartment one of the chemistry professors had vacated for the summer.  The apartment didn't have air conditioning, and it was an exceptionally hot summer.  In the morning I would drive to Smith and park at the stables (everyone on the riding team always parked at the stables; campus parking spaces were expensive and rare).  I would saddle a horse and ride for forty minutes, while it was still cool.  (My roommate would get in an extra hour of work, as they'd let her do that; I could only be paid for eight hours a day, so that's how much I worked.)  I'd walk to the lab, work all day, walk back to the barn with my roomie.  Tuesday and Thursday evenings I retrained a horse for a local therapeutic riding center.  When we got home, we'd eat something cheap and starchy.  Then my roommate would lay flat in front of our big box fan, reading a book, and I'd belly up to the electric typewriter I'd borrowed for the summer, that sat on our kitchen table the entire time.  I'd write my novel.  Whenever I finished a page I'd pull it out of the typewriter and sail it down to my roommate, who would read it without comment and add it to the growing pile.

The apartment had a television.  We never once turned it on.

I finished the novel, revised it over Christmas break, and sent it out something like 14 times.  I got some quite nice rejection letters, and some crummy photocopied ones; ultimately, a kind editor pointed out that one of my characters at one point acted completely inconsistently, and that if I ironed out the inconsistency, I lost my plot.

I agreed this was a problem.  The more I thought about it, the more insolvable it seemed, until I finally put the manuscript in my bottom desk drawer.  I think I still have it, somewhere.

I didn't feel very disappointed.  I felt sorry that I'd created a plot that hinged on a flaw, that I wasn't yet the writer I hoped to be, but I wasn't sorry that I'd written the novel or that it wasn't going to be published.  I'd put a great deal of work into it, and I'd learned a great deal in exchange, learned things I could never have learned without sitting in that hot kitchen all those summer nights, typing out one page at a time.  Until I'd written a novel I didn't have the first clue how novels were written, much less how I personally needed to go about doing it.  It seemed a fair exchange.   (I was also egotistical enough that I didn't want my first novel to get bad reviews.)

My first published novel was supposed to have been a picture book, but it got out of hand.  When I read the rough draft, after it had been accepted, I was appalled.  I wrote to my editors, "You must have amazing faith in my powers of revision, because really, this sucks."  They wrote back that most of their authors weren't quite so forthright.

I wrote my second published novel from an outline, which taught me to never do that again.  Plenty of writers do, successfully; I don't.  I wrote my third published novel with only one scene, the climax, in my head--I knew that if, when I got there, the reader could understand the points-of-view of everyone in it, the book would be a success.

I wrote my fourth published novel on a dare, and my fifth because my husband said I had to. 

I wrote my second unpublished novel in my spare time, between working as a research chemist and trying to retrain an off-the-track Thoroughbred mare.  It wasn't quite good enough, but it lead to a ghostwriting job that, in time, meant I could chuck chemistry and stay at home with my newborn.  I couldn't be unhappy about how that one worked out, either.

My third unpublished full-length novel saved me thousands in therapy.  My fourth unpublished novel healed a broken friendship whose loss I'd mourned for more than twenty years..

There may be 27 ways to look at a blackbird, but there are thousands of ways to write a novel.  Not all of them lead to publication, but most of them are good.