6 Tips on Writing a Novel That I'm Learning As I Go
It isn't easy, but it might be more doable than you think.
As readers here know, I'm an experienced professional writer with 15 years in the business. What you might not know is that I’m totally new to writing novels, which was always my childhood dream. As I'm making the transition from exclusively writing short non-fiction to working on writing long fiction, here are 6 things I'm learning along the way:
1) Try to Write Every Single Day
You're trying to write a whole book. That's a LOT of words. You may feel daunted, but if you focus on small, manageable goals, you can do more than you think. I try to just get about 2-3K words written per day.
2-3K words per day is VERY doable, and if you stick with it, you'll have a whole book drafted in just 2-3 months. But only if you stick with it. Which brings us to...
2) You're in a Battle to the Death With Distractions
You are going to be tempted to procrastinate. Social media will feel scintillating. You'll be desperate to go out to lunch. Catching up on podcasts is going to feel very important. This is you avoiding doing the work.
Author Neil Gaiman told Tim Ferris on a recent podcast that he has one rule:
"You can sit here and write, or you can sit here and do nothing. But you can’t sit here and do anything else."
He explains more in this clip:
3) Sometimes, You'll Have to Choose Between Research & Writing
The story I'm currently working on has real-world themes and locations. It has military characters and settings. It incorporates science, mythology, and religious beliefs. This isn't all stuff I know off the top of my head.
I spend hours every writing day perusing Google, looking at maps and street views, exploring locations in VR, reading up on ranks and duties and procedures and beliefs, trying to tie my story as closely as possible to the real world it occurs within. Some days, I spend all these hours researching and wind up with very little time left to write. I have a large family. We have appointments, we need to figure out dinner, we have to run errands - there's a lot to juggle in any given day. I don't always get to do everything I want in each session — and that's OK.
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4) Don't Sweat it if You Have a Bad Day
When you're trying to write something that's 60-100K words, you can feel like you're climbing Mt. Everest. You want to just keep going until you reach the summit. But there are days when you feel like you can't take another step.
You have to be careful not to burn yourself out. You need to give your brain a chance to recharge and reload. You've got to keep filling it with things that inspire new ideas. If you have a day where your best efforts seem to fail, take a day off. See a movie. Play a game. Go for a drive. Visit friends. Do something completely different. It'll be there when you come back.
5) Remember That Your First Draft Doesn't Have to be a Masterpiece
There's an old saying: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Many writers are, by nature, also perfectionists. I don't really agree with Hemingway's advice to write drunk and edit sober, but I do see what he's going for. You have to find a way to turn off your inner editor and just write.
I think of it this way: when I want to sculpt something out of clay, I first have to rough out the shape. I build an armature. I layer on foil. I add chunks of clay that then need to be smoothed into something resembling what I'm trying to make. It's a rough figure that only becomes what it's supposed to become through a process of gradual, iterative refinement.
Your story is like that too. Writing is re-writing. Embrace that, and you'll be fine.
6) Make Use of Helpful Systems & Tools
Whether you write on paper, at a typewriter, or on a computer, you need to find systems and tools that work with your writing process. Personally, I use Plottr to help me plan & develop characters, Atticus to do the actual writing and formatting, and Milanote to gather research and lay it out visually in idea boards.
Sometimes, trying to use a tool will feel cumbersome and even get in the way of your process. If so, set it aside. It's better to write on a cocktail napkin than to get bogged down in an app that just isn't flowing for you.
Now, stop looking at writing tips and go write!