Most people at one time or other in their lives dream of writing a novel. I’m no exception.
This year I’ve been given the pretty awesome opportunity to get paid to write the first draft of a novel, and I thought this would be the perfect chance to share the process with everyone as I live it out.
I don’t intend this series to be a comprehensive how-to-write-a-novel guide, but I will share my process, resources, insights, any major walls I run into (figuratively, I hope), and breakthroughs. I hope these will provide you with the inspiration to begin or continue writing your own novel.
In April 2018 I received a Literary Creation Project grant from the Ontario Arts Council to write a novel. The application process involved providing 20 pages of material from the work-in-progress, along with a rationale for the novel and how it will meet the OAC’s objectives. In my case, this meant drawing out the ways that my completed novel will contribute to the culture of literature in Northwestern Ontario.
While 20 pages of polished material (polished enough to let a jury read it) is a lot of writing, it’s nothing compared to writing an entire novel. In the past I’ve written two other novel-length manuscripts but for one reason or other lost the thread before I could finish them. The first two attempts had a premise and characters I still consider pretty interesting, but at the time I didn’t have enough writing and editing experience to really make them work. Every time I read over my work I knew I just didn’t have the chops yet.
Since then, I’ve taken several years to write, polish, and publish many short stories in literary magazines and anthologies. This process really helped me slow down and focus on the craft of writing rather than the dream of being a novelist. Having smaller pieces published gives me confidence that others value my writing, and even some of those encouraging rejection letters from big-name magazines have helped me be sure I’m on the right track.
Still, writing a novel is a hugely involved process, and that process is different for every writer and possibly even for every manuscript.
Here are few insights from the early stages of my manuscript in progress:
The Seeds of the Story
I have a file of story starts and ideas that I never delete, just in case one day they become interesting enough to me to become full-fledged stories. I also enjoy looking back at ideas I’ve had in the past and seeing how my ideas have evolved.
In the case of my manuscript in progress, the premise stemmed from one of those seeds: a scene I wrote all in one day about a year ago. I had this scene (about three or four pages long) pop into my head, almost fully formed, involving two characters, a setting, and a secret. I didn’t know the context around this scene, so I was envisioning it as the core of a short story. I really enjoyed writing this scene and felt invested in these characters’ lives and their predicament, and I began wondering what type of larger context and themes they might be part of that could make this story more than just a scene. What other characters might be part of their lives? How would their past experiences inform their decisions in the present? I started to think about my own life experiences and those of my family, all the way back to 1900.
What I ended up with was an idea of two stories—one present and one past—told in an alternating format, and involving four generations of women.
Plotting or Pantsing?
By this point I knew I wanted to try writing a novel again, but I didn’t exactly know where I was going with it. So, the next decision I needed to make was whether I would try to “plot” (plan) or “pants” (write organically) my way through this manuscript.
Having tried both methods for various projects in the past, I decided I would use a combination of both plotting and pantsing. I wanted to have an idea of who my main characters are and their most pressing conflicts, and I wanted to have an idea of where they are headed. However, I wanted to maintain the mystery of the details so I could avoid becoming bored with the project and so I could allow myself to discover key aspects of the story along the way.
Because I wanted to try to secure funding for this project, I needed to put together a proposal that included a description of the novel. While I was a bit unsure of how to do this—considering I still had only a vague idea of the story at this point—I knew this part of the process would help me with the plotting/planning side of things.
What I ended up writing was a short description of the characters, the main story conflicts, and a hint of how the story would resolve, and did so in a way that indirectly described the themes that would lend a deeper sense of meaning to the book. It was vague enough to allow me to explore and discover but detailed enough to give the grant jury (and me) an idea of what I was trying to achieve.
Finally, I had to decide what my goals would be for the actual period of writing that would be covered by the grant, because I knew I would not end up with a fully publishable book in less than a year. Instead, I described my goal for this period as writing the first draft of the novel, including preliminary research.
“Getting Started” Takeaways
Your “getting started” at writing a novel will most certainly look different to mine, but here are some takeaways from my experience that any writer can benefit from:
- Keep a file of story starts and ideas. My suggestion is to keep an electronic file of these and never delete them. Paper notebooks get lost and are difficult to organize and store, so you may want to transcribe paper notes onto your computer before recycling them. You’ll find yourself going back to these often for inspiration. Consider organizing them by dates or themes or any other way that makes them more accessible for you.
- Focus on characters whose lives you feel most invested in. Even if you want to write an intricately plotted novel, your characters are what carry the story and give it emotional resonance. When you discover a character to whom you feel a close connection, pay attention. What are they trying to tell you? How can you help them tell their story?
- Consider the process. Plot, pants, or go for some sort of combination of both—whatever works best for you. However, I will say that it’s probably wise to plan at least a little bit; that is, know who you’re writing about and what problems they are facing, and have a general sense of the direction you want them to take.
- Set manageable goals with deadline. I’ve written in the past about how S.M.A.R.T. goals aren’t essential to productivity in general, but when you’re committing to a huge project like writing a novel, it’s a good idea to focus on one step at a time. Because of my grant, I’m kind of lucky to have an imposed deadline for my goal. Examples of manageable goals in the early stages of the novel-writing process could include freewriting (to generate ideas) for 15 minutes every morning for a month, conducting preliminary research for your novel within three months, or finishing a loose first draft in nine to twelve months.
Some of the resources I’ve found helpful at this stage include the following:
- The Story Intensive and The Story Course, Sarah Selecky Writing School
- Naming the World, and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston
- Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
- Scrivener, writing software
Now if you’ll excuse me . . . I have a book to write!
More on my novel-writing journey coming soon.