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To Write A Novel

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised since my last post by the number of people getting in touch with me about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and saying they’d love to write a novel ‘at some point’. I’ve said the same thing in response to every message:

Stop procrastinating and write it NOW.

Many of these people are not writers. They have never written more than a few hundred words at a time before, aside from college or university coursework which is usually a few thousand. The thought of writing 50,000 words is very daunting and, in the words of one of them ‘completely impossible’.

The Night CircusI’m here to tell you, it’s not impossible. While I’ve never taken on the NaNoWriMo challenge myself before, I know many who have, and of those most of them successfully completed the task. Those people produced more than a few gems. If you’re wondering any anyone who writes a novel for NaNoWriMo ever goes on to get published, the answer is yes. Ever heard of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern? That was a product of NaNoWriMo. The utterly awesome The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan was also written for NaNoWriMo, as was Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants. Indeed, hundreds of novels written in Novembers in the past few years have found their way into print, many via traditional publishing routes, more still through Indie houses and self publishing.

Even if you’re familiar with writing, sitting down to write a fully fledged novel is a daunting prospect. How do you think of the plot? How do you ensure that plot is compelling, different, and a little bit twisted? How do you write convincing characters, snappy dialogue, and fluid descriptions? There are a million answers to these questions but I have found, from personal experience, that the true answer in the end is, You Just Do.

Writing, like any skill, takes practice. The more you write, the more skilled you become, and the less intimidated you are by things like a 50,000 word target. You become less focused on how many words you have written and more concerned with the quality of the work you have produced. The first thing you need to do however, when contemplating writing a novel, is quite simply to write. Write anything. Write everything. Write whatever pops into your head. You will very soon find that you’re well past that 50,000 mark and you still have more to say. The difficult part, as I mentioned in my last post, is not actually writing that many words, it’s writing a cohesive story. For that, you need a plan.

The Forst of Hands and TeethWriters vary quite dramatically when it comes to planning novels. Some like to simply write and see where it goes. They end up with a complete first draft and only then do they look at what they have and start trying to smarten it up into a well structured plot. Authors are notorious for saying that the first draft of any novel is utter ****. This is not because they are bad writers, it is simply the nature of writing. It takes you the whole of the first draft to fully understand your story, your characters, and where you want things to go. You will find that as you draft and redraft, these things shift and change, so that the final draft of your novel can be entirely different to the draft you began with, or even the idea you began with. This is, perhaps, why planning is less important to some than it is for others.

The first full length novel I wrote was meticulously planned. It is part of a series of sixteen (yes, sixteen) that are all meticulously planned. I only actually wrote the first in this series, and that has never progressed further than the first draft, because at the time I wrote it (several years ago now) I was so disheartened that the ‘finished’ article didn’t live up to my expectations that I gave up on it completely.

The next novel I wrote, Chasing Azrael, was initially written in the space of a couple of months. I was commuting from Frodsham to Bangor at the time and spending at least three hours a day on a train. I spent those hours scribbling away in my notebooks. Eventually I typed it all up and then found I had a draft of about 80,000 words. I was shocked it was so long. It has been a long and arduous journey from there to the current draft of the novel, which is around 131,000 words and very different to that initial draft. The bones of the novel are still there, but it took me a very long time to really get a feel for what I was trying to write about.

I did not plan Chasing Azrael at all. I simply started writing.

Water For ElephantsSome books are like that. You just begin to write. As I tackle NaNoWriMo this year I find myself writing down a full plan for Twisted Sister, the novel I aim to produce by the end of November. I think it’s important to distinguish here that what I actually mean is the plan for the FIRST DRAFT.

Even planning a novel can seem daunting at first, so to help you out I intend to keep you updated on my own progress. I’ve also found a useful and free to download 11 step plan of action, which will be especially useful to you if you’ve never planned a novel before.

One final point I would like to make is that novel writing can be an emotional roller-coaster, depending upon how you choose to write. I generally write from a place of pain. I know this sounds odd, but many of the things I write about are based on actual events in my life. Writing about them, fictionalising them, giving them to a character I have created, a character who is stronger than me, or wiser than me, or even more screwed up than me, and then finding a way for them to solve the problem, is extremely cathartic. Chasing Azrael was written out of a desperate need to understand my diagnosis with Bipolar Disorder. I had suddenly been slapped with this label, and I didn’t really understand what it meant. In some ways, it made my life make a lot more sense, it made me feel safer. For the first time I had some idea as to the cause of some of my more erratic behaviour. That did not, however, make it easy to deal with, for suddenly I was aware of the fact that my life would have, perhaps should have, been very different were it not for the fact I have a mental illness. Writing the novel helped me come to terms with what I was feeling. Once I’d written it – once I’d got that all-important first draft down – I found I could start to look at it as a novel, rather than a therapy session, and it changed accordingly.

If you’re looking for a spiritual detox, writing is one of the best ones there is.

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