About two years ago, I went through a transformation as a writer. I had been taking workshops and classes for longer than I like to admit and I was growing frustrated that it was taking me years to not complete the first drafts of my novel. I was having a lot of fun in the classes, but it became apparent to me that the classes were the extent of my writing each week. Outside of class, I was “too busy” and “couldn’t find the time” or “had other commitments.”
So I started studying not just the work of some of my favorite authors, but also their habits and methods. What did I find? Stephen King wrote his first drafts in three months. John Steinbeck banged out his first draft of The Grapes of Wrath in about thirteen weeks. Over and over, I heard writers talk about the importance of getting the first draft down quickly, of bypassing the internal editor and tapping directly into the heart of the story.
So I spent a year putting together a goal and a plan for achieving it: I would write a novel in thirteen weeks.
And then I sat down and put it into practice.
I have to tell you, on that first day, I was wondering if it was going to work. I was afraid I’d be up against another failure, another unfinished draft for the junk drawer. I feared I might be setting myself up for disappointment. Surely it was impossible. And then I thought of a cartoon I’d watched with my kids when they were younger: Phineas and Ferb.
In every episode, a Very Reasonable Adult would ask some question like: “Aren’t you a little young to be a roller coaster engineer?”
And ten-year-old Phineas would reply: “Why, yes. Yes, I am.” Then he and his brother would go on to build the most outrageous roller coaster imaginable in the course of an afternoon.
So I decided to throw myself into it body and soul and leave the results to the gods. “Isn’t this impossible?” Why, yes. Yes, it is.
So What Went Wrong Before?
We live in a “left-brained” society. (Yes, I know the whole dual hemisphere brain theory has been debunked. Just accept it for the metaphor it always was and keep up, ok?)
That is to say, from an early age we’re conditioned to think about results more than processes. “Get good grades so you can get into a good college.” There’s no interest in that statement in how to go about getting good grades, only in getting into a good college as a result.
More than that, we’re trained to second-guess ourselves. “Will the teacher mark this wrong? Will Mom and Dad be mad with me?” We’re not encouraged to be curious, to explore, and to make mistakes, so it’s difficult to quiet one’s mind and simply enquire.
And then there’s the uncertainty of a life in the arts. The decision to be creative is often met with concern, suspicion, or outright scorn.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
This sort of creativity is not something we encourage as a culture, electing instead to focus on productivity, salary, social class, and other external motivations and rewards. Did I perform well on my annual review? Will I get my annual performance bonus? Will I make that sale and earn my commission?
And there’s a prevailing attitude that if you’re not great at something right off the mark, then you shouldn’t bother. A corporate HR drone who shall remain faceless once had the gall to ask me: “Are you the best person in the world for your job?” It counted for nothing with her that, best or not, I was the one showing up every day, trying every day, learning and growing into the role every day. She wanted me to be the best, right now, or else.
This type of thinking prevents countless creative people from ever getting started. No one wakes up at 8am on Day One as the world’s best anything. Even Mozart took three or four years to learn how to play minuets on the clavier.
The point is, the desire to write is a desire to evolve. It is a way of making meaning for ourselves from the chaos of our lives, a way to reframe ourselves in relationship to our world. And the stories we write are not results, they are living processes. They’re nonlinear. They go from A to 3 to Q while stopping off for tea in the Sahara and an afternoon of chess along the way. They don’t make any sense. They’re impossible.
So to get them down on paper, we have to find, study, coax, and cajole them in and from their natural habitat: the human heart.
Yes, I know it sounds hippie-dippie-doo and maudlin. But the heart is where stories live, and we have to understand why we write as much as what we write. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, and syntax are all irrelevant in a first draft. The important thing is to get the story down, quick-quick-fast. Get out of your own head, take up residence in your heart, and you’ll be surprised what ends up on the page.
“But It Takes Years of Study to Write a Novel…”
This is another popular misconception, that we must somehow be “certified” or “given permission” to start writing, that if only we could take that writing class, or read that book, or earn that MFA, we would be magically transformed into that most mythical of creatures: A Writer.
Fluff-and-stuff. Our job as artists is to build a body of work, and we needn’t wait for permission or certification to get started. We can start right here and now, today, with whatever tools we naturally possess. We can drop our preconceptions about “good writing” and give ourselves permission to write poorly. Once we do this, everything changes. And surprisingly enough, permission to write poorly doesn’t lead to poor writing. Quite the opposite. Instead of worrying about impressing our reader with Our Very Important Writing, we instead begin to impress with our willingness to be open and honest on the page.
The Novel Process
The title of this piece, One Way to Write a Novel, is a bit of joke. On the one hand, it pokes a bit of fun at all the headline-writing advice that bloggers receive: Three Tips for Better Platform Building. Nine Ways to Open a Can of Tuna Fish. 51 Mistakes to Look For in Your First Draft.
But it’s also a reminder that this is just one way of going about the business of writing a novel. It happens to be my way. It happens to work for me. I wrote the first draft of a 122,000 word fantasy novel in three months using this method. I wrote my novellas, Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, using this method. And I’ve recently started work on another new novel by this method. So far, so good. Not one day of writer’s block in 18 months, and three complete and serviceable first drafts, two of which have already been transformed into publishable (if not yet perfect) manuscripts.
But it’s still just one way. It’s not the only way. It might not be your way. What I’ve found, after years of struggling with my own writing, after years of working with other writers, is that whatever method you choose, you get out of it what you put into it.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring my method in more detail. So kick the tires and try it out for yourself. See if it takes you places.
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