If you’re considering writing a novel, if you’re serious about it but not certain where or how to start, or you’re simply intimidated by the sheer mystery of the process… I have some good news to share with you:
That’s a good thing. You should be intimidated.
But you shouldn’t be confused about where and how to start.
First time novelists who are not intimidated by the mountain of principles and criteria that inform this craft, who come to the process of writing a novel armed only with their experience as a reader (which translates to this: you’ve read a novel, or decades worth of novels, and you believe you can do as well, that it’s not that hard – beginning, middle and end, that’s all there is to it, right?), who think they’ve intuitively assimilated the necessary arc and flow of story and character…
… if that’s you…
… then you already stand apart from those other folks who are sheepishly standing outside the writing room, into which you’ve charged confidently.
Which group would you choose?
Again, if you’re looking at the prospect of writing a novel and you’re not sure how to start, you’re one of the lucky ones. Because you are about to get that answer.
By enrolling in a process of learning the principles before you write your novel, rather than using the process of writing as the means of that learning, you’ll be years ahead and medically on safer ground than the confident, naive writer who thinks this is something you just sit down and do.
Because the weight of writing in ignorance will most certainly crush you, sooner or later.
A quick story.
Back in the day I wrote corporate media for a living, and had a few young writers working for me. One of them was from a small town in Washington, where his father was the town’s go-to physician. A man to whom everyone looked for help, for wisdom, and for information. The First Citizen of everything within a hundred miles.
Easy for such a social context to go to your head, I would think. That’s certainly what happened here.
My co-worker’s father had always wanted to write a novel. He was a big Tom Clancy fan, so that was the genre he chose – technically complex military intelligence novels dripping with testosterone. He’s read hundreds of ‘em. Knows that game inside and out.
So upon retiring, he announced that writing his novel would be his first order of business. He had a title, and was already sending letters to agents and telling his friends what a great movie will result from the novel he’s working on. Harrison Ford would star.
And he was dead serious.
I asked my friend if his father had taken in any learning, via writing conferences or how-to books. He said no, his expression dropping. He added that when he’d posed this question to his father, the response had something to do with having spent years healing disease and taking out rotting organs from sick patients, saving lives and healing disease, so how damn hard can writing a novel actually be?
Nobody within that hundred miles dared challenge that belief system.
Three weeks passed.
One day I asked my friend how his father was doing with the novel, if he had started yet. The answer made me choke back laughter. Because his father had finished his final draft, a week earlier.
All 112 pages of it.
That was 22 years ago. Since then I’ve occasionally looked for Dr. X’s name on Amazon.com, but it never pops up. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe he wrote a dozen or so more 100-page spy novels without having a clue what he was doing wrong, no doubt complaining that the game is rigged, or at least unfair.
Life has a way of teaching us that which we refuse to acknowledge. And when it does, it’s usually not pretty.
Who knows. But I know one thing… he was in that writing room too soon, that’s for sure.
A Few Initial Goals for the New Novelist
1. You need to figure out what kind of novelist you want to be, process-wise.
Not in terms of what genre you’ll write within, but rather, how you’ll go about writing your novels.
There are two polar opposite means of writing a novel, with infinite gradations of middle ground that most writers end up engaging with to some degree. But to begin, you should attempt to understand if you are a…
– A Story planner (also known as a plotter)… one who seeks to discover as much as possible about the story before starting in on a draft, including the developed premise, the character and his/her backstory, the core dramatic question leading to a core dramatic arc, the opening hook… the first plot point… the midpoint… the exposition across the four contextual quartiles of the story… and most important of all, the ENDING.
That’s right, you need to know your ending before you can ever write a draft that works at a professional level. Professionals know that. New writers need to know that.
But there’s another way to cover all these bases, which is by adopting the approach of…
– A Pantser… or, someone who writes a draft by the seat of their pants. This is just as viable an approach as is story planning… but only if you understand that your early drafts are the means of discovering your story, and that a draft absolutely cannot and will not ever work until you fully discover the story, including how it ends.
And, it won’t work until you are in possession of the requisite knowledge that will empower your pantsed drafts toward effectiveness.
People who tell you to pants, that this is the best and only way to do it… they know. You don’t. So pick your process carefully.
Some writers are pantsers by default.
Because they have no idea how to plan a novel.
Others write that way because it brings the best out in them. They’ve learned the ropes to the extent required to make this approach work.
Write this down: the criteria, benchmarks and content of story are not process-dependent.
A story doesn’t care how you wrote it, but it does care about the infrastructure and resonance within the narrative itself. All of which are principle-driven and not something you get to make up on your own, any more than you can hit a golf ball any direction you want and still be playing the game of golf.
The criteria for success are exactly the same for both of these approaches. Ignorance is an equal-opportunity dream killer, whether you plan or pants your stories.
You have to know what and how to plan or pants before either will work.
Most new writers adopt the pantsing mode at first, sometimes on the advice of experienced and even famous writers. But consider this: how can you possibly know what those experienced and famous writers know, which is essential to their success as a novelist who uses drafts to find and develop your story?
You can’t. Neither can a story planner who doesn’t have all that in their head.
Which leads us to recommendation #2:
2. Discover the principles of craft…
… which are out there hiding in plain site, everywhere you look, but for the most part are foreign to readers who haven’t anointed themselves as authors. It’s like flying in an airplane in this regard – you’ve been sitting back there in coach for years, observing how a plane backs up from the gate, taxis to the runway, hits the gas, pulls up, retracts the gear, and then finds a heading toward the given destination.
Soft drinks and crackers ensue.
But I ask you… does that experience qualify you to sit up front in the cockpit and actually fly the damn thing? To do so safely?
Of course it doesn’t.
Become a student of craft.
Seek it out, immerse yourself in it. I have two writing books out (Story Engineering and Story Physics) that will help you, with a third coming out in October, and there are dozens of other good books on the topic. Read James Scott Bell and Randy Ingermanson for starters. The 101 is absolutely essential.
Know that there are surprises awaiting you. Common structural and narrative paradigms that show themselves in every publishable story, almost without exception. New writers don’t know them, any more than you’d know how to bring a patient out of anesthesia if you found yourself alone in an operating room.
Feel free to write as you go. Just know that the worst advice in the history of writing is “just write,” if that means you do so without also seeking and discovering the principles that every single published and publishable novelist relies on.
You may think you know them because you are an avid reader, but I promise you, you don’t. Not until they are shown to you in the context of story development. And then…
3. Study the principles in the real world of fiction, both books and films.
Once initiated, there are things about every single story you’ll read or watch that you didn’t notice before, things that are as essential to the story working as landing gear is to getting that airplane down safely.
Once introduced to this stuff, you can’t unsee it. You will suddenly see behind the curtain of what makes a story effective… when perhaps you didn’t even realize there is a curtain.
Go hunting for knowledge. At first the principles might just hang there in front of you, seemingly context free, and you might view them as formulaic. Fair enough, but you’ll soon learn that formulaic is the wrong word, any more than the presence of a beating heart in your chest being essential to your life is formulaic.
4. Play the long game.
Here’s a formula for you, one that never fails: knowledge plus affirmation plus application plus perseverance equals… not necessarily success as a certainty, but it ensures your membership to the club. It gets you into the writing room in a way that is authentic, surrounded by folks who know what you know.
… since I’ve used this analogy twice now, let me share something a reader of this website said to me a few years ago. He, too, was a doctor… a brain surgeon, in fact.
He said that, like my friend’s father, he believed there was nothing he could not learn and do intuitively, because by necessity he was intuitive for a living, cracking into the skulls of patients not sure what he’d find, terrible black smears of death, using his intuitive base of knowledge to do what must be done to save that life.
He’d taken all the basic principles that got him to that place for granted, because he could. They had become second nature.
And now, as he also sought to become a novelist, he realized something to be true, something that he’d never imagined or considered, or would have rejected had someone told him. And that is… the amount of core baseline knowledge that a successful writer of novels must have, must internalize to the point they become the stuff of intuition, the number of variables in play, is every bit as complex and voluminous as his work as a brain surgeon, because both are issues of nuance, variance, perception and irrefutable science, rendered with high art.
And both have lines on the playing field you cannot cross, because death is the outcome if you do.
Or you can hang out in that writing room, huddled in a corner with my friend’s father, looking for comfort as you realize, beginning with your first attempt, that this notion of writing a novel is two things:
It is bigger than you are, if you haven’t honored the level of craft required. It’s like so many professions and avocations in that regard, it looks easy from that seat in coach, but you’ll be dead or humbled within seconds if you don’t have the requisite knowledge backing your intentions.
And then, this being the good news, the great and astounding news, is that the journey can be blissful. Because it demands that you become one with the requisite craft.
Once joined, it will never fail you.
It’s all out there. Point your journey toward it, and write your novels in humble context to all you learn and all you observe.
Once you know, rather than find yourself guessing, write your story any way you choose.
All of us, published or not, are engaged in that dance.
Check out my latest post over at The Kill Zone Blog, this one entitled: “The Secret Compartment in the Writers Tool Box.”