Happy National Novel Writing Month writers! (Or as the cool kids call it – NaNoWriMo) As you sharpen your pencils and prepare to embark on a 30-day-long writing adventure, here’s three tops tips to get you started from our Associate Writer and soon-to-be-novelist, Ruby Cowling…
“After several years writing in the wonderful form of the short story, in early 2015 I started focusing on a single, long-form creative project… okay, okay, it’s a novel. Now – after incredible support from Spread the Word and generous funding from Arts Council England – I’m at the far end of that process, and hope some of what I’ve learned will help writers who are about to start.
Don’t let the fact that it has taken me three years to get it anywhere close to the way I initially imagined it alarm you. In those three years there have been life interruptions, periods of laziness, knockbacks, failures of nerve, and pauses to write new short stories, as well as two complete rewrites – to the extent that the draft I’m finishing now bears almost no relation to the first and is only an estranged cousin to the second. Your first draft might well be a lot better than mine was, and everyone’s experience is different.
But the novel is long. The point now, at the beginning of the process, is to let go and enjoy letting the story tell you how to write it. Don’t get too hung up on anything – including the advice I present here.
Tip 1: Know (roughly) where you’re going.
Not all writing is about “story”, but the novel is. Even in experimental literary fiction, story counts. To end up with a piece of work that has shape, and a reason to live, you’ll need some sense of what your story is – the scenario your main character finds herself in, the ways in which she wants it to be different, and how she does or doesn’t achieve that change. Without a story, you don’t have any reason to choose one word over another, and since this is the basic bricklaying of writing (and the novel is mostly one long bricklaying process) outlining first – however broadly – will potentially cut years off the project. Even if you’re an “organic” writer (aka a “pantser”, as opposed to a “plotter”), having a sense of your story will act as a sandpit in which to play. An outline isn’t a legally binding contract, more a helpful force, pulling you along when you start to flag.
Tip 2: Don’t cling to preconceived ideas.
Though this may seem to contradict Tip 1, it’s intended to complement it. The first-draft stage is a balancing act between, on the one hand, honouring your outline, and, on the other, allowing the process of writing to surprise you. The pleasure of writing – the sole romantic, magical thing about it – is when something happens that you didn’t see coming. Let those moments happen. They often look like a particular minute when you stop typing, and think, “oh no, I can’t put that”. Put it, for Pete’s sake, especially if you think it breaks some kind of rule of acceptability. If it really doesn’t work, you’ll find out later. It’s possible you’ve just uncovered something exciting and brilliant.
This is why NaNoWriMo isn’t a completely insane idea. You’ve got to produce those 50,000 words no matter what, so you’ve no time to censor yourself, or think “but this isn’t what I wanted it to be!” and spend more time hammering the backspace key than all the others. Trust me, the first draft will not be what you wanted it to be – because you wanted it to be perfect, and that’s impossible – so let it surprise you. Sometimes you accidentally go through a wormhole and end up in another world you never could have imagined. (Other times… you back out of it. Which is what the second draft is for.)
Tip 3: Surrender and service
This tip is less about the mechanics of words on a page, and more about staying sane. To a greater or lesser extent we are all slaves to our ego (greater, in my case) and in the long and compromise-filled process of writing and attempting to publish a novel, this will hurt you. I’m sorry in advance. To help, I have tried – am still trying – to approach the whole endeavour in a spirit of “surrender and service”. The more you can allow the story to tell you what it needs, and get out of your own way when putting sentences together, the less fraught it’ll feel. By this I mean: don’t sit and congratulate yourself on beautiful sentences or beat yourself up for banal ones. Just write sentences that serve the story. Just serve the work.
You’re doing it because you want to touch, entertain, console, or communicate with other people, aren’t you? Surrender to that. Your end result is for others; it’s not really about you. Start worrying that it reflects on you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, and you’ll tighten up. Your writing will read as if you’ve got the brakes on, your story will derail, you’ll spend days curled on the floor in the foetal position wishing you’d never been born. Don’t let your ego put you there.
Finally – Tip 4 of 3 – Harness Your Tools. I use everything from pen and A4 pad to large spreadsheets. I have found Scrivener absolutely worth the (one-off) cost, as it allows you to organise a long and complex document beyond what you can do with word processing programs and bedroom floors covered in index cards. Excel helps me map thoughts and look at the overall shape of the book from different angles. By sending documents to Kindle, I can read and edit scenes off-screen without using thousands of sheets of paper (though you will need to print and read on paper eventually). Writing a novel is a long and complex and solitary process, so the more help you can get from the tools that are out there, the more you’ll feel bolstered to continue. Most important of all? Have a double- or triple-backup system in place. I back up in real time to Dropbox, then daily to an external hard drive, and periodically to an old, “spare” laptop. Emailing important documents to yourself puts a copy on another remote server. I’ve had several hardware failures but this system has meant I’ve never lost a word. Don’t learn the hard way, kids. Back up.
And good luck.”