“Walker, your treads are
the path and nothing more;
walker, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.”
— from Caminante No Hay Camino by Antonio Machado
“Do you have any advice for writing a novel?”
The question both amused and touched me. Amused because I’ve never actually finished a novel. Touched because this friend believed I knew enough about writing one to have accumulated shareable wisdom with him. (I love my friends’ faith in me!) What he doesn’t know is that my journals and Google Drive folders are littered with abandoned drafts of sci-fi, horror, historical fiction, humor writing, poetry, non-fiction, memoirs — you name it. My writing life looks a little like the Winchester Mystery House: staircases going nowhere, doors opening out onto thin air, and rooms that have no actual purpose.
I’ve read a lot about writing over the years, believing that someone out there would have the answers I needed to finally motivate me to become the writer I think I have the potential to be. I’ve read books and articles about process, motivation, technique, theory…the list goes on. What I’ve found most successful, though, I’ve learned through failing, again and again.
My failures during National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) have been especially instrumental in learning about myself as a writer. Writing a novel in 30 days is ridiculously compressed, an artificial situation. (Having said that, plenty of writers have eventually published their NaNoWriMo novels, as did my friend Tim, author of Davy’s Savior.) But the pressure of meeting daily word-count goals — yeah, that’s right, writing every single day, which isn’t something I find easy to do — uncovers a lot of attitudes, beliefs, and bad habits lurking in the shadows.
So, here are a few hard-won tips from my NaNoWriMo experiences, some of them offered by writers much more successful than I, and some of them things I’ve stumbled on accidentally as I wrote.
Tip 1: Don’t force yourself to write from beginning to end
I tried this. It sucks. Just don’t.
Even if you have an outline — you know, like your high school English teachers used to require — and you think you know exactly how you want your novel to unfold, you’ll find yourself miring in your own, well-planned storyline. If you insist on writing linearly, from beginning to end, when the wheels fall off — and I guarantee they will — you’ll grind to a halt and will find it difficult to get started again.
The funny thing about deviating from The Plan — whether it’s an outline for a novel, a driving route, or a vacation itinerary — is that you often end up in much more interesting places than you’d imagined existed. If you let the story unfold, it takes on a life of its own, and while that can completely blow your well-planned outline out of the water, it can also mean a more interesting character, subplot, or scene.
My first NaNoWriMo attempt taught me that writing in chunks not only enabled me to better develop my characters and story, it also allowed me to keep moving when I felt stuck. If I couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the scene I was writing, I simply picked up and moved farther down the story’s timeline — or reversed and added a chunk somewhere else that would better allow me to develop the scene where I was stuck. (Mind you, I didn’t edit — see Tip 2 — I added.) I’d either add the new material to my outline, or I’d do a little journaling around it to help set up something I planned writing later in connection to it. (See Tip 4, below, about handwritten notes.)
Had I insisted on writing linearly, beginning to end, I never would have gotten as far as I did — and I wouldn’t have a great start to a novel I plan to finish in the future, now that it’s had some time to marinate. Like, a lot of time. Um…two years. But who’s counting?
Tip 2: Write first; edit later
I’ve read this bit of advice in so many books and articles that I’ve lost count. The bottom line is that if you start listening to your inner editor, you’ll quit writing, and you’ll never finish your novel. Simple as that.
The writing doesn’t need to be a great work of art as it flows out of you (or claws its way out, in a kind of eviscerating birth, as in the Alien movies) — heck, it doesn’t even need to be good. It just needs to be written. Get it out. Get it down. There’s time later to shape it up, and you might miss writing a nugget of brilliance if you’re wrestling with trying to turn what feels like piles of poo into gold ingots before you even finish the story.
So tell your internalized college professor — you know the one — to shut his or her trap. You have work to do, and you need to concentrate. (And I’m betting that critical voice in your head has never even attempted, much less written, a novel of its own, so it has no right to criticize yours.) I frequently have to turn “we are not editing right now” into a mantra I repeat while breathing deeply and forcing my fingers to just keep typing.
Tip 3: Set a timer and write until it dings
I’m not sure where I first heard this bit of advice, but I most recently heard it from Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) in her Calm.com Master Class, “Creative Living Beyond Fear.” She suggests using a plain old kitchen timer rather than your phone, which, as she says, should be nowhere near where you are working so you don’t get distracted. Then you write for that period of time — no getting up to make a cup of tea or look at email or play with the dog. Just keep your heinie in the seat and write until the timer goes off, even if it’s only one sentence, over and over…
As a twist on the concept, the NaNoWriMo site builds in opportunities for timed writing as a speed-writing/brain dump exercise, called “word sprints.” You log in and set a timer, then write as fast as you can as the seconds tick by. When the timer goes off, you enter your word count for the sprint and move on.
Again, it’s artificial, I know, but I’ve found it useful, especially when my internal editor won’t shut its loud mouth. And I’ve also used the word sprint approach when I have just 15 minutes and am tempted to head out to social media for a little distraction. (I’ve been pretty successful with staying out of there, but relapses are starting to occur, especially now that I’m making progress, which might make no sense to you unless you read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. Resistance to creativity is real, folks.) Instead of distracting myself, I set the timer and write until the (rather humorous) alert tells me to stop. The funny thing is that, once I’ve input my word count, I often find that the sprint has kick-started my creative energy, and I’m ready to keep writing.
Sometimes, though, I just close my laptop and go do something else for a while, letting the writing marinate for a while before returning to it. What I write next often has more texture and interest.
Tip 4: Keep a journal with handwritten notes
This is me, all me, as far as I know. What I’ve found is that writing notes by hand engages a part of my brain that my laptop keyboard simply can’t access. Moving my hand across a page, pen in hand, triggers a different mode of processing than typing does. I often switch back and forth, from computer to journal and back again, allowing the different modes to activate as necessary.
My handwritten notes range from outlines to bits of dialogue to character descriptions to notes about scenes I want to write. Sometimes they’re stream-of-consciousness conversations with myself that morph into storyline. Sometimes, they’re notes on something I’ve researched — like geographic locations, terminology, or the stages of decomposition — that I need to work on or work out through the physical, manual act of writing. Highlighters occasionally come out; color-coding occurs. Margins fill with jottings. Diagrams and maps get drawn. Oftentimes my handwritten notetaking never sees the “official” writing pages, but it informs them.
And jotting things down by hand allows me to keep writing because I’m not distracted by the worry that I’ll forget a little gem that has potential or a fact I need to check about dog behavior. Or whatever. In short, journaling allows me to…
Tip 5: Just freakin’ write
Seriously. The only way to write anything is to write it. Sit down. Open a laptop or notebook. Write. And keep writing until the writing is done.
You’ll know when that is.