Novel Advice

The other day I received an e-mail from an adult reader who had enjoyed GROUNDED and wanted my advice. She has a novel kicking around in her brain, and she’s not sure how to get started.

Me either, I thought. But even though I didn’t know the answer, I attempted to give it. I shared a few things that are true for me. What I said was:

-When I write, I finish novels. When I don’t, I don’t.
-Though I do plan and outline my stories, I am never entirely certain of how they’ll go. If I wait until I’m certain, I’ll be waiting forever. Writing helps me figure out what to write.
-No matter how hard I work to create a polished, “perfect” manuscript, there are always thousands of revisions and edits ahead of me, so it’s best just to ignore the inner critic, get the draft down on paper, and go from there.

I sent that reply, but I wasn’t satisfied with it, because, while those things are true, I dodged the real question. What the woman asked was how we as writers are supposed to get started. How do we get past the idea stage and force ourselves to begin?

It’s a really hard question to answer.

I do not subscribe to the “if you don’t write every day, then you are not a Real Writer” school of thought (see more on this from the heartbreakingly articulate Daniel José Older). I’m stretched too thin to be an every-day writer, and I’m too old to be suckered into believing that there’s only one kind of path that works. I go through periods of non-writing, and periods where writing is not the first priority, and both of those things are okay. For me, they’re even necessary. But there are times when I must flip the switch, become immediately productive, and sustain that productivity daily over weeks or months in order to meet the various deadlines demanded by professional publishing. I can and do force myself to begin.

Even if I don’t feel like it. Even if I don’t know how.

So… how? How do I do that? How can I help somebody else who wants to try?

The biggest, and possibly the only piece of real advice I’ve got is this: Go somewhere else. Do the thing that feels clichéd, and take yourself to a coffee shop. Take enough money for one drink, take your notebook or laptop, depending on how you prefer to write, and leave everything else behind. Leave your phone behind. You do not need it. If you’re using a laptop, don’t get sidetracked by the wonderful world of wifi (although it is very handy for doing snap research on the one million bizarre and unrelated things you will find yourself doing snap research on while you write. Seriously, most writers I know have search histories that are so random and freakish that they would be unsurprised if the CIA showed up to seize their computers. Alarmed, but unsurprised. But I digress.)

Going somewhere else works for me. Last summer, when I was not teaching, my son was in a day camp for six weeks, four days a week. I had 20 hours a week to write undisturbed. So I drove my son to camp, went to the coffee shop around the corner, sat down, and did not move except to use the restroom until it was time to pick up my son again. If I had gone home, a) I would have spent an extra hour on the road, and that’s a waste, and b) I would have had a PS4 sitting in front of me calling my name. Or a recipe I wanted to try. Or a sudden need to weed the driveway.

No. Go somewhere else. Go where you can’t suddenly prioritize the laundry. Where you can’t just flick on one episode of Miss Fisher for inspiration and then get back to business. (Okay, so you CAN do that at the coffeeshop if you have wifi, but only if you bring headphones. So don’t bring headphones.)

Go somewhere else, and pretend you have a professional deadline, and that your editor happens to be an extraordinarily professional person whom you would personally rather die than let down, and then WORK.

Work is the only solution. Repeated effort is the only way to build the thing. So go where you can work. Remove yourself from your excuses.

(And remember. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to build the thing. It doesn’t matter if the thing isn’t good enough. All that matters is that if you don’t build it, you’ll never, ever know what kind of thing it might be.)

That’s all the real advice I’ve got.


1 Comment

  1. Good advice.

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