What No One Ever Tells You About Writing a Novel

At the start of this year, I made a promise to myself.  Like ever other New Year's "resolutionist", I started making lists of my goals for 2016, and on that list - just like any other year - I wrote "get published".  This year however, I also started making a smaller list that I considered "actionable goals"; small tasks that I could do every day to break down my goal into something manageable.  This is what that task list looked like:

  1. Blog every week
  2. Submit to writing competitions
  3. 15 minutes of networking a day
  4. 15 minutes of drafting query letter a day
  5. 15 minutes (minimum) of revising Ravage a day

Of these five goals, as you might have guessed, I've only (barely) adhered to the first two.  I've hardly ever checked on my social media, with the exception of maybe Pinterest and Youtube.  I gave up pretty quickly on the idea of drafting my query letter once I discovered that a third of said letter consisted of my "credentials" as a writer: degrees, awards, positions of significant employment, certifications of merit - aka, all things of which I do not possess.

But I simply cannot condone the fact that I have not even stuck to the minimum minutes of revision a day I set out for myself.  I had honestly thought that 15 minutes was an incredibly manageable expectation, something I could do to work around the screenplay drafts, reading assignments, and short essays that I have due for school.  I was so sure of this that I marked a date on my planner - February 29th - and circled the words, "Ravage content edit due".

That due date is now less than a week away, and I have not even revised past my third chapter.

The process of writing and revising is different for every writer, and I know a lot of the authors that I greatly admire look forward to the revision process.  John Green has been known to say "that all writing is rewriting", and while I tend to agree, I've heard from a lot of authors - established or just starting off - that they find the process of revising infinitely easier than completing their first draft.

I beg to differ.  Then again, this is coming from someone who hasn't completed a new first draft in the last three years.  That being said, I probably still have a lot to learn from authors like John Green about the process of revision, but in the odd chance that I'm in the minority here, I thought I'd share some insights into what it is that makes the writing process the easier one for me; the things no one ever really tells you.

1. It's never easy

Okay.  I know I just said that writing is the easy part.  But the truth is, nothing is easy, fun, and enjoyable %100 of the time.  Not even the thing you're passionate about.  But if I've learned anything from participating in NaNoWriMo it's that, that's okay.  In fact, I don't know I would have ever completed a novel if I hadn't been introduced to the process from that mindset.

When you're writing a novel in the context of NaNoWriMo, furiously pounding out words on a daily basis at an incredible pace, slugging your way through to 50k, you know what you're signing up for.  It's not going to be easy, and it wasn't going to be any easier, honestly, if I gave myself the permission to sleep in and only write 500 words a day - or not at all.  Trust me, I've done both.  What makes writing difficult isn't the work itself, it's the way you think of the work.  Not to be overusing John Green here, but like a lot of authors, I know he initially condoned the concept of writing a novel in 30 days.  He felt it was a fruitless task, because simply no one can be expected to write a good book in a month.  The fact of the matter is, no one can be expected to write a good first book: period.  The process of writing isn't about being "good".  If anything, it's about sucking.  If you're a practicing writer, writing on a daily basis, the ratio of great material to crap that you'll be writing is probably 1:3, and that's if you're lucky.

But you simply cannot sit around and hope to wait it out through the bad parts.  The only way out is through.  So give yourself permission to suck.  You won't enjoy yourself all of the time, but once you allow yourself to fail, you'll enjoy yourself a whole lot more.

2. Things change

It might seem like a no-brainer, but the truth is that a lot of people - myself included - walk into the writing process with very strong convictions.  That kinda motivation is to be admired, but at a certain point that ambition can go so far as to get in your own way.  A part of becoming a good writer is being flexible.  Your original vision for what this book was going to be may change.  You may have to make sacrifices in order to continue your story.  You're definitely going to have to make those sacrifices when you revise.  Besides, there is always the incredibly real chance that you may fall out of love with the story you first started writing.  Whatever the case, you do what is necessary.  You cut your favorite scene.  You trash the ending you've been planning since last year.  That character you were so sure everyone was going to love?  You kill them off.  Whatever it takes to get the story flowing, whatever it takes to reinvest yourself in what it is you are writing: that is what you do.

3.  You don't always win

I've said this a lot now, but this, to me, is what stands out as being the first big obstacle all writers have to overcome: and that's a fear of failure.  The truth of the matter is, your first draft is going to suck.  It doesn't matter if you take five months to write it, or if you take five years.  There is no such thing as a good first draft.  So don't try to make it perfect.  Just try to make it work.  And have fun!  The first novel I ever started writing, before I was ever introduced to National Novel Writing Month, was essentially a glorified rip-off of the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King storyline.  If I looked back at it now, I'm sure I would have myself a good laugh.  Honestly, the first novel I finished for NaNoWriMo wasn't much better.  But that's okay.  Writing a bad draft or even giving up on the first draft of your manuscript altogether isn't the end of the world.  It may feel like it at the time, but get comfortable with the idea that not everything you write is going to the next big American novel.  I might not have had the most original ideas when I was writing in middle school, but when you're writing in a mindset similar to a fan-fiction writer, the love you have for your story overrides any standards of success or other expectations you might be putting on the work you're doing.

So if you're thinking about writing a novel, or haven't been able to finish your first one yet, my advice to you is:

Don't wait.  And don't worry.  If you can tackle the story in your head with the same enthusiasm, flexibility, and imagination as any of the stories you are a big fan of, that passion will translate, and you'll have a finished manuscript within your hands in seemingly no time.

And then you'll be where I am.  Making resolution lists when you should be revising.

Have you got any tips on writing or revising?  Leave them in the comments below!  God knows I'm in need of some.

Shai Cotten

How I Come Up With New Story Ideas

This weekend, I spent my #Blizzard2016 at my desk, writing for the Writer's Weekly 24-Hour Short Story Contest.  It's a competition that runs on a seasonal basis every winter and summer.  Once you've signed up, all contestants receive an email at 12PM CT with the prompt for this season and the word count their story should be completed in.  They then have twenty-four hours to complete their story, as the title suggests.

It's been a long time since I've worked in a short format for anything other than screenplays.  In general, I tend to write more on the prolific side, so for me, the challenge of short stories tends to root from wanting to write too much, rather than not knowing what to write.

Writing short stories is one of the best exercises a writer can engage in, no matter what medium they specialize in.  Writers from every field tend to unanimously agree that concise writing is the best kind of writing.  In screenwriting, it is absolutely essential, and applying this skill to fiction only ever hones the craft of prose.

Getting rid of the clutter and being able to tell a concise story is what makes storytelling a tangible and accessible form of communication.  But in order to communicate succinctly, the first step a writer must take is to form a clear idea of the bigger picture; what does, and does not matter.

All storytelling contains some sort of an arc, a through line of development that leaves its main subject at a completely different destination from where their story began.  This does not always have to be a physical journey, or even an eventful one.  Often, story arcs are more subtly crafted by an emotional or spiritual transformation, even if the subject's external world is still left completely unchanged.

The arc forms the core of the story; I tend to think of it is as the glue that holds the rest of the pieces together.  How or from where you draw these pieces together varies from writer to writer, but I personally like to think of them as though they were parts of a puzzle, complementing that concise whole.  Some of my favorite methods for pulling together puzzle pieces for a new story include:

  1. Writer's Journals

    I've personally been keeping less of a journal and more of a "writer's notebook" ever since high school.  Very simply, it's some sort of notebook that you can carry around with you on a daily basis, and in which you keep a log of any "writerly" thoughts or story ideas that might occur to you.  A lot of writers feel that it's easier for them to keep track of their writing process purely mentally, but I find that the simple act of writing stuff down helps me retain a lot more information, and also allows me to access ideas which had occurred to me years ago.  That being said, my thoughts tend to be a little random and disconnected when captured entirely within the moment.  Lines of prose, like "every step was like walking on broken stints of bone", often are only a few lines away from sparse premises such as, "a world where saints are just people with special abilities", on the same notebook page.

    I go back to these notebooks whenever I'm in a rut, or need a new story idea, to see if I can't string two seemingly unconnected thoughts from two very different times in my life into that one cohesive whole.

  2. Writer's Blocks

    As I mentioned in my post about ways to beat writer's block, writing prompts are one of my favorite ways to generate new ideas.  It's like having access to the journals of thousands of different writers, and sometimes it can be just the jump you need to make that connection between your own concept and the next.  The blog Writeworld is by far one of my favorites.  They have a varied collection of "blocks" which are general prompts of some sort to get writers unstuck, from "image blocks" which challenge writers to come up with a story based off pictures, to "sentence blocks" that vary from scene descriptions to lines of dialogue, to "music blocks" that compile songs to get writer's in the mood.


  3. Pinterest

I may be a tiny bit addicted to Pinterest, but if pinning isn't your cup of tea, I would venture to say that there are plenty of other social platforms that will probably fit this same niche.  I'm the type of person who loves to maintain this illusion of being organized, and after years of lurking around the site, accumulating literally thousands of pins for recipes I will never cook and DIY tutorials I won't ever craft, I recently discovered that I can utilize Pinterest's "board" scheme to create yet another hub for writing inspiration.  I follow the boards of other writers who frequently pin a hodge-podge of writing prompts, tips, and infographics and keep my own board for inspiration.  If I'm working on a longer piece, like my NaNo novel "EVA", which requires a lot of world-building, I might also pin photographs of models and actors who resemble my characters, as well as art and illustrations which fit the mood, theme, or setting of my premise.  Much like my writer's notebook, having all these disconnected thoughts compiled in one place gives me a fallback if I find myself in the middle of a piece with nowhere to go.

You can take a look at my writing board and all the pinners I follow here!

There are a lot of others resources for great story ideas, but these are by far my go-tos, and these are all the methods which got me through my long, snowed-in weekend of fast-paced writing.  If you have any of other favorites, share them with the comments below!  Part of becoming a better writer is also remaining open to new sources of information and inspiration.  Mixing it up is how we discover new ideas!

Shai Cotten