Lessons in Writing a Novel – Part 1

There are very few people in this world who do not  want to write a book someday, be it fiction or non-fiction. This is not surprising as our lives are rich with stories waiting to be told. No matter how mundane we think our lives are there is in reality story everywhere. I think this is the reason that so many of us crave to find a way to express what is already there.

I have wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember. Yet I have also been terrified by the notion. My first attempt was around the age of 10 and what followed were numerous attempts that did not survive the first chapter. This of course is the story of the story – it frequently dies on the page shortly after birth. There are many reasons for this and I let my apparent lack of success convince me to put down the fiction pen and rather enjoy the  fruits of others’ labours.

The part that really bugged me was how do you write a really great and powerful story – where does it come from and what method should you use to find it and capture it down on paper, or through the keyboard as it were.

In 2008 I attempted my first NaNoWriMo (www.nanowrimo.org), an annual worldwide race to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I even took a month off to do it and was working on a project that combined both fiction and non-fiction. I hit 28,000 words and bowed out having learning an important lesson – just how much discipline successful writers have. You do not bash out a few words every  now and then and hey presto, no! It involves sheer effort, sweat, and a string of frequently used cuss words. I also realised that combining a left brain and right brain writing project under tight deadlines just does not work, or didn’t for me. You need to allow the creator and editor to work separately and at different times otherwise confusion reigns.

In 2011 I finally found NaNoWriMo success and the experience was so startling and inspiring for me that I wanted to share with you what the journey was like so that just maybe you might join me later this year for the November NaNoWriMo and realise your dream too.

The best place to start would be the story creation itself, being the preparation leading up to the manic 30 days of wild writing. Some people who attempt NaNoWriMo start with no clear plot or sequence in mind and see what happens. Others plan in detail. The process is yours so it is up to you. I felt uncomfortable with no plan and equally uncomfortable with detailed plot designs and character outlines. I turned to one person I trust for insight – Stephen King.

Mr King is a legend in his own underpants. His Dark Tower series captured my imagine on levels I am only just starting to understand. If you love fantasy and science fiction – just read these books! Nevertheless, Stephen King has written a book on his technique on writing, – Memoirs of a Craft – part biographical, part lessons from his working life. And what I read there flicked the switch on – your job as writer is not to work out an intellectually complex plot with all permutations worked out before hand. No! Your job is to uncover the fossil that lies buried beneath in the subconscious. Dust this precious thing off and allow it to become clear to you over time just what the story is. Plotting and characterisation kills the fossil with jack hammers and earth movers. He begins every book with the following question: “What if ….”. For example, “What if a rapid dog has a women and child trapped in a car…” This is situational writing and creates the space for curiosity and something truly great to emerge. In his approach, as you go along you allow the characters and story to bring you the unexpected – the story literally takes on a life of its own. He certainly had no idea of the fate of Roland the Gunslinger until he wrote the end of the last Dark Tower book. Roland chose his own fate.

I was so fired up after reading his book on writing that I read it again, pouring over the grammatical and practical advice in Stephen King’s a-spade-is-a-spade writing style. And yet I faced the next hurdle…now what? I had the situation – my “what if?” had been stated – yet what do I do next. As if by magic – the answer came. I stumbled upon the 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. At about $7 for the Kindle edition, this is the cheapest and most valuable fiction writing resource you could ask for. This was the “non-structure structure” I had been looking for, mirroring King’s philosophy of uncovering the fossil and encouraging you to delve into the heart of the dilemma in your story. Although the title may suggest a light weight “become an author quick” approach, this is not the case. Instead it takes you through 90 days of day-by-day steps to get your first draft done. If you follow the steps you will be amazed at what pours out of the story that lies within you. And even though the process creates a structure for you, the real magic still happens when you write that first draft – other things that you had not expected come tumbling out. The real hidden magic makes itself known.

I intend using this approach for any novel I attempt and have it to thank for the first draft of my novel that now sits waiting on my desk for editing. The challenges of this process will be the subject of a whole lot of other posts once I have gone through it. And many cups of coffee no doubt…

In the next part I will share with you the first main insight that NaNoWriMo 2011 brought me…every person is uniquely creative.

20 thoughts on “Lessons in Writing a Novel – Part 1

    1. Hi! Thanks for the post. Yes I will be doing Camp NaNoWriMo in June – a non-fiction project though but could do with the energy to get me to 50,000 words. You too? Let me know how you go!!

  1. I picked up your info from Monica Cromhout’s post of FB. I see you also live in Cape Town – best place on earth! I completed two NANOs – 2009 and 2010 – nothing like it; chickened out in 2011. Not sure about this year.

    1. Hi Alison! Thanks for the note and read. Well done on both NaNos – agreed an incredible experience. I am doing Camp NaNoWriMo in June but it is a non-fiction project – riding the energy to get the words down quickly! Please stay in touch and let me know how you are doing. NaNo 2012? JUST DO IT! 🙂

  2. I’m signed up for June Camp NaNo. have my outline done and i’m hammering out some more in depth character motivations. cant wait to get started

  3. Belinda, your story is my story with minor changes! I got the link from Alison as she knows I am PASSIONATE about Nano. My first, 2008, is my trophy novel (rubbish but proof I can do it) and I haven’t missed a year since. Quite proud 🙂 that I’ve finished 50,000 words every year, but confess to making every ‘mistake’ under the sun in the process. Already thinking about my 2012 Nano. Have you read Chris Baty’s book, ‘No Plot? No Problem!’ Great read for any new Nano-ite, wish I’d read it before 2008! Blessings, Dawn in Milnerton, Cape Town

    1. That is fantastic Dawn! Sometimes I think the lessons that come out of NaNo are more precious than the writing itself. I look at my manuscript now and there are part I love and loads of other parts that are awful, but the journey is still just so magical. And I think there is healing in the journey too. Good luck for this year and feel free to hook up on the NaNo site – my buddy id is rubyray.

  4. Hi B. Didn’t know you were writing until recently, although I know you wrote non-fiction with a friend of ours some years ago. I have read part one of your blog, or whatever it is called, and particularly enjoyed the correct spelling – no “z” where “s” should be, for example, which causes such irritation for me. Great inspiration and I shall now set about reading the other 4 parts. I have long wanted to write; I also began in childhood, and also got no further than the 1st chapter. I have a course I bought a couple of years ago from The Writers Bureau over here in the UK, and need to get down to it. Christine, Pangbourne, UK.

    1. Hi Christine! Thanks so much for the comment. Yes writing 100% of my time now across a variety of projects, including fiction, so I am very blessed to be able to do this work. Yes, there are some differences between UK and US spelling, so I am sure my non-z’s drive my US readers crazy! 🙂 Please do get stuck into The Writers Bureau course – I am also doing it and it is an extremely worthwhile investment of time. The exercises are extensive and practical, and great feedback from your tutor. They are also focused on getting you to submit your work to editors, rather than stashing it where no one can see it. I have had quite a few assignments published in really good magazines so far, so really chuffed with the process. Just do it!!

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