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How to write a novel

Every writer wants to know the secret—how do you write a novel. The problem is that any writer who takes you to the side and whispers, “Here’s the secret” and goes on to tell you the perfect method will be lying. The number of ways to write a novel are nearly as numerous as the number of novelists in the world.

I am a very systematic writer.  I get an idea.  I let it simmer in my head; maybe for a few months, maybe some years.  If I think it’s viable, I’ll start researching if that’s required.  When it’s time to get started I require at least six sheets of blank A3 paper, sometimes 50 or 100 sheets of blank A4.  If I’ve done research, I’ll have an A4 hardcover on my desk to go with all of my notes. Now it’s time to do the pre-work: plot maps, character bibles, structure maps, sometimes even  chapter summaries if the plot is complicated and contains puzzles and mysteries I need to keep a handle on. 

But a writer like The Kite Runner author Khaled Housseni thinks my method is rubbish. He said, “I don’t outline at all. I don’t find it useful and I don’t like the way it boxes me in.  I like the element of surprise and spontaneity of letting the story find its own way”.

I have a very good writing friend who wakes up most days at 3 am to get writing.  I’ve always thought she was crazy, but as I did research for this column I found that many writers find pre-dawn and early morning the best time to get to work.  Haruki Murakami gets up at 4 am and writes for between five and six hours when he’s working on a book. Kurt Vonnegut is up at 5:30 am.  And even well-known rabble-rouser Ernest Hemmingway started work at six.

Writers have odd places to write too.  I’m a bit conventional with a very 9 to 5 sort of Monday to Friday approach to my writing which I do at a table in a small building built to be my office, away from people and noise.  Some writers don’t mind the noise though. EB White could not write if music was playing, but found the chaos of his family going on all around him in the living room where he often wrote was something he could easily ignore.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under

which to write will die without putting a word on paper,” he said.

And what about how much to write each day? I write what comes.  I’ve been known to write up to 8,000 words in a day on a rough draft, lots of those words will disappear during edits, but in a frenzy it can happen.  Jack London insisted on 1,000 words per day, while William Golding shot for 3,000.  James Joyce felt his work was done when he had two perfect sentences on the page.

Maya Angelou famously rented a hotel room for a month when she was writing.  She had them clear out all paintings and decorations. Put in a thesaurus, a Bible, cross word puzzle books and a deck of cards. She’d arrive at 6:30 and get writing. When she was a girl her grandmother told her that you have the “big mind” and the “little mind”. The big mind dealt with big important issues such as writing a novel, while the little mind thought about unimportant things.  To keep the little mind from disturbing the big mind from doing its work, she felt she needed to distract it with something. So the crosswords and the cards to play solitaire were there to keep her little mind busy.

John Steinbeck wrote all of his first drafts in pencil and could not begin a writing day without 12 perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. Virginia Woolf wrote standing at a 3 ½ foot high desk.  She did this because she was always in competition with her sister Vanessa and Vanessa was a painter who did her work standing at an easel so Virginia wanted to stand too.

And what about that goblin called writer’s block?  Prolific American author Jodi Picoult doesn’t believe in it.  She thinks back to university days when deadlines always ensured work got done.  She thinks writer’s block is just having too much time on your hands. She advises, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page”.

Its all I write



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