WRITING: I Want To Write A Novel, But Where Do I Start?

Having a passion for something, but no skills yet and several hindrances to acquire those skills makes for quite a challenge.

The easiest answer would be ‘find something else’, and there would be truth in it. Writing a novel (or even a short story) is an appealing ambition – I read somewhere that eighty percent of all adult Americans seriously entertain the notion of writing a novel, which is also why there’s a whole industry that facilitates burgeoning writers with creative writing courses and workshops and seminars, and enough books on the art & craft to fill several bookcases.

The reason writing a novel is so popular is because it’s an attainable goal (most arts require more than a pen and a piece of paper) and it carries prestige as good writers are revered, their works read both during and after their lifetime.

So what you have to decide for yourself is – do you really want to write a novel, or do you want to show people a shiny cover with your name on it and bask in the adulation? Because the first is hard, and the second is a pipe dream.

I’ve written five novels (published four) and four novellas, just as frame of reference to my answer – if you don’t want to let go of your dream, this is my advice:

Lower the pressure of writing a novel by not writing a novel.

What you will be writing instead, will be a Draft. A Rough Draft. An unreadable shitload of words, not intended to be read by anyone but yourself. That last part is extremely important! Nobody must read that Draft, because it’s not intended for public consumption yet.

The Draft is the Baby, the Novel is the Adult.

People don’t make adults, they make babies that shit and cry and demand food and attention and will keep you up at night. Have you heard writers referring to their novel as a baby? Yes? They’re not actual writers yet, because the draft is the baby, the novel should be an adult, capable of standing on its own legs and fending for itself. If their novel is still their baby, then they haven’t finished yet and they have published prematurely.

The Horror, the Horror…

Before a novel can stand on its own legs, it needs to be born first, which is a messy process. Thus, the Draft is a baby – a stinking smelly mess that will hijack all your attention and cause you to lay awake at night, worrying if it will ever be able to be independent. This is not the kind of baby that you show your family and friends – starting the Draft is not an accomplishment. So shut up about ‘writing your first novel’ and never ever talk about the plot and the characters and the theme. Screw all that. Talking about your creative work kills the spark. Just write and write. Is it garbage? Don’t second-guess yourself, you won’t be able to judge it now, you’re much too close. Nobody throws out their baby, no matter how much it smells. Just keep on writing. Don’t edit. You can’t edit a baby, it has to become an adolescent first.

The Need.

Visit any writing forum and you’ll see the many many questions, that boil down to one single question ‘Is This Any Good?’. It’s the fear of failure, the angst of wasting time, and the need for validation. We have been programmed to desire approval – from parents, from teachers. You won’t get approval for the Draft. Don’t ask for it. Just write it all down.

The Rules.

How long is a chapter supposed to be?’, ‘How do I write a dynamite first chapter?’, ‘Should I use present tense or past tense?’, ‘Is writing in First Person easier than Third Person?’, ‘When do I Show, when do I Tell?’
If you visit writing forums, you’ll hear a lot of talk about rules, but those rules are not for drafts. Those rules are to clinically dissect a finished manuscript prior to publication. Do you have that? No, you haven’t. You have a smelly mess that isn’t nowhere near finished, so forget about all those rules. Because in the end there is only one rule – Engage The Reader. And your baby won’t need to engage the reader yet. It’s a draft, intended only for your eyes.

The Work

Anyone with a knife and a dead pig can butcher a pig, but that doesn’t make you a butcher. And it sure as hell doesn’t make you a veterinarian.
So you wrote an essay at school and the teacher gave you an A. Does that make a writer? No, but it’s a start. If you can read this, you can probably write. You can string words together, maybe in some pleasing way, but five hundred pages of words is not a book. A book is when the words disappear and your imagination shows you the film in your head. That’s the hardest part, and the most neglected part – writers want to write pretty words or show off their ostentatious vocabulary, but what you want to do is tell a story. Tell a story in such a way that the reader forgets about the book or the e-reader and is transported to another world – fictional, but just as ‘real’ as this one. And that requires not only a large vocabulary, but also a decisive mind to apply just the right word. And if you get that right, you won’t need the validation anymore, because there is no better feeling that getting a sentence just right, a paragraph that leaps off the page, and a chapter that you don’t want to end.

But before you get there, you have to put in the work. There’s a common ‘rule’ floating around that to become a professional at something requires putting in something like 10,000 hours. I never measured that, but I do know that I’d been writing for twenty years before Reprobate was published. And I’d been working on Reprobate and all its predecessors for most of that time. Learning the craft, honing my skills. Draft upon draft upon draft. For Reprobate, it was something like forty (!) drafts. Literally every paragraph was rewritten at least once. Edited and polished. That’s the education.

Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t Do The Time.

My second novel, Peccadillo, was half finished when Reprobate came out. I finished Peccadillo in three months, spending a total of fifteen months on writing it. I wrote the novella Locked Room in three weeks. Microchip Murder took me less than two. And the novella that gets the highest praise, Fundamental Error, was written in eight days. Rogue, the third novel took less than 12 months. And Ghosting, the novel I’m working on now, clocks in at about eight months, despite my battles with kidney stones and glaucoma.

Every time you write, you will get better at telling the story. Writing this answer took me about an hour, with no rewrites or polishing necessary. And that’s because I’ve done the time.

So do the time. Stop fretting about whether you have something to say or who will read it. Write that draft first, the rest comes later. Let me know when you finished a draft, and then we’ll talk about how you can become a writer…


Stopped Reading REVIEW: The Killing League by Dani Amore

The Killing LeagueThe Killing League by Dani Amore

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, I managed to get to 29% of the Kindle version of The Killing League until the lack of verisimilitude deflated my suspense of disbelief.

I had high expectations of this book, due to the enticing blurb, but the story failed to deliver. The characters were described to provide a visual image, but I got no sense of their internal emotions beyond what Ms. Amore told me they were feeling. The writing is not unskilled, and some of the descriptions were quite visceral, but when someone fires a gun in a forest and:

The smell of cordite hung in the air around them.

That’s a huge red flag that someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. Cordite hasn’t been used firearm ammunition since second World War and the triple-based gunpowder that replaced might have a acidic metallic smell that might be picked up by extremely sensitive noses, but only if someone fires boxes of ammunition in a closed space, like a small room or a badly ventilated shooting range. In the open air? No chance that a smell will hang around after firing one round.

Of course, Ms. Amore is probably not the only writer who mistakenly uses cordite with post-WWII ammunition, but there was more to The Killing League that failed to engage me.

The lack of characterization was grating. None of the characters was even faintly interesting. Not the serial killers, who seemed derivative and unoriginal, nor the protagonists Mack and Nicole, who are both bland and superficial.

The pace was sluggish because the writer felt compelled to fill whole scenes with descriptions or explanations that were not necessary for any mildly intelligent reader to figure out for themselves. Dialogue was often pedestrian and interspersed with dragging descriptions:

“Hey Boss!” Antony Toffol, her sous chef, called out as she started inventory on the wine selections.
“Yeah,” she said. He stood with the door to the kitchen open. Nicole smelled the olive oil, garlic, onion, rosemary, shallots, paprika and black pepper that were being used in various incarnations.
“Someone dropped off a card for you,” he said. “It was under the door when I opened up — it’s over on the receptionist table.”
“Okay, thanks,” she said.

I don’t like to ‘force’ myself to read. There are so many books still to be read, that I couldn’t justify wasting my time on this one. Sorry, Ms. Amore, but the second star is merely because the formatting and editing seemed professional. The story itself didn’t rate more than 1 star for me.

View all my reviews


WRITING: Over-Editing

Beginning writers have a tendency to over-write, producing bloated manuscripts with stories that feature redundant scenes, scenes that are shown instead of told (because they want to avoid the ‘show, don’t tell!’ admonition from their peers), and unnecessary storylines like excessively detailed mundane scenes in the lives of the characters.

So, beginning writers often get the advice to edit their work and bring down the wordcount to manageable numbers. While most manuscripts can lose 10% of their words without serious consequences, a writer can go overboard and edit out the parts that made the story shine, eliminating ‘scenes that do not forward the plot’ and robbing characters of the extra dimensions, reducing them to bland archetypes that fail to engage the reader.

The difficulty lies in the decision what to keep and what to weed out, and how to cull the dross from the scenes the writer wants to keep. In the area of what to keep and what to weed out, consider Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘skip the boring parts’. Don’t write about going to bed or getting up, brushing teeth, doing the laundry, taking a bath, going to the toilet, are you eyes glazing over yet? What to keep? Keep descriptions succinct, trust the reader to fill in the unwritten parts. Describe only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to form a picture, but don’t embellish to fill in the reader’s ‘mind picture’ unnecessarily.

The ‘rule’ that scenes always have to ‘forward the plot’ is more a guideline [most writing rule are, but beginning writers tend to view ‘rules’ to be akin to ‘commandments’]. Scenes that help flesh out a character don’t need to ‘forward the plot’, as long as the writer doesn’t ramble too far from where the story is supposed to be going.

As an example from my own work–I received comments by an editor that my DEA characters weren’t as interesting as my protagonist. Although I could reiterate that it’s difficult for a DEA agent to be more interesting than a freelance assassin, the burden was on me to render a good girl as interesting as the bad girl. And I had. I had written a chapter and two follow up paragraphs where the DEA girl turns the tables on a mugger and the legal consequences of her righteous action versus Dutch law. Except that I had edited these scenes from the manuscript to reduce wordcount because ‘they didn’t forward the plot’. Well, yes, but they did flesh out the DEA character, which was important to get the reader to root for her also.

So, instead of wondering whether a scene ‘moves the plot forward’, analyze whether the scene brings a valuable contribution to the manuscript, so you won’t edit all the life from your manuscript in order to comply to a rule that might only be applicable to an action adventure with cardboard characters.

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