Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Giant Butt-Kicking How to Write a Novel Post

I have been answering a lot of questions lately -- interview questions, article questions, questions in fanmail, questions from writers -- and there’s one sort of subset of questions that I get all the time, so I’m going to answer them here. It’s these:

“How do I start writing my book? How do I write my novel? How do I finish my novel? Do you have a daily routine? How much work do you do before you start writing your novel? Should I get a degree in English? Do you edit while you write? How do you get around writer’s block? How do you get past the “this feels silly” thoughts?”

All of these questions are really one question: “How do I write a book?”

And the answer, which I will explain in depth, is a simple two-parter:

1 - You decide to.

2- Butt in Chair.

Now, since I can hear the disgruntled sighs from here, let me ‘splain. First of all, my process will never be your process, because I am me and you are you. The most logical and best writing process is the one which most perfectly meshes with your personality. So for me, in all things, I want to know where I’m going but not too much about what I’m going to find on the way there. You’ll be different. Somehow. I promise.

Anyway, I can tell you, however, that those two principles stay the same.

I’m sure you guys are tired by now of hearing me harp on the fact that the spoken and written work makes your intention real. So if you say that you’re a confident person, you’re halfway there. If you say you’re going to write a novel, it makes it real.

Not this: “I have a novel inside me.”

Not this: “I will write a novel when I have more time.”

Not this: “I will write the novel when I figure out how to start.”

No. This is what you say: “‘I’m writing the novel. Starting now. Not only that, but I’m finishing it.”

And then you open up two things on your computer. First of all, the blank word document, where you type in a working title (ODDS BODKINS: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HOMICIDAL FAERIE) and the date. And then you open up your calendar. And you find out which days you can carve out regular hours of time to write. It can be an hour. A half hour. A whole day. Whatever you can manage, as long as it’s regular and your brain can look forward to it. I wrote LAMENT while working full time -- every Wednesday night I wrote from 8 p.m.-10 p.m. until the novel was done. When I got closer to the end, I added Sundays from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. That’s not a lot of time.

I didn’t check my e-mails during that time. I didn’t browse the web. I wrote my novel. I thought about it all week long, and then I wrote because that was the only time I had. Those four hours a week.

Time is not what you need. Intention is what you need. I read somewhere that John Grisham wrote his first novel on legal pads between court cases (one wonders if his clients suffered when he got into plot snarls).

Which brings us to principle two. Butt in chair. You can tell people you’re working on your novel. You can tell us you have it all out in your head. You can tell us that you know everything about all of the characters.

Great. Fantastic. I’m happy for you.

Talk’s cheap, unless it’s dialog and it’s adding to your word count. If you want to write a novel, your butt has to sit in that chair. Do not angst about whether it sucks. Do not edit as you go along. Just do it.

Now don’t get me wrong, most people do need some form of organization. There are a very tiny number of people in the world who are true pantsers -- that can write by the seat of their pants, no outline, no synopsis, no plan. In my experience, there are far more people who think that they are pantsers. In reality, even the most spontaneous of people require some kind of structure (and I consider myself very spontaneous). This is where your personality comes in. How do you structure the rest of your life? As I mentioned before, I like to have ultimate goals but not a lot of structure on how to get there. So for me, it makes sense to have the idea, figure out the ending, and then write a two page synopsis that is very loosey goosey.

For others, they write detailed outlines that are ten or thirty pages long. Some make lists of scenes. Others do post it notes. Anything that gets you reasonably certain that you can travel happily through the plot on your way towards a logical ending. This is also when I put together my playlist, because I’m working out what sort of moods and themes I’m tackling during the novel. I spend a lot of time staring off into space. I also only spend a few days doing this. This process has to be finite, because while it’s important, it’s also not writing. It’s planning. It will never make a novel appear. Because while it looks like work, it is not really Butt in Chair.

I plan my plot. My characters, I keep in my head. Which is to say I carry a pretty dim view of character synopses and summaries and questionnaires. The only prep work I’ll do for my characters is to sometimes have them dictate a page-long history of their life to this point, in their voice, to help me figure out what they sound like.

The rest, to me, is just the procrastination before you really start writing. It’s not even really planning, because characters you figure out through their actions -- through writing. The character sketches and questionnaires and doing Facebook quizzes in their personality? It’s because you’re afraid the novel will suck. So you do all these little tricks and summaries and detailed descriptions of your characters’ hair colors and birthdates and drawings of the characters riding bicycles, and all of that is fine, I suppose, but you and I both know that it’ll never get the novel written. Trust me. I’ve been there. Learn from my years of bad not-writing behavior.

What gets a novel written is writing it. And feeling silly and feeling like it sucks and still keeping on writing it. Will it be rocky and uneven? Well, duh. That’s what revision is for. But you can’t revise until you have a finished draft. And you can’t have a finished draft until you write. BUTT IN CHAIR.

Be honest with yourself. I think most people know when they are making excuses and procrastinating instead of really doing proper groundwork.

So that was my grand novel-writing butt-kicking post.

I highly suggest you shut down the internet now and get started.



Shauna said...

Hi Maggie,
I just want to say this is one of the best advice I have seen on "how to write a novel". Stephen King's On Writing gives some similar and straight forward advice as well. I am a very new writer and just recently declared (to myself and another writer friend) that I'm starting my first novel. I think I've been procrastinating and was just recently feeling like I just need to write. So thank you for this post and giving me that final push to get my butt in chair and gear to write! I have a blog as well to journal my writing/reading journey (Read~Write~Review at www.slkcivilrwr.blogspot.com) and I follow some other blogs that lead me to an interview you did and talked about Shiver. It really caught my eye because I love YA and especially about werewolves! I can't wait to read your trilogy and your take on them. Thanks for your advice and I'd love to post a link to your insight on my blog if that's okay with you. Let me know. Thanks again and best wishes on your upcoming books. I'm a "follower" of your blog and will check back for more updates. I hope you can visit/member mine as well. ;-) Take care & happy writing! Also, I'd love to hear if you have any formal writing training; only because I'm considering getting my MFA and am curious about that. I'm actually an engineer by day and now writer/reader/blogger by night. Yes, I need to cut out some of the other and just write! I also find it very encouraging that you just set aside a few hours a week to write and that can be all it takes. Thanks again, Shauna

Shauna said...

Wow...sorry that was such a long post! I get so excited talking/writing about writing!!! Now I better just get writing... :-) ~Shauna

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Ha, Shauna, I'm glad I could inspire! Please feel free to link -- I follow very few blogs because of how little time I have to read online, but I'll take a quick peek at yours if I get the chance.

And nope, I don't have so much as a creative writing course under my belt. All of my writing I learned from reading novels.

Shauna said...

No worries, Maggie. As I was adding a couple new blogs to my list this week I was thinking that I now have quite a lot to keep up with. I have my faves and check in on others from time to time.

Great advice and I look forward to your books!

Sarah said...

Maggie. I also agree with Shauna. I linked an URL to this post a while ago and whenever I'm struggling (as a new writer) I bring up this page. It helps me to just sit down and writer. As easy as that. Thanks Maggie!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

You're so welcome, Sarah!

Jane Hinrichs said...

maggie, Thanks for this. I know it's a couple years old but it still so applies. You are going to help this 43 year old finish writing her first fairy tale adaptation. Right now I just have the first chapter and haven't sat down to write more. But I will now! I am going to schedule it in. If you could do it working full time I can do it too! Plus, I am going to print this blog post off and use it at my Writer's group (I hope you don't mind....). Thank you!!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Jane, I'm poking my head back into this comment thread to find out if you ever finished that book! Butt kicking!

Sharon said...

"It’s not even really planning, because characters you figure out through their actions -- through writing."

I wish I read this seven months ago when I first sat down to write. I was one of those who typed a twenty-five page outline before actually writing the story so I knew exactly where the story was going. I finished the first draft and started the first round of edits and this is where writing changed for me. Because I initially wrote based on plot, my characters didn't feel quite right...I was trying to force them into a mould that didn't fit. So I tweaked scenes and dialogue, letting the characters speak, not the plot. I am halfway through the process and I know I am going to have to change the ending because my characters have chosen to take a different road. But I have to say this road is so much more exciting - I don't know where the bumps and pot holes are or when the bend will come. In the end isn't that what writing is about - the journey?
Thanks Maggie!

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