Episode 148: December 12, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is how to write your first novel.
Since you’re listening to this podcast, you probably love the English language and the written word. And if you do, you probably have an itch to write that first novel. Well, you're not alone. The dream of writing a novel, either for personal satisfaction or to make money, has been prevalent in our culture for decades, if not centuries.
So, with five novels under his belt, Scott Sigler knows how to get it done. His advice for you is surprisingly simple, and slightly disturbing. Here's his five-step plan.
Step 1: Write every day
Step 2: Write a bad book first
Step 3: Finish the bad book, then put it away for six months
Step 4: Start writing your “good” book
Step 5: After six months, read that “bad” book, learn where you're weak, and address those weak areas.
Step 1: Write Every Day
Is that impossible? Probably for most of us, but you need to try. Schedule the time, at least an hour. It'll take prioritization to make it happen, but if you really want to write that novel, it’s what you have to do. Writing is like building any other skill, like building muscles – the more you do it, the better you get, the stronger you get.
Step 2: Write a Bad Book First
Why write a bad book? Because a bad story is easier to write than a good story, and the goal here is to teach yourself that you can finish a novel. There is power in finishing, and here’s why:
Many people set out to write a novel. They outline, they plan, they start with best intentions, but when they get to their first major writing roadblock, the majority of them quit. Why? Because writing a novel is hard. People become so invested in their story, so passionate about it, that when they hit the difficult part they don’t know how to get around it. They get frustrated, and they quit.
However, if you set out to write a “bad” novel, when you get to that sticky part all writers hit, you can just power through. Bring in a guy with a gun. Whip up a betrayal. Beam in an alien. Anything to move the story forward and keep you writing. The goal isn’t to win a Pulitzer prize, the goal is to finish the book.
Step 3: Finish the Bad Book and Put it Away for Six Months
Just finishing the book puts you at the top of the class of most aspiring novelists. Once you're finished, put that novel away and don’t look at it, not even a peek, for six months. Don’t let anyone read it. Not even your significant other. Trust me on this, just leave it the heck alone. Even though you set out to write a bad novel, odds are your human nature will kick in and you’ll secretly think you’re pretty darn talented. But trust me, put it away. Don’t peek. If you’re right, and it actually is good, you’ll find out in six months.
Step 4: Start Writing Your Good Book
Now, while your bad book is incubating in cold storage, start your second book, your real book. What you’ll find is that it’s easier the second time around. You’ve got experience writing a novel, the words will come a little faster, the plot will flow a little better. You’ve built up those writing muscles; the reps come with less teeth-gnashing effort. And here’s the kicker – when you hit that difficult spot, when you get stuck, when you’re frustrated and it seems too hard to continue, you will continue, because the little voice in the back of your head says you’ve done this before, you know you can finish a novel.
Remember when I said finishing the bad book gives you power? This is that power in action.
Step 5: Read That “Bad” Book, Learn Where You are Weak, and Correct Those Areas
So you’re working on your second book, your real book, and you think you’re pretty hot stuff. It’s okay, you’re among friends, you can admit it – deep down you think you’re the next big thing. Keep on thinking that until the six months is up.
After six months, pull out your first manuscript and read. The moratorium was there so you could forget what you thought you said on the page, and see what the page actually says. This will give you an experience almost identical to that of any reader. What you find here will shock and disturb you. Are you really that bad of a writer? Yes, you are. However, you’re almost in the home stretch. Read the bad book, and pay attention to the areas where you're really horrible. Run-on sentences? Flat characters? Stilted dialogue? Twenty-three pages where nothing happens? This is your boot camp, soldier. The things you learn from reading your own writing, after you forgot what you were trying to say, will do more to build your skill than all the writing classes in the world combined. It’s magic, because this isn’t a Dick & Jane example, these are your words, your writing style. Find your weakest spots, and you attack them. Learn how to break up the sentences. Spend more time developing a dynamic character. Make dialogue that sounds like real people having a conversation.
This process will shed immense amounts of writing fat, the stuff that you don’t need to tell the story. It’s also an ego-check that will eventually benefit your reader – now that you know how painful it is to read fatty work, you won’t want to expose another human being to the same painful ordeal.
Congratulations! Now you’re writing for the reader, not writing to hear yourself talk.
Step 6: Repeat
Finish that second book. It’s much better, isn’t it? Finish it, then go back to page one and start editing the heck out of it. The second book is actually your first novel. I suggest re-writing it, from cover to cover, at least three times before you let anyone – even the aforementioned significant other – take a peek. Guess what? Now you’re a writer! Keep building those muscles, keep writing, keep getting better. Most people don’t land a publishing deal until they’ve written three or four full novels, so don’t get discouraged. This process takes time, but when you print off that finished novel and hold the pages in your hands, it is one of life’s great experiences.