The Blog of John Hewitt

There is no right way to write a novel

The first, best, and most important thing to learn about writing a novel is that there is no one way to do it. Novels have been written in a thousand different ways. One person’s style and approach can be radically different than another person’s and yet still produce a good novel. There are people who plot out every detail before they start writing. Some novelists start with an outline that can stretch for several pages. One writer might write down each possible scene on an index card. Another writer might spend all of his preparation time creating elaborate backgrounds for the characters. Another writer might just start writing, with no idea in advance of where the novel is going and how it will get there. None of these writers would be wrong. Each approach can result in an excellent novel.

Some writers fret over every single word of the first draft. Their choices are so careful and exact that second and third drafts look almost exactly the same as the first. Some writers just tear through their first draft as quickly as possible, unconcerned with the possible messes they have created and sure that they will fix every problem when they start editing. The end result of this process may look almost nothing like the original. Again, neither writer is correct or incorrect. Different styles work. Different approaches work for different people.

If you are looking at writing for Nanowrimo, however, there are some approaches that may be more advantageous. For example, because you must create your first draft in a single month, sweating over every single word of the first draft is probably not a good idea. That approach may work well when you have six months or longer to produce a draft, but it is virtually impossible to be that exacting and produce a 50,000 word or longer draft in a single month.

Writing off the top of your head also has its pitfalls. If you attempt this, at the hurried pace of Nanowrimo, and you could find yourself unable to generate sufficient action or creating character arcs or plots that go nowhere. It can lead to a lot of frustration down the line. While the rules of the process are that you need to write the draft during the month of November, there is no reason why you can’t prepare as thoroughly as possible before you reach the start date. You can create a detailed outline, an in-depth character study, research any subjects you plan to write about and create descriptions of the real or imagined places that will be the settings for the action.

You can prepare as thoroughly or as lightly for the process as you want, but I for one want to take advantage of the advance time so that I can be as ready to write come 12:01 November first as possible.

Deciding on a Narrative Voice

There are many ways to tell a story and you will need to choose which one will work best for your novel. Here is a quick rundown of the basic narrative points-of-view.

Third Person

A third person narrative tells the story from a perspective outside of any one particular character. It discusses the events from a slightly removed position. “Billy went to the store to get beer.” Some of the decisions involved with third person include whether or not the narrator has access to the character’s thoughts or merely their actions, and whether or not the narrator has a point of view about the actions happening in the story. Finally, there is the decision of whether or not to follow more than one character. A narrative can be in the third person, but still only focus on the actions of a single character.

First Person

First person is told from the perspective of a character within the story, usually the lead character but sometimes a peripheral character that happens to know most of the events either through observation, participation or through someone else telling them what happened. “I went to the store to get beer.” It is also possible to have multiple first-person narratives, with the perspective shifting by chapter or by scene from one storyteller to another.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrators

In first person narratives, the character sees everything from their own point of view. This means that they cannot know what happens unless they observe it or are told it, and the way they observe the story may be pretty close to the facts or skewed by their own perceptions. A story narrated by a pathological liar or a child, for example, may not accurately reflect the reality of what is going around them. Third person narrators are usually not unreliable, but it is possible to do this as well.

What Are Your Needs?

Choosing which type of narrator to have can be difficult. You want the narrator that is going to best reflect the needs and goals of your story. A story with twenty different characters, for example, may need a third person narrator simply because a single character within the story may not be able to observe or even be told all of the things that occur. A first person narrator, however, generally adds a level of immediacy to the story, and the fact that they are seeing what happens from the character’s perspective may increase the reader’s feeling of connection to the story.

Once you choose a voice though, especially if you are trying to work quickly for a deadline like Nanowrimo, you need to stick with your first choice. Changing the narrative voice requires a great deal of editing and can take quite a lot of time.

How to Write a 50,000 Word Novel in a Month

Nanowrimo is a project that requires speed. There are certainly slow and deliberate ways to write a novel but they won’t help you if you need to produce one in a month. Writing 50,000 words in a thirty-day month is no easy task, and it is made even harder by the difficulties of a novel, which has pitfalls such as writing yourself into a corner or deciding along the way that a plot point or character trait was a mistake. Here are some tips for speeding up the process and getting through the month.

Explore Your Idea

Explore your story idea before the start of the month. If you have a general idea of what you want to write, take the time to examine it. Write out the plot points, create some background for the characters, think about the settings, and decide on what point-of-view you want the narrative to use. The more of this you have settled before the first day, the easier it will be to start producing from day one.

Set a Daily Goal

Set a 2000 word a day goal. In order to finish the project on time, you technically have to average 1667 words a day. Setting a 2000 word a day goal allows you to build up some cushion in case you have days in which you aren’t able to write or aren’t able to produce as many words.

Stick to a Schedule

Schedule time every day to write. You need to look at your own writing speed to make determination of how many hours you are going to need. If you are comfortable that you can write 1000 words an hour, then two hours a day will be sufficient. If you feel as if 500 words an hour is the most you can handle, then you need to schedule four hours a day. If you expect your speed to be lower than that, you need to adjust accordingly.
Remember that you are writing a first draft. A first draft does not have to be perfect.

Don’t Expect Perfection

Accept that what you write on the first try only needs to be good enough for a first draft. Try to avoid going backwards and rewriting what you have already created. Instead, if you know something needs to be changed, go back to that point and make a note in the text, then move on.

Stay in Motion

If you get stuck, find a way to get unstuck quickly. If you know that a scene needs to happen, but you aren’t ready to write it yet, make a note in the story describing the basic events, then jump to the part that you are ready to write and get going. If you need to choose between two different directions for the plot, choose one of them and don’t look back. Your focus should always be on forward momentum.

Write What You Know

Pick characters, locations and themes that you are comfortable writing about. It can be difficult to write quickly about places you don’t know or characters that are radically different from your experience. Look for a story that can leverage the things you know about and are comfortable writing about quickly. If you do think you will need additional information, try to assemble as much of that information as possible before you start the project.

Swim With a Buddy

Find a way to hold yourself accountable. Nanowrimo has groups in most major cities that you can hook up with to compare notes and keep the pressure on you. You can also find a partner who is working on it so that you can regularly keep each other focused and enthusiastic. A little friendly competition doesn’t hurt. I intend to track my progress on my blog, so that people can see where I am at.

Have Fun

Enjoy yourself. Nanowrimo should be a fun challenge. It is a way to make you better as a writer, but it shouldn’t be something to make yourself miserable over. Just relax and no matter what obstacles get in your way, keep writing, even if you don’t think you are going to make it. The only way to have a chance is to keep at it.

Developing an idea into a novel

What’s the Big Idea?

The Big Idea is the initial spark for the novel. For me the spark was based on a situation and a character. I live in a relatively new subdivision almost twenty miles outside of Tucson, Arizona. When my wife and I bought our house, we initially toured the model homes. There were thirteen model homes in all, occupying a gently curved street. As we visited the homes I was struck by the thought of a single small neighborhood in the middle of nowhere. With the collapsing real estate market, it seemed plausible that a company could spend the money to build a neighborhood of model homes, but then go bankrupt before it could begin building the rest of the community. Eventually the bank would have to sell off the houses in order to recoup some of the investment.

I also began thinking about the sort of people who would end up in such a neighborhood. While the prices would be rock bottom, the location would have some appeal but a lot of downside. People in the neighborhood would be isolated to a certain extent. One of the characters I found interesting would be a man in his late thirties or early forties who wanted to abandon most of his old life and make a change. He would be moving forward after a divorce, a job loss, and the death of someone close to him. He would essentially have become a bit of a hermit, but life in this neighborhood helps to open things up for him.

From there I began to fill out the neighborhood. Thoughts included a large family, a group home for the seriously mentally ill, a hospice, a police officer, a professional couple and someone who would essentially be a love interest for the main character. I considered the man’s family and decided to include several older sisters with whom he has a strained relationship. This somewhat reflects my own family situation, although I also have a brother. Finally, I thought about his ex-wife and his friends. I decided that the house would help bring some of these people back into his life.

Developing Your Own Ideas

You can approach a new story idea from many directions. Mine was based on situation and character. This is a good place to start, but it leaves me somewhat short on plot. My idea has characters and a situation, but no clear destination. It isn’t my goal to write a thriller or a mystery that is plot centered, but there needs to be conflict and action for the novel to have any point. I also need to flesh out the main characters. I’ll discuss this in my future posts. Meanwhile, here are some things that have generated ideas for me in the past.

  • Newspaper Articles. I especially enjoy tabloid articles and you can’t beat the Weekly World News for that. You have to love any newspaper web site with a mutants section.
  • People. Some people are just more interesting than others. I like to combine the traits of two or more different people so that my inspiration doesn’t become imitation.
  • Places. I have often had ideas based on specific locations and travel in general.
  • Activities. It can be good to build a plot along a specific activity such as a tournament, a trial or a project. The nice thing about this is that the beats of your plot become clear when you have events that must happen in order to move forward.
  • Events. Much like activities, events some with their own ways to move a plot forward. That’s one reason why you see so many movies that revolve around holidays. They always come with places to go to and things to do.

Don’t include any word with a single “A” in it, but do include at least one word with two “A”s in it

All Good Things

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
Groucho Marx

I want to thank everyone who has participated in this project. The Facebook group has been phenomenally active, and a lot of great poetry got written. I definitely want to do this again sometime, if I can manage 30 or so more posts about poetry.

The people who have chosen to write their poems and to comment on the poems of others have demonstrated my final lesson, the value of collaboration. Working with other poets is a good thing. Creating a community is a good thing. As I said, this would have been a much more difficult and longer month without the contributions of others. Reading other poet’s work has been invigorating. Reading other poet’s comments has been instructive. Having an audience of peers to discuss poetry with has helped me improve as a poet, and I hope it has helped others.

If you have the chance to work with, or just make friends with other poets. Take that chance. They will help keep your focus on poetry and on writing, which over the long haul can be more valuable than any criticism or praise.

Today’s Poetry Assignment

I feel like ending with something technical but random. Don’t include any word with a single “A” in it, but do include at least one word with two “A”s in it.