So. Welcome. Here we are at the very beginning. You’re going to write a novel. Cool, huh?
Over the course of the next few blog posts, we’re going to help you build a productivity-boosting plan to help you get through the first draft of your story. But before we get into the nits and the grits, let’s do a bit of housekeeping and get our ducks all nicely lined up so we’re all on the same page (and other mixed metaphors).
Duck 1: Why do you need a plan?
Look, we’re not going to get into a whole planning versus pantsing thing here. There’s a whole internet full of that. What we will say is that a novel is a big project. It’s 100,000 words or thereabouts. It has multiple characters, sub plots, locations, themes, fiddly little clever bits, smooth dialogue and so on and so forth. If you can manage all that in your head, then great. Go for it. Do it. Enjoy it (and your exploding brain). But we can’t even make it to the shop to buy milk and eggs without writing it on the back of our hands. Really that’s all plotting is: an elaborate novel shopping list. Nothing to be scared of. Stops you forgetting the chocolate biscuits, is all.
Duck 2: How are we going to do it?
When you read a book, a really brilliant book that takes your breath away with its flow and grace and immersive wonder, it’s easy to think that it just fell out of the writer’s fingers in a five-minute sun-flared montage scene, and then they sat down to a celebratory glass of beer on the porch of their weather-boarded house.
Let us be clear: this did not happen.
Actually, what happened was weeks and months and years of layering and layering and tinkering and frustration and more layering and more tinkering, until the final product finally emerged.
Also, plenty of this:
I’m currently reading a novel by an author I happen to know. I was lucky enough to have read a few early draft chapters several years ago. I can spot bits that I’d seen before, but overall the difference is immense, and I can see how the story has evolved, how repeated sweeps have developed the initial idea into the published book.
And that’s what we’re going to be doing here. Starting with a simple premise and adding layer after layer, until we get a cohesive whole. And if you sign up for our extravaganza of a novel plotting online course, you bring the idea, we’ll provide the know-how, exercises, discussion and hand-holding, and at the end, you get a roadmap that leads to your first draft. Yays.
Duck 3: Get the faffing out the way
Much like a story needs a bit of exploration before the true beginning becomes apparent, the process of story writing needs a bit of pomp and ceremony before we can crack on. Don’t get me wrong, at some point very soon (like the next blog) you’re going to have to put finger to keyboard and start writing, but right now, let’s have a little faff.
Buy a notebook and write your name in it neatly with a lovely black pen. Make a folder in My Docs and call it ‘My Motherfucken Novel’. Install Scrivener or update your subscription to Word 32,052. Buy another, smaller notebook to keep in your handbag or manbag or nappy bag or whatever be-handled pouch you transport your essential items around in. Buy a packet of 10 pens. Clicky, not lids. Start a new document in your new folder and write in it: ‘My Novel. Draft Zero. Notes and ideas’. Save it and close it. Have a cup of tea. Get excited. Be scared. Get excited again. Make sure all your digital stuff automatically backs up to the cloud. Get a USB stick and make sure you back up to that too.
Do all this stuff now and you won’t have to do it when you should be writing. Productive procrastination. Aces.
Duck 4: Brace, brace
Writers, on the whole, are delusional beings. Roughly 90% foolish optimism and la la make-believe to 10% crushing doom-laden reality. It has to be this way, otherwise no one would ever stick a novel out to the end, or ever believe that someone else might want to read it. The gleeful insomniac obsession and gut-twisting fear are two sides of the same coin. Accept them both, young Padawan. They will guide you.
We write for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because we love it, right? But also wrong. Someone at some point in history said something like “Don’t like to write, but like having written.” (Dorothy Parker? George R R Martin? Could be anyone.) And while some moments of writing your novel will be exquisitely perfect and everything will chunk into place, you must be prepared (dib dib dib) for some moments to be the norovirus of the literary world.
You need to brace for utter suckery, and for that you need to be both brave and forgiving. But you’re badass. You can do those things. And remember, after sucking comes editing, and after editing comes a finished book. Eyes on the prize.
(Re: sucking and editing – we know they say you can’t polish a turd but they lie. Turd is manure, and from manure comes mango trees, and cut into a mango and sunshine bursts forth and goddamit if mangoes aren’t the most glorious thing ever created by nature. So to summarise: put your pants on, let the shit out, your novel is a mango. Okay?)
Duck 5: When are you actually gonna do this?
This is a duck of two parts. Firstly, do not spend a week carefully constructing a revision timetable and colouring it in with a new set of Caran D’ache pencils because you will not follow said timetable and that is a week of planning that could’ve been used for Novel Actual. Secondly, very few of us can commit, without fail, to set aside a dedicated period of time every day to write. But you have to summon your magic powers and dedicate a period of time most days to write. This is because, as 7 Ideas In 7 Days alumni are all too aware, you have to Do The Work.
Know that this is important to you. Know that some things are less important. Your allotted writing slot doesn’t have to be at the same time every day. We won’t rap you on the knuckles if you write at 7am one day and 7pm the next. You just have to commit to twenty minutes, or thirty minutes, or sixty minutes a day, whenever you can fit it in. (For help with this, let us highly recommend 750 Words – an online word processor that rewards you with stats and smugness when you bash out a couple of pages each day.)
When you find yourself with space – when you’ve finished work and the kids are asleep, or when you’ve woken up before everyone else and the house is quiet and maybe even slightly tidy, or when you’ve finally given in and put CBeebies on and everyone is distracted – decide to give yourself twenty minutes to get some ideas in a notepad instead of twenty minutes to check Twitter. Decide that when you’re hanging out the laundry, instead of chuntering over the news headlines in your head until you’re in a rage, you’re going to think about scenes or themes or characters. Ditto for when you do the food shopping, or the school run, or the commute to work. Pick out the solitary moments. Guard them like a really scary dog with big teeth and drool. Use them wisely.
Right then. Expectations managed: check. Faffing out of the way: check. Put your knickers on, fellow writers, we’re going in…
Before we move on to the next in our Novel Plotting blog series, have a gander at the brilliantly-fast-talking and fantastic writer brain of Catriona Ward, who has a word or two to say about getting starting on a brand new novel:
Right. Onward. Ducks all in a row. Now, what’s the ‘big idea’? (or check out all our plotting blogs here) >>
Duck photo credit:traveloriented