advice on writing
I'm writing this because it took far too long for me to write a first novel. From the time first I started putting together some first rough thoughts, to the time that I first sent the first manuscript to my agent1, eight and a half years had elapsed.
So I took a long route. But I learned a few things in the process. My basic tips are:
- enjoy yourself
- write where you are
- study the craft
Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld books (and Good Omens with Neil Gaiman) said, "Writing is the most fun you can have with your clothes on". I had an amazing amount of fun writing my first book, and even after such a lengthy investment and now having had to set it aside to focus on kids and career, I'm very pleased not only with the result but with the experience. Because I stayed focused on what I wanted from the project.
If that's not possible, I suggest you stop what you're doing, re-think the project, and re-cast it to align with your interests. Here are some specific thoughts on keeping the project going.
If you find a novel is becoming a burden, put it down for a while and get some space. You may be struggling with something that you won't ultimately find rewarding, and it's a good idea to identify the source of that trouble instead of endlessly putting yourself through the grind. Deadlines are important, as is managing the project. But with a novel you're not working to produce by a certain point in time, you're working to produce a certain result.
Set it aside if it's taking too much out of you, especially if you feel compelled to complete the work by a certain arbitrary time.
manage it like a project
I've taken project management training, and believe that this approach is crucial to producing a novel. If you're in doubt, find a good book on project management (preferably something related to creative pursuits and not, for instance, building a new data center or transforming business practices).
The fundamental concepts of project management are: 1) understand the concept of what you're trying to do; 2) break down the project into the major deliverables (in the case of writing a novel, this includes things like finding an editor and possibly an agent); 3) for each deliverable, understand the tasks at hand; 4) track progress on each deliverable; 5) repeat until complete.
The bits that caused me the most grief were all in the editing phase. The trick lies in breaking the work into manageable chunks, and sticking to deadlines. For instance, if I set myself the goal of reviewing a chapter a day, I had a target that kept me moving and also told me when it was time to stop.
the hard bits might not be helping
My manuscript contains sections on which I labored on far more than average. These included a board room meeting, a party, and a staff meeting. I find these things difficult to pull off.
I finally admitted that I was struggling to make something work that just wasn't going to happen; stilted social scenes don't make for good reading. In the end, I drastically cut the first two scenes and removed the third altogether. I found other ways of telling the story.
That's what I've learned about staying sane while taking on a project of this size. Next; where and when to write.
write where you are
Writing is a constant process. It doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing—when you're at the point that you need to get something down on paper, get it down. I'm writing this on the eve of the birth of my first child—I may have to revise these words once I'm a father—but I've always found time to do one form of writing or another.
My novel took shape in many places: at home, of course, and during lunch at the office. But also in airplanes & airports, while waiting for trains and ferries, in hotels (I lived in hotels for eight months in 2005/2006), in restaurants and bars, in Vancouver's central Public Library and Toronto's reference library. Also, in the great outdoors—on park benches (quite a bit of the novel's first and second draft were done in Sydney's Observatory Hill park) and even at the beach. A considerable amount of it—nearly the entire first draft of the monsters sub-story, for instance—was written while riding on Tokyo's commuter trains.
And that's just the actual pen-to-paper (or punching at a keyboard) time. There were also thousands of hours of thinking about various elements of the story while doing something else: showering, cycling, making groceries, attending work meetings, etc.
study your craft
The process of writing a novel is one upon which many books have been written (of these, I can recommend a few). Another good way of learning is by studying the way your favourite authors do their thing. Rather than simply reading, critically review a paragraph or a chapter or a story structure and see what make it work for you.
Get good at receiving critical input. Once you've found someone who will (as a favour or for pay) review your work, be prepared to learn from what they tell you. You won't get many chances at such feedback, so make the most of it. Thank the person, ask questions, and accept what they've told you in the spirit it was given—as an attempt to help.
That's what I've learned so far. Having had to set the project aside for a while for financial reasons hasn't been ideal, but I've kept at the process of thinking over ideas and passing around bits for willing parties to read. Keep at it, be organized, and good luck!
1. Submitting my book to my agent was probably the half-way mark to getting it actually published! It kicked off a process by which I employed a professional editor and followed her advice to the point of redrafting half the book. (back)