I started writing a time travel novel when I was 10, in 1990. And I just finished it for NANO 2020, 29 years later. I’ve written and self-published other novels since then (each in less than a year), but this was my white whale. Why? Because I did everything you’re not supposed to do while writing a novel. I didn’t finish the novel until I stopped doing those things. So here’s how NOT to write a novel:
- Don’t decide what your story is about after you write it. I had no idea what I was trying to say until I spent 29 years trying to say it. Trying to write through the pain to get to your hidden truth is a waste of your life. Nail down why you’re writing it and what you’re trying to say before you write a word.
- Don’t ignore structure. I was a pantser. I wrote what felt right with no direction. It created hundreds of pages of beautiful prose that I couldn’t use and still can’t. I wasted years denying that structure is story. You need a plot. It doesn’t matter what framework you apply to your story, but you must have one. You can use the 3-or 6-act structure, the snowflake method, the Save The Cat! Beat Sheet or countless others.
- Don’t cut anything until you’ve finished a draft. Almost everything I cut has ended up back in my story in some form. If you cut too early, you’re not giving yourself a chance to make it work. Usually, with rare exceptions, there was a reason you put it there in the first place. Write all the way to the end of the story before you cut anything.
- Don’t edit as you write. I spent 29 years writing, rewriting, editing, tweaking and perfecting whole sections that didn’t even end up in the book. Finish your first draft first, then edit. Writing and editing are different parts of the brain. Switching between them constantly is exhausting and results in clunky, uneven writing. Plus, it’s a waste of time to polish a whole chapter that gets cut.
- Test the logline before you start writing. I use the formula from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: On the verge of stasis = death moment, a flawed hero breaks into act two, but when the midpoint happens, they must learn the theme stated before all is lost. An example from the novel I just finished is: “On the verge of uncontrollably and randomly time traveling forever, an alcoholic, amnesiac time traveler crosses the universe in search of his true home. But once he finds it, he’ll have to give up the memory and home he’s searched for to stop the whole universe from burning.” If you can craft a compelling sentence using this formula, you can craft a compelling story. You’d be surprised how many stay-up-all-night ideas don’t pass the logline test.
- Test the outline before you start writing. I use the 6-act structure to determine if there’s enough story to fuel a whole novel. Writing this type of outline only takes me a couple of hours. That’s so much better than sinking hundreds of hours into writing a novel that will never work.
- Keep a “cut parts” file. I have a document that’s 10 times longer than my novel that has every scene I’ve ever cut, because I wasn’t sure where to put it. This is the best writing habit I’ve ever formed. If I realize an amazing scene I perfected two years ago would fit well in a certain spot, I don’t have to rewrite it, I can just look it up with a control “F” keyword and put it in. Sure, I always end up rewriting the scene, but rewriting from something is faster than writing from nothing.
But that’s just the big picture. I’ve been searching for an exact step-by-step/scene-by-scene instruction on how to write a novel, so my next one is easier. I haven’t found one I’m satisfied with, so I’m writing one. Each week, I will post a different step on how to write a novel, while I write a new novel the right way, and I’ll provide a scene-by-scene template for the whole thing. Then I’ll even provide advice on how to self-publish, market and traditionally publish your novel, as I do it myself. So subscribe below, so you know when I post.
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