Bookstores and the Internet are littered with guides to writing a novel. Some recommend working at a set time every weekend. Some advise aspiring writers to turn out a certain number of pages every day. Some recommend writing for an hour every day, without fail. All of this advice is good, for those it’s good for, but for the rest of us, not so much.
I own a couple of those guides and they never helped me. If I were to write a guide for becoming a novelist it would be really short: to write a novel you need to write a lot of words. At some point the words need to form a coherent narrative, so after you write, you will need to revise a lot. Don’t give up.
Maybe I would add some detail: to write a lot of words you need to find the discipline to just do it. There’s no magic; there’s no guidebook that will tell you how to get the inspiration. There’s no mantra you can chant or incense you can burn or shaman whose hem you can kiss in order to be able to write. If you are holding off because you’re waiting for the inspiration to come to you, you will be waiting a long, long time. You have to do it whether you’re ‘feeling inspired’ or not. If you suddenly find that you ARE feeling inspired, that’s great, but if you want to write a novel, you have to keep working at it after that inspiration fades, because it will.
Here’s another dirty secret that you’ll rarely find in those How to be a Writer guides. To write well you must read, a lot. People sometimes ask me where I learned to write well. (Thank you, people who like my writing!) The answer is, I learned everywhere, throughout my life. I was a little slow to get started as a reader, but on the first day of second grade, they handed out the 200-page reading textbooks for the year. I took mine home, plowed through it in two nights, and was off and running. I read chapter books, classics, novels written for adults, history, non-fiction, my mother’s Woman’s Day and Family Circle magazines, all the advice columnists I could get my hands on, instructional manuals, science books, food labels. If it was printed in English, I read it. I didn’t always understand what I was reading (The World According to Garp bewildered my 11-year-old mind more than it enlightened) and it’s possible some of it was too adult for me (B. Kliban’s cartoons origamied my sense of humor in ways it never recovered from) but that didn’t stop me.
Reading teaches you cadence. It teaches you what clear writing looks like and helps you see gobbledygook for what it is. It teaches you that prose can be lyric and helps you spot pomposity dressed up in rhetoric’s castoffs. All the guidebooks, workshops and critiques in the world cannot teach you what reading can.
Next week: Revisions