Hey, Pamie: “How Do You Start Writing A Novel?”

I have a new editor on this new manuscript. I was nervous for the past few weeks knowing that the manuscript was on her to-read-and-edit pile. It was like I’d changed schools, got a new teacher, and wanted to find out if I was still considered a good student.

I got an A!

Karen only had good things to say about the manuscript and I’m quite relieved. She gave me notes to incorporate after we receive the copyedits, and the book is still on track to be released July 2012.

I’m incredibly nervous about it, which is how I’ve felt right before the release date of each of my novels, so it’s probably getting close to the right shape. Right when I think, “I can’t let anyone see this. It’s extremely personal. I’m going to tell them never mind and let’s just stop this right now.” that’s about the time I need someone like my editor to go, “Too late! We’ve sent it off to the printers. What’s your next one about?”

And segue right into this week’s Writerly Advice Weekly Procrastination Thing.

Hi Pam.

So, I’ve followed your career and read your stuff since the early 2000’s. I’m actually not sure where I first discovered you, though I’m pretty sure it was on TWoP back in the day. And by “back in the day” I mean “the years when I read that site all day when I should’ve been working at my awful job.” In fact, reading your website and recaps during those years was what got me through more miserable days than I can count. I loved my job, can you tell?

During those years, and really, even today, I so admired your tenacity for your career. Being a writer myself, I loved that you were doing things I could only dream about doing – mostly because I haven’t the foggiest idea how to do what you’ve done. While I don’t feel like my wheelhouse is in script writing, I am so extremely envious of your career as an author.

I make my living as a corporate writer right now. This year I’ve also decided to finally branch out into some freelancing (mostly so my head doesn’t implode from writing about insurance all day, everyday) and started a blog. The one thing I’ve always wanted to do is write a novel. And that’s my question for you – how did you get started?

I have ideas all over the place, but no real direction or idea of where to start. Especially in regard to getting my work noticed by a publisher. If you can offer any advice or words of wisdom for me and other aspiring novelists, I’d appreciate it more than I can say.

Thanks so much, Pam.

Jen Farhat

Last weekend when I was at Austin Film Festival I was on a panel with this famous writer guy and this impressive working-writer-who-lives-in-Texas lady. And they both said at the same time, “It’s easier to sell a book than a screenplay.” Isn’t that shocking? But it’s true that I was so frustrated with trying to break into the tv/film industry that I ended up writing a novel, that I then sold and got published, and became my first screenwriting gig.

So while writing books seems huge and impossible, take some small comfort in that they might be slightly easier to sell than scripts, if for no other reason than they publish so many more books a year than they make movies or episodes of television. (PS: Please don’t think you can quit your job and be a novelist full time. I think there’s some sad statistic somewhere that only 3% of all novelists make their living only by writing novels.)

But let’s start with your first question. How do you start writing a novel? Well, you’re in luck, because tomorrow a whole bunch of people are about to start doing exactly that, as it’s NaNoWriMo time. If you’re the kind of person who needs encouragement, a group to write with, a set deadline and a rather impossible task in order to get something finished… if you like the idea of a marathon but don’t want to lose any toenails… if you want to know what it’s like to be a novelist for only thirty days… then NaNoWriMo might be a good way for you to jump right into the crazy pool and see if you can keep your head above water.

Now. Will you have what is technically a novel at the end of November? No. It won’t really be long enough. And will it be a good novel? Probably not. But what you can hope to achieve by the end of thirty days is: proof that you can churn out that many words on one thing and perhaps the rough lumps of a first draft of something. This is what NaNoWriMo has to offer — you have no choice but to try something past page one and then see what you can do with it.

You’ll have taken a square of clay and made it a bumpy snowman kind of thing. But if you like it and you haven’t given up yet, you can spend your winter months editing it, shaping it, tossing stuff out and throwing things in. You can spend the next few months indulging in whatever being a writer means to you.

You can carry that manuscript into a coffee shop, order an Americano that slowly goes cold as you bite down on your red pen and fiddle with your new thick-framed glasses.

You can lean against the brick walls of your public library, waiting for them to open as you pack your tobacco pipe and wonder, “Do I have a strong hook right from the beginning, or do I need to move chapter one somewhere near chapter three?” (Answer: you probably need to move chapter one to somewhere after chapter three. Try it. You’re welcome.)

You can pretend you’re at the Overlook Hotel, bundled in your wooliest turtleneck, sympathizing with every other author who just wanted to get some work done but had to keep interrupting your manuscript to go murder some people and hug a moldy old naked lady stepping out of a bathtub.

The point is: it’s yours and nobody else has seen it. It is your little secret, your double life. Don’t write with the purpose of selling your work, and don’t write because you have someone in mind you need to see it who will make all of your dreams come true. There’s a freedom in this that you can’t fully appreciate yet because you want to get rid of that word “aspiring” from your personal description. But think about all the freelance gigs you’ve done where you have rules and restrictions and then think about this novel. It doesn’t have any. It’s not for someone else, and it’s not because of someone else. This is yours.

That first draft, write it for yourself. Write the book you want to read, the one that isn’t next to your bed at night. Write the book that you would add to your Kindle, that you’d recommend to your book club, the one you’d tell yourself at night to go to sleep.

It’s important to remember your audience. Right now your audience is only you.

(Okay, okay, maybe you’re JK Rowling or AA Milne and you’re writing something for your kids. You know what I mean, though. Come on.)

So step one: you say you have ideas all over the place, but no real direction on where to start. Pick one and start writing.

There you go. There’s the secret. If you hate it, you can stop. But by hating it I mean you know you have made a mistake, that you have run out of things to say, not that you’re questioning your direction. You will always question what you’re doing — that’s called crafting. That means you are thinking. That means you are working. Don’t confuse procrastination for writer’s block. You will experience fear, indecision, anxiety, angst, ennui, anger, frustration, indignation, humiliation, jealousy, nausea, rage, and a crippling conviction that you are the worst writer who has ever learned how to open a Word doc.

Welcome to the fabulous world of writing! That’s how we all feel every day, so consider yourself warned.

What you do with those feelings is everything. I have often said my best work is fear-based. Fear that I will miss a deadline, fear that I won’t get any more work, fear that I’ll never be chosen for another project, fear that I’ll never have another idea. Am I really convinced that all of those things will happen? Sometimes. But most of the time I think about that fear and I use it to start typing. Some of those things will only come true if I stop writing. It’s up to me to miss a deadline.

So say you’ve signed up and you’re ready to start NaNoWriMo tomorrow. What should you do today? What would you do if you knew that tomorrow you were going to start writing a novel?

It’s Halloween and writing a novel can be scaaaaary. You’re going to spend a lot of time by yourself, lost in your head, frustrated with your brain, gaining some weight. You’ll find yourself haunted in the shower (for me it’s always while I’m in the shower) when suddenly something that had you stuck breaks free and ideas start churning. You will become annoying to your friends and family because you’ll kind of only want to talk about your novel because you’re spending a lot of time on it. There’s a holiday toward the end of this thing, so know that you won’t be a lot of fun on Thanksgiving. Mentally prep yourself like they’re removing 50,000 words out of you at the end of the month and you’ve got to get yourself ready for the surgery. Don’t think of the deadline as a suggestion. Mental prep is important. Tell yourself: I am doing this because I am doing this. You really don’t need another reason. But I guess you can put a reward at the finish line, if you’re into that kind of motivation.

Today/tonight you can do something really important that will help your next month along. You can decide what story you’re going to tell, and you can sketch out your main characters. You can choose a beginning and an ending. You can give yourself a rough outline — a beatsheet, really — of where you’d like the story to go. Say there’s a love scene you keep imagining. Jot that down, note the broad strokes (heh). There’s a line of dialogue or a fight that you keep picturing your main characters having. Get some of that dialogue down for yourself so you don’t forget it. Have a notebook that’s just for this novel and keep it with you so when inspiration strikes in line at the grocery store or as you’re falling asleep you can get it down. Trust me: you won’t remember it later, not the same way.

Now when you get stuck writing your words over the next month, when feel like you’ve written yourself into a brick wall: go back to those notes, those little scenes and lines that had you excited before you started this misery, and write that scene instead. Skip to the good stuff, the things you wanted to write, the story so rich in your head you could taste it. Get that part down. Get yourself excited again. You will find those pages easier to write and they may very well get you back on track again. Because if you like that scene, you’re going to have to figure out where to put it, which means you’ll have to do a little work before that scene and the next thing you know you’re building your book house again, working and writing and crafting and hating.

The lovely and talented Merrill Markoe gave me advice once when I was stuck in the middle of a manuscript. She said: “We don’t write books in a straight line. We tinker. You notice this scene is missing something, you go back and add it. You decide to make this character have a lisp, you go back and add that. We color in the picture later.”

First drafts are there to get the structure down, some furniture. Don’t worry about where you’re putting the throw pillows. Company isn’t coming for a long time. It’s just you in there. Don’t ask people to read five pages unless it’s someone who’s going to be like, “I AM SO PROUD OF YOU FOR WRITING FIVE PAGES AND PLEASE WRITE THREE HUNDRED MORE NOW.” If you have that person in your life, by all means give them five pages. Why wouldn’t you? Also, buy them dinner. That person loves you. But for the most part you need to keep that first draft to yourself, until there’s something whole and finished to show someone. You’ll never finish it if you have leaked it enough to lose your passion. If enough people have looked at it and gone, “It’s cute.” or “Can you send that again?” or “Oh, I haven’t gotten around to reading that because I’m so busy.” you will lose steam and it will sit there unfinished and you will never, ever finish it. Ever.

Lots of people say they will run a marathon and don’t. I’m pretty sure six million more say they’ll write a novel and never do. It’s up to you if you’re going to be someone who has written a novel or not. Nobody else can do that for you. (…unless you’re Nicole Richie.)

That’s why I’m not using this letter to tell you how to get a publisher. Because you don’t need one yet. You don’t need a publisher until you have a novel. Get that done and then you can worry about what’s next.

Pick your story and write it.

[If you have a question about writing, email me at pamie@pamie.com with the subject line: Your Weekly Procrastination.]

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  1. Scott Schulz

    Great advice as usual, Pamie, and I’ll be looking forward to next July.

    There’s no wrong way write: just keep getting those words out. I had a roommate who wrote his Ph.D. thesis by deciding that it was going to be 128 pages long with eight chapters each of which would be 16 pages and so on. He top-downed the entire project.

  2. rike

    Dear Pamie, thank you!

  3. Erin

    This is great, Pamie. I don’t have any interest in writing a novel, but this advice is so spot-on for PhD candidates working on a dissertation (ahem…like me…) that it’s downright spooky. Each paragraph, I thought, “YES! That is exactly what it’s like!!!”

    Believe me, I’m going to be forwarding this link to every dissertating grad student I know.

    1. pamie

      Thank you!

      This advice probably goes for starting just about any project that you hope becomes bigger than you in the end. Good luck with your dissertation! That thing sounds scary.

  4. Jessica

    I’m not a writer by any means…but yes, it’s all about the shower! If it wasn’t for the shower I would never solve any of my problems.

  5. Lisa D

    Pamie… what you wrote was beautiful and inspiring! I have been talking about writing a novel for so long, but have a motivation problem. Even though I love writing and creating, the task seems so overwhelming. I like what you said about writing the book that i want to read. It is so simple, yet brilliant! It makes perfect sense. I hope the advice you have shared here is the kick in the pants i’ve needed. Thank you :)

    1. Pamie

      Thanks, Lisa! Best of luck on getting that book out of your head!

  6. Rachel

    THANK YOU for this post. I really needed to read these words today, because I’m feeling like Don Music from Sesame Street (remember him? The guy who would bash his head on the piano when he got stuck in a song? Yeah, that guy. Except his hair is better than mine).

    It’s not that I’m stuck, it’s that the whole story thing wants to climb out of my head at once and I can only type SO FAST. 80 words per minute is nothing to sneeze at, but damn. I have too much to say so I find I can’t say anything at all except “Note: put in the blahblahblahthingy here later about the thing with the stuff and that guy who did that thing [Remember July 1989 and that Smiths song] etc.”

    I was thisclose to deleting The Thing and going back to being a slacker/knitter, but in my procrastination hour I wandered over here and found this post. And I will keep going.

  7. Colin

    “First drafts are there to get the structure down, some furniture. Don’t worry about where you’re putting the throw pillows. Company isn’t coming for a long time.”

    …This is one of the most lovely writing analogies I’ve ever encountered. Pitch-perfect.

  8. Jacq

    This is fabulous, Pam – just what I needed to read. I keep stopping and starting with story ideas: I have commitment issues when it comes to writing fiction. I tried NaNoWriMo this year (and last year) and failed because November always seems to be crazy-busy for me (buying and moving into a new house this year, for example), but I like the philosophy of just forging ahead and worrying about quality control afterwards. I really need to do that!

  9. Jessi

    I’ve spent what seems like years starting to write, and then stopping, and then ending up with pages and pages of half-finished stories that I never manage to pick back up. I’m just now starting to write seriously again after not writing at all for a long, long time… This was exactly what I needed to read right now. I’m printing this out and tacking it to the wall to re-read next time I get stuck. Thank you SO much for this!