Notes on Writing a Novel #1

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel. I’m about halfway through the first draft and I figured it might be a neat idea to blog about the writing process as it is happening. It’s the first long-term project I’ve worked on in years. When I first started writing stories as a kid, I wrote extended pieces of fiction. I’m not sure if I would call them novels though. I wrote them longhand in notebooks. I had heard at school that writers like to use notebooks with spiral binding, because they can rip the pages out if they want. So I got one, and started writing my very first story. It was a space adventure, in which me and my best friend Artie from school were the main characters. We were abandoned as kids on Saturn, and sort of grew up as feral children, before being adopted by aliens and given the gift of speech and intelligence. The two of us then set out on a voyage across the solar system, eventually reconnecting with our families, who had grown up on a human colony on Europa. The story featured pretty much all my friends from school at the time. Several wormholes, magical artifacts, and one cosmic baryonyx later, we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict with a witch on a planet where the trees are so tall you can’t see the bottom, and the natives live in the clouds in hollowed-out apartments connected by bridges. This story ended up stretching across several notepads, most of which are now lost, and ended abruptly when my character gets a pet centipede (a centipede the size of a dozen Ford Fiestas parked in a row, of course) and I couldn’t think of a name for the damn thing. The last sentence was literally “I think I’ll name you-” and then it ends. Somehow I had enough imagination to write about ancient temples on the surface of Pluto, but not enough to come up with an appropriate name for a venomous, oversized arthropod with a taste for human flesh.

I wrote another story about a teenage girl who gets stranded on Neptune, and another one about a band of warriors hunting a powerful demon through an enchanted forest. I got a PC at the age of thirteen and I started typing my stories, leaving the notepads behind. When I was 14, I wrote a science fantasy novel influenced in no small part by Dune, Star Wars, and a game I was playing at the time called Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. The story ran 250 pages in length, and to date it’s the only true novel I have completed. As I got more serious about writing, I developed a more critical eye with which I regarded my work. I wrote short stories and poems for years, often planning and starting novels but never getting past about 5000 words or so. I told myself that eventually I’d get my act together, that it was destined to happen, that I just hadn’t found the right idea. Maybe I hadn’t found the right idea, but that was not all I was lacking. Until 2017 I wasn’t mentally fit enough for writing a novel. But then 2017 happened. The pills started working. My brain chemistry was reaching the right balance. I started reading again. I started blogging, and during 2017 I averaged 1348.9 words across 104 posts. My 25th birthday happened, and all of a sudden everything in my life felt urgent. I had to make up for all the time I had wasted over the years. I knew that the odd short story or poem was getting me nowhere. If I really wanted to make a go of this writing business, I had to prove to myself I could write a novel.

So far the process has gone better than I ever could have hoped. With each chapter I finish, I grow stronger. It’s the best thing I have in my life right now, and when I write it I feel so happy. And happiness is the most precious thing in the world to me. When I have it, it’s like gold dust slipping through my fingers, and I’m trying to hold onto it as long as I can. The idea that I can create my own happiness simply by writing words on a page is precious to me. It’s exciting. And for me, my writing will always be inextricably linked to my mental health. I’m going to blog about what I’ve learned during the writing process in a series of short posts. Today’s tip is all about happiness when writing. I’ve learned that writing a novel should always be separate to publishing a novel. They are two different tasks and ought to be treated as such. I think the best advice for a young writer is to focus simply on writing the novel. People often ask me when I’m going to start looking into publishers and literary agents, and my answer is always the same: I got no idea. I don’t care. None of that is relevant to my current goal, and sometimes I think writers worry too much about publishing a novel as opposed to simply writing it, and writing it the best way they can. You can’t publish a manuscript that is unfinished. My attempts to write novels since studying creative writing at university were mired by thoughts of publication. My mind was never where it needed to be. While my fingers were on the first draft, my mind was in the editing room, or worse it was in the publishing house. I would criticize my work harshly and give up, instead of just writing it and editing later.

It’s a common trap for budding novelists, and nothing hurts one’s confidence more than retiring a manuscript after the first chapter. The way to avoid this trap has everything to do with happiness. And that’s why it’s so important to focus completely on the novel and not anything that ought to come later. The best way to finish a manuscript is to enjoy it. Make sure that the story you are writing is one you would want to read. Unless you truly love the work, it won’t get completed. You’ll know you have the right idea when you can’t stop thinking about it, when you wake up thinking about the characters and their predicaments. I think if you are truly passionate about your subject, then that will naturally come across in your writing. Forget publishers and book signings and prizes. I strongly believe that a writer’s focus and energy should be 100% on his or her work; it’s the difference between someone who has something to say, and someone who has to say something. Think to yourself: do I want to write a novel, or do I want to write this novel? Be confident, follow your gut instincts, and blaze a trail that is entirely your own.

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