How to Write a Novel

Well, now the meme has gone from linking to larbalestier‘s to making one’s own, so here goes.

How to Write a Novel, Only Not, Because Just Like That Time in College When My Roomate Wanted to Know How I Study, I Don’t Recommend My Brain’s Functioning To Anyone Else, It Only Barely Functions for Me. And No Bullet Points. Nyah.

(First, I tried a spreadsheet. For kicks. I don’t know. It works as kind of a geeky cookie in that I get to fill in stuff when I finish a chapter, and I’m a compulsive list maker, but I don’t know whether it will ultimately help or not. It sure makes me feel organized. But let’s face it, I’m not. I’m not using it to plan, just to retro-chart. I am still unconvinced. More as work progresses.)

For me, there are two How to Write a Novels. One is for The Orphan’s Tales, and the other is for Everything Else.

The Orphan’s Tales
has a really complex plot structure. It’s non-linear, multi-level, and its a series so it has to all gel into a cohesive timeline over multiple volumes. It doesn’t read as complicated as it writes, but the structure is really rough to keep all in one brain. On top of that, the tales themselves have to be culturally consistent both individually and flexible enough to fit into the world as a whole. I’m not big on traditional world-building, so this complex shadow-folklore is unfolding pretty organically in my head. On the other hand, I have to keep a very tight hold on the many strands of story, and remember the minutia of a cast of almost literally thousands.

And I don’t have a single note written down. As of right now, it’s all in my head.

So, with the OT, what I tend to do is start off with the frame narrative, which is a pretty simple tale, and then just start with a basic folkloric roadmap–checking the Aarne-Thompson system if I get stuck for one. Then I start casting out the tales, and with almost every book in the series, I’ve gotten 10k in and realized I was going in the wrong direction, backtracked, and rewritten the beginning. Then it’s just kind of pure fun–make a monster here, a saint there, a pirate ship, a city. Build onto folklore-bones with musculature from my very strange and murky brain. The great thing about that complex structure is that it’s actually so open once I’m in it that I can do everything I’ve ever wanted to do with the fairy tale format.

I always write beginning to end. Jumping around would give me hives. The story unfolds in my head much as it does when I’m reading someone else’s book, and not only do I need to progress along that line, I don’t want to rob myself of the pleasure of seeing what happens next till the last second. I don’t outline. I have a vague idea of where I want to go, and then I stop planning before I get bored with a story I already know the ending to. It took four years to figure out a plot point, once. I wasn’t doing nothing the whole time, but the nice part about a series is you can hold off on deciding the big revelations. Sometimes. If you haven’t committed yourself to a course already in print.

I spend a lot of time, conversely, chewing a potential book in my head before I start writing. Not plot-wise, but characters, individual lines, the rough shape of a book. I think of it as mulching. Then I procrastinate. Then I sit down and write. Then I check email/Livejournal. Then I grumble and pace and circle the computer like a matador around an angry bull. Check email/Livejournal. Write. Then I get stuck on a plot point and stare at the wall thinking for a few hours, talk it out with whomever is present who has read the previous books, then start again. Lather, rinse, check email/Livejournal, repeat. Get to the end. Run back through for spelling, tweaks. Post to LJ asking for first readers, since I don’t have a regular set right now. Give to readers. Make changes if needed. Give to editor.

And that’s where things get a little YMMV. Because I don’t do full revision runs, really, except the one at the end. I tend to revise as I go, with a lot of backspacing and a lot of hammering out one sentence before moving on to the next. My “show keystrokes” function would be a nightmare. I remember Vonnegut talking about these kinds of authors as oppose to the multiple full draft kind. I’m definitely the former. However, The Orphan’s Tales takes a lot more careful combing than most, because of said structure.

The titles for OT are more or less set in stone by now. I used to go title-less quite a bit, but these days I feel like a title is necessary, it sets my tone, it guides me into the story.

With anything not Orphan-related: I get an idea, I mulch it awhile, I sit down, I write, I drink too much coffee, stay up too many nights, (I basically only consistently produce good work at night. All other times are hit and miss. Which pretty much leaves me out of the coffee shop debate, as they’re all closed when I’m open) growl, pace, circle computer matador-like, check email, check livejournal, curse my friends list for not sufficiently distracting me, learn to hate the computer, write, drink more coffee, scream FUCK IT MY BOOK IS BROKEN and go out for buffalo wings, come home and finish the last 1/3 in a single night. Or some variation of that, timestamps varying with project. Short stories and poetry are a microcosm of this, all of the above usually occuring in 1-2 days.

I do tend to write very quickly, though not as quickly as jaylake, and The Orphan’s Tales goes considerably slower than other projects. I’m not supposed to tell people how fast I write, so I’ll be vague about it. But it’s really just a function of procrastination–like college, when I did a 30 page paper the day it was due. This was not a one-time occurance, and by grad school, I did everything the morning of the day it was due. Is that inhumane? Yep. Did I still get striaght A’s? Yep. But I’m incapable of pacing myself and now I don’t even try. I know the bulk of any given work is going to come in a big caffeine-fueled rush that will feel exactly like college finals, which is to say exhilarating and fucking miserable all at once, and I’m ok with that. It’s how I roll.

I also use the Stickies program for little notes. I have a list of names I’d like to use for characters, a general notes sticky, a writing queue sticky of everything that’s due, etc etc. I really need a PDA. Sometimes, especially a short story, something will sit on the sticky for months without getting written. It’s a factory line: they march in, get spattered with the Pretty Gun and the Language Stomper, and then marched out again, a little dazed, with a cookie and orange juice.

Lately I’ve tried very hard to stop working frequently and read. It’s done me a world of good–it’s easy to get wrapped up in producing books and let your consumption get dangerously low. There’s a quote somewhere that says you should turn over half a library to write one novel. I completely believe that. Put the good stuff in, get the good stuff out.

So, I guess for me it comes down to “just write.” I try to write every day. It doesn’t always work out. But I’m thinking about my books all the time. My Greek professor used to say she never cared if I didn’t have my menial homework done, because she knew I was thinking about Classics all the time. And I was. My mind is consumed with my writing about 70% of every day. Typing is not the only measure of progress. And that thinking is work, too. Using this disorganized and maniacal process which has “procrastination” as half the steps, I’ve written six novels and four books of poetry since 2003. And about fifteen short stories since the beginning of 2005, but that’s not much, really–I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to short fiction. So, the other important thing is, if it works, do it, and who cares what manuals and other people’s LJs say?

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