In the last few months, I’ve been working on a “How to Write a Novel” book that is still untitled (although “How to Write a Novel,” sounds like an alright title…)
To that point, I’d like to give you an unedited section on understanding your process.
Please feel free to comment.
Understanding Your Process
The hardest part of writing anything is getting started.
This is even more so the case in our overly digital world with distractions only a keystroke or mouse click away. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to get rid of those distractions, but there are a few things you can do to avoid them.
There are so many excuses for not writing and it frustrates me (and probably yourself) everytime Ihear someone say, “I’ve been meaning to write my book, but I just never have the time.” I get frustrated for two very big reasons.
1) Unless you’re Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, or J. K. Rowling, and get the big bucks from an entire career of novels, movie or television deals, or whatever, than nobody has the time. We all have families, day jobs, and other crap that fills our lives to the brim. The idea is taking those moments that you know nothing is going on and scheduling time to write. Personally, when my wife turns on one of those shows that just isn’t my cup of tea is when I crack open the computer or notebook and start writing.
2) One of my favorite quotes goes something like this, “The greatest novels ever written never made it past the first chapter.” (That’s a paraphrase, I was incapable of locating who said that quote originally). What that means is that so many people, for whatever reason, start writing great fiction and either never pick it up again, or talk themselves out of it. You will never get that book done if you don’t stop with the excuses and just sit down and write it.
Whatever you have to do to just sit down and start writing, do it.
It all boils down to understanding yourself and what motivates or demotivates you. For me, I know that most of my distractions are auditory. If I hear the television or if my phone alerts me to something new, I will follow that new path until my entire time that I’ve set aside for writing is gone. To combat this, I wear headphones when I write. Once the headphones are on, I do an internet search for ‘white noise,’ and go to the first website on the list. The only change I make is to adjust the brown noise all the way up (I think it adds more bass). This deep static in my ears makes the rest of the world entirely disappear. I still have other distractions, but this is the best method for getting rid of the majority of them.
For a second, just forget about what motivates you. Instead, I want you to focus on what those excuses are when you’re sitting down and making yourself write.
Does the dog need out? Has your sister updated her Facebook status? Did ‘How It Should Have Ended’ put out a new video on Youtube?
Focus as deeply as you can, because a lot of your distractions might not even seem like distractions.
What 19th century cultural habits did gamblers have in Louisiana? Did H. P. Lovecraft base Arkham on Providence? If so, do the city streets match? Which scene should I depict on the book cover?
These are all distractions that disguise themselves as writing. If you’re sitting down to write, but end up doing research (another trap that I fall into regularly, just check out the detail I put into the motorcycle in Andrew Doran at the Mountains of Madness), then you’re not managing your time correctly. Research time and writing time need to be entirely separate events.
Recognize your distractions for what they are. Once you have managed that Olympic task, you can finally get some writing done.
Once your distractions are gone, you will need to understand your process.
Process is small word for a potentially complicated system. Nobody’s process is the same, although a lot are similar. Process includes how you get your story idea, whether you outline your story in advance or not, habits that help you keep the story straight in your mind, and the types of devices and tools that you use to record those ideas into completed manuscripts.
For example, my process goes a little something like this:
I keep a physical notebook for story notes. In that notebook, I first outline the novel’s big points, essentially saying what is going to happen each chapter. After I do that, I flesh out the details of each chapter, including vague dialogue and important scene details. Once I’ve finished a chapter in pen, I turn to my computer and type up the bits that I’ve written (this is when I put on the headphones and listen to white noise). When I’m typing up those chapter bits, I flesh it out even more, adding scene details and describing everything that I didn’t describe in the notes. Personally, I tend to aim for a specific word count per chapter depending upon the project. Once I’ve typed up a chapter, I do not, under any conditions go back and look at it again.
That’s one of those potential distractions. You could spend your lifetime perfecting a single chapter, but in doing so you’ll never get your novel finished.
Once I’ve finished writing a chapter, I return to my notebook and begin work on the next chapter. To go into further detail, I use my Evernote Moleskine notebook for every hand written note. I do this because Evernote has a feature where if I take a picture of pages in their notebook, everything I write becomes text searchable. Text searchable means that if I’m looking for all of my notes on “Andrew Doran,” I just have to type his name into the Evernote application’s search bar and all of those hand-written notes pop up and are ready for me to look at.
This is great for productivity as well. If for some reason I don’t have my notebook on me, I always have my phone or some sort of technology. That means that I can look up my story notes anytime. One less excuse for not writing.
That description of my process isn’t very unique and actually describes what’s commonly called a plotter. According the majority of the world, there are Plotters and there are Pantsers. Neither is wrong, and neither is right, but knowing which method fits you and your style can help you when you’re trying to understand your personal writing process and eliminate distractors.
A Plotter is someone who outlines what they are going to write before they write it. Similar to my method (or exactly like my method), Plotters break down how each chapter will be pieced together before typing it up. They like to know where all of the threads are and how they go together before they put them to paper.
On the other side of the writer coin are Pantsers (as in “By the seat of your pants”). Pantsers hold an idea in their mind about how the story will go, but they don’t really plan it out. They prefer the thrill of discovery. Any author will tell you that a story’s characters can come to life and direct a story, and Pantsers live by that kind of thinking. The basic plot is in their mind, and they want to see what their characters will do with it.
To be honest, I like to think of myself as a hybrid of the two models. Some books, such as this one, have basic chapter/section notes, but there are large sections that I spend a lot of time just writing from the top of my head. Sometimes, you can get better flow that way. My best novels, though, are almost always stories that I’ve at least plotted out and outlined in advance. So, maybe I’m a hybrid with dominant Plotter traits.
What are you? What’s your preferred method of writing? When you sit down to start typing your novel do you already have notes or are you working off of just a basic idea? There’s no wrong answer, but there is an answer. Find it, and you’re that much closer to discovering your own process.