Since finding out that I have written and published a novel many people have told me that one of their bucket list life goals is to write a novel. They’ve asked me many questions. I have a lot of thoughts on this and am happy to share them. There are many, many books and articles on writing. Some are very technical and others are more memoir-like. Certainly, one thing a future writer can do is to read some of these books and articles. Another is just to write.
I have boiled down my top ten tips on writing. This is part one of my seminar on writing. If you have questions, please contact me through my website www.JoelBurcat.com .
How do I get started? Write. Just sit down and write. Do this every night and every weekend. Writing a novel is not something that you do once every two weeks or on Sunday after the football season is over and before March Madness begins or during the Coronapocalypse. You really have to devote a couple hours a day almost every day of the week. This ain’t easy if you have a day job. Heck, it’s not easy even if all you do all day is write.
Don’t worry about what your writing looks like as you put down the words. Don’t try to write it perfectly. The writer Anne Lamott, in her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, cautions that your first draft will look like excrement (she uses the four-letter word that rhymes with hit for this). She’s right. Just get your words onto the page. Let them tumble from your fingers (or mouth if you dictate). Later you will revise. Don’t worry…you own and control your work and no one will ever see your awful first draft. Just get it down. I wrote the first draft of what will be my third novel Strange Fire, 70,000 words, in seven weeks—and I had just become legally blind. You can do this. Just write.
I hear this question more often than you could imagine: I don’t read a lot of books myself, does that matter? This one should be a no-brainer, but I’ve talked with many people who want to write a novel but admit they do not read very much.
You need to read both classic and current literature. Particularly, you have to read in the genre in which you plan to write so that you get a sense of what is expected by readers (including agents and publishers) of books in your genre. If you want to write a thriller, then you must read thriller masters like James Patterson, Lee Child, and other thriller writers. If you want to write a romance, you should be reading Carolyn Brown, Pippa Grant, and others. Also, and this is important, as you are educating yourself on the masters of your genre, you should also read some of this year’s crop of debut novelists. They are the cutting edge and will show you the direction in which your genre is going.
Generally, while I do read when I am writing a novel, I tend to read little fiction while I am actively writing a novel, since I find myself unintentionally imitating the style of the book I’m reading. I read non-fiction while I’m actively writing a novel or short story. When I can, I always have a book or two going. Out of three books I might read in a month or two, I read maybe two thrillers or legal thrillers and one other book.
3. WHAT DO I WRITE ABOUT?
I hear this question fairly often: I’m not sure what I want to write about, but what do you think about a novel about a hospital/ law firm/ government agency/ corona virus/ etc.? If you are a teacher and want to write about a school, you have insight and knowledge that few people have. You can put that inside knowledge to work for you. The worst thing you can do is to base your book on what you observe on television shows or movies.
While I believe that at first you should write about what you know, that does not always apply. Very few people have been president of the United States, but there are many great novels about presidents. So you can branch out when you feel ready to do so. Remember, you should thoroughly research a subject and then write about it. You can do that and many novels have been written by writers whose only direct experience has been research and interviews. Some of those books are damn fine novels, too, but some lack authenticity.
Develop an idea for your novel and try to think it through to the end. If you are a physician and want to write a novel about “what it’s really like to work in a hospital,” you need to think through your story, characters, and the plot. It’s not enough just to have a great beginning and a few clever vignettes, but you also need to know how your book will end. That does not mean that you need to think through every detail. The details will come to you as you write.
4. OUTLINE/NO OUTLINE
Should I prepare a detailed outline of my novel? I get this question at least once during every program in which I participate. This is the age-old debate between the outliners and the “seat of your pants-ers.” Many novelists have sworn by an outline (e.g. J. K. Rowling, Joseph Heller). Other writers (e.g. Lee Child, Stephen King) say they never use one.
This is a personal preference. When you are starting out as a writer, I think it’s a good idea to have at least a short outline from which to work. You can do a very detailed outline. I’ve heard of some writers using outlines that are dozens of pages long. Some just do a brief sketch. Over time, as you become more comfortable with your writing skills, an outline may not be as necessary. In part this is a skill issue and in part it is a preference.
At the very least, it helps to outline complicated sections of your story. You may prefer to charge forward without an outline even on the complicated sections and if you are happy with that, then go for it. I have a feeling you will spend a lot of time editing, however, once you are done writing.
One trick to avoid writing an outline is to write the beginning and the ending of your book and then “write to the ending” Basically, you are filling in the middle of your story. Since you know how your book will end, you can fill in the middle as you write to the conclusion. It is claimed that Margaret Mitchell wrote the last chapter of Gone with the Wind first and then wrote from the back to the beginning of the book.
I have tried writing both from an outline and without one. When I started writing novels, I wrote detailed outlines. I have now finished my fifth novel and do not use an outline. I still outline complicated sections when I want to be sure that everything makes sense.
5. WRITING COURSES
Here is how this question usually is presented to me: I do a lot of writing at work. It’s not really necessary for me to take any special courses on writing fiction. Right? Or: I took English in college and creative writing in high school, do I really need to take a writing course?
Writing a novel is different from the kind of writing you do at work. I went to college and took English and writing courses many years ago. In law school, I took a course called “legal writing.” It should have been called, “sucking the creative writing soul out of your writing in ten weeks.” Also, as a lawyer, I have written for my entire career. I have written close to 100 legal articles and edited two law books. Writing fiction is entirely different from the kind of writing that you do as a lawyer, physician, geologist, engineer, or teacher. In fact, writing fiction is almost the opposite of how lawyers write (I can’t speak for other professions).
Everything I know about the technical details of writing fiction I learned in the past ten years. Based on my experience, I suggest that you take some courses on fiction writing if you are serious about writing short stories or a novel. Also, there are many books and web-based resources for you to review. Every year there are literally hundreds of writing seminars, conferences, festivals, and programs. Not only is this a great way to learn how to write fiction, but you will connect with other writers.
Some things you will learn in your writing classes simply aren’t taught in most high school or college level courses. Things like point of view, character, plot, pacing, etc. are the kinds of technical details you can learn when you attend a good program on writing. It is NOT necessary to pursue an MFA. If you are inclined to do that and have the time and money, then by all means, do it. I’d rather invest my time writing, but that’s just me.
You can find a lot of courses given through Writer’s Digest, International Thriller Writers Association, Romance Writers of America, Pennwriters, and dozens of other writing trade organizations. Also, these organizations and many others offer annual conferences at which writing skills are taught. Many are on-line. Another thing to look for are annual writing conferences taught by colleges. Generally, these are held for three days to up to a week, right after classes have let out for the Spring semester. English professors and some fairly well-known writers teach these courses. The cost for these programs is remarkably reasonable and often includes room and board in a college dorm. In addition to learning something new, cool, and let’s face it nerdy, you will probably enjoy the comradery of the program and meeting other writers.
6. CRITIQUE GROUPS
I know many people who say they would never join a critique group, because they are too scared of the criticism they might receive or are afraid to hear what others might say about their writing. To this I say, you probably never will be published. You should never try to be published. If you are published, you should take a freighter for a distant island, preferably one without WIFI, since you will hate what you see on Amazon reviews and other formal book reviews. There is nothing wrong with writing for pleasure but don’t expect to be able to send your work off to an agent or journal and expect anything other than, as the cliché goes, crickets. I’m sorry, that’s how I feel.
Critique groups offer a valuable way to learn. Generally, most critique groups are populated by helpful people who want you to improve your writing. If you find yourself in a group full of assholes (sorry, that’s what they’re called and that really is the best word for them), who want to belittle and chastise you for your supposedly inept writing skills, then do not go back. Find another one. Most groups are made up of the good guys.
The good guys in a writing critique group will offer suggestions, point out discrepancies, suggest alternatives to what you have written, find typos, etc. That does not mean they will never say anything bad about your writing, some people will do so when you deserve it and that is okay. This is how you will improve as a writer. The only thing you must do in return is to critique their writing. I’ve been a member of Harrisburg’s Midtown Writer’s Group for about ten years and it has been very helpful to me and improved my stories.
7. I WANT TO KEEP EVERYTHING I WRITE, EVEN IF IT DOESN’T EXACTLY FIT INTO THE BOOK
The question I sometimes hear is: I am in love with all of the words that I have written, they are perfect. Can I keep them all?
Throw out the mediocre and bad stuff. Every writer writes whole paragraphs, chapters, short stories, and even books that they realize are not worthy of their effort. Throw away the bad words/ phrases/ sentences/ paragraphs. At the very least have a special file called “outtakes” and stick them there. If you believe that the material is not really all that good, imagine how your readers will feel. He was not the first to say it, but in his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Some stuff you write may be good, but as your story progresses, it just doesn’t fit into your story any longer. Don’t try to jam it into the story. Cut it out and lay it aside. Figure out how you can use it in another story. I have four whole chapters from Strange Fire, that just don’t fit any longer (two are excellent, by the way). I’ll use them somewhere else, but I cut them from the story. You have to do this.
8. HOW HARD IS IT REALLY, THIS WRITING A NOVEL THING?
Every now and again someone will come up to me, smirk or chuckle, and say, “It’s pretty easy to write a novel, isn’t it?” Depending on my mood, I’ll sometimes chuckle back, wink, and ask to see their novel. If I’m not in an obnoxious mood, I’ll tell them that it is easy putting words on a page, I’ll grant you that. Writing a novel, especially a good, well-written novel, is really hard work. You may enjoy it, but it’s not easy. (If you do not enjoy it, then you shouldn’t be doing it.)
Writing is both magical and hard work. There is something about the writing process when you are alone in your room with your laptop and your imaginary friends (your characters) whisper to you. They really do. Sometimes they talk to you at night when you are half-asleep and tell you what it is they want to say or do. Sometimes you wake up in the morning with entire passages in your mind. That is really an awesome, unique experience. All writers experience this at some point. I feel sorry for those of you who have never experienced this. Honestly, though, I ran for maybe 40 years until my knees gave out, and never, not once, felt a “runner’s high” unless I was dehydrated or took too much ibuprofen. Also, I have exercised my whole life and have never “felt the burn.” I just hurt. So there are legitimate exceptions.
Writing is really hard work. It can be very frustrating. There are times when you can spend three or four hours writing and at the end of that time you have 300 stinking words to show for it. You sweated over every word and when you go back over it, nothing was good. Sometimes you finish writing at the end of the day and re-read it and see that every passage was written in the passive voice. Your point of view jumped from one head to another in a single paragraph. There are technical errors galore. All of that has to be fixed or discarded. It is not uncommon, after you have written 40,000 words or so, that you begin to doubt whether the book is any good at all. The process can seem endless. Doing it right is hard work.
9. WHAT IS THE TIME FRAME FOR WRITING A NOVEL?
A common question is: How long will it take? In March 2018, I was on creative fire and did a first draft of Strange Fire in seven weeks (80,000 words). For me, that was unusual. Generally, It takes me about three to six months to get all the words down the first time and then several months more of editing and re-writing. If pressed, I think I could write, re-write and edit a novel in about six months. I know of some writers (particularly romance writers) who write six or ten books a year. It is also not uncommon for some writers to take eight or ten years to write one book. How long it takes depends upon many factors, including your skill and the genre in which you are writing.
It took J.D. Salinger ten years to write Catcher in the Rye and it took George R.R. Martin five years to write A Game of Thrones. On the other hand, it took Ian Fleming two months to write Casino Royale and Stephanie Meyer took three months to write Twilight. Also, I’m not sure I believe it, but supposedly it took Anthony Burgess only three weeks to write A Clockwork Orange. (The book was included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.) Go figure.
10. AGENT, DIRECT TO A PUBLISHER, OR SELF-PUBLISH?
Here’s a fun question that all published authors get: Once I’m done writing my novel, it should be pretty easy to get it published, right?
Spoiler alert— your first novel probably won’t be published. You are going to make many rookie errors and the likelihood that your first novel will be good enough to be published is very slim. There are a few writers out there who are super-talented and the first novel that they wrote was published. On the other hand, I’ve heard from many, many successful writers and they have written five to ten novels before one of them got published. I have written a total of five novels and am working on my sixth. It took me that much work to get my “first” novel published.
Drink to Every Beast, my first published novel, was not my first novel. My first novel was called Whiz Kid and was set in 1950 during the remarkable run of the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series. It is too long (120,000 words), amateurish, has poor pacing, and has both over-developed and under-developed characters, it’s full of point of view shifts and it contains numerous technical errors. I still think it’s a good story and maybe someday I’ll return to it, but it’s not worth publishing or even trying to get it published in its current form. I spent over one year working on it. As writers say, after that I “stuck it in the drawer.”
Related to this is the question of should I get an agent, go directly to a publisher, or self-publish? A remarkable number of people are writing novels and submitting the manuscripts to agents. Getting an agent is very competitive and it is daunting to get an agent. Some claim to receive literally hundreds of manuscripts every week and probably take on no more than a small handful of new writers every year. Do the math. Still, you should submit to agents to go through the process and see if you might get lucky or get feedback (which is a rare occurrence).
I was fortunate to find an independent publisher (Headline Books, the 2018 Independent Publisher of the Year) so I was able to skip the agent. Independent publishers are called “Indies” or “small press” to distinguish them from the big guys, like Penguin, Hachette, Harper, and Macmillan. The big publishing houses will consider you only if you go through an agent. If you do go directly to a publisher, do not go to the “vanity press,” where they will charge you to publish your book.
Self-publication is an option, particularly if you want instant gratification. Amazon provides an easy platform (Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP) for publication and sale so that you can publish a book within a matter of days (really) of finishing the manuscript. There are other companies that will assist you to self-publish, like KOBO and Smashwords. Keep in mind, however, all of the editing, proofreading, cover art, and all of the other technical details will be on you (the author can hire someone to do some or all of this for him or her). Also, Amazon (KDP) does some marketing for you but for the most part you will be responsible to market your book. As a way of striking back at Amazon, some brick and mortar retailers will not touch a book published by KDP or another Amazon imprint. Also, because there ae so many self-published books (the current estimate for self-published books is 350,000 titles per year), some retailers refuse to carry them.
So yes, you can self-publish. Ponder for a moment how your self-published book will find its way into the hands of your readers. That will be entirely on you. There are many resources to help, but it is not as easy as clicking on your mouse and waiting for the royalties to roll in.
Those are my ten tips or thoughts on writing a novel. I’m sure I could write another hundred. If you are really interested in writing a book, there are several terrific books and shorter works you should read. As a starting point, try Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, or Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. There are many webinars and other programs that are also worth reviewing before you begin writing.
The very best thing you can do, however, is to write. Stop thinking about it and talking about it. Sit down and write something.