How to Write A Novel: Step 1

14 Feb 2015

 

So, how do you write a novel?

 

This is a question that is asked by a lot of people I meet (online and in real life - or perhaps that should be online and in person, as online is real life for a lot of us introverted types).

 

It’s a great question, and one I’d like to answer, although they weren’t necessarily asking me at the time. I do, however, feel qualified to profess that I know enough to offer some advice in this area, and will regale you with my knowledge in what I hope will be an entertaining yet purposeful narrative.

 

Of course, there is always a disclaimer, and mine is that everyone is different and what has worked for me, might not be quite your cup of tea, or glass of bubbly, or whatever. I will include, therefore, some alternatives as I go through this series, where I can.

 

Right now, I’ll start with Step 1: which I think is universally accepted as being You Have to Want To.

 

For many, the immediate response to this would be, ‘well, duh’, and that is a good response, but there is more to this statement than would meet the eye.

 

You have to want to enough to persevere.

 

I will, if I may, start by illustrating my point with my own story.

 

Ever since I can remember, when anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said I wanted to be a writer. While others gave away their childhood dreams of being superheroes or astronauts or emperors of the world and started saying things like teachers and doctors and computer engineers, I still couldn’t think of anything that my teachers and vocational guidance officers could smile knowingly about and get down to the business of helping me get there.

 

One, in desperation, suggested journalism, but I was quite firm about not wanting to be a journalist because I really wasn’t interested in the news. And I thought that to be a journalist I might have to actually speak to people, which is not high on my list of things to do on purpose.

 

I was, as I said, quite firm. I wanted to be a writer of fiction. I wanted to make stories that took people on a journey to faraway places.

 

Oh, no, dear, they said. That’s just not practical.

 

Writers were special people, and only special people could be writers, and I, by implication, was not special.

 

In the meantime, I continued to annoy my teachers and friends with the often truly awful stories I insisted on writing at them. And reading continued to be my number one hobby and favourite pastime.

 

I wrote my first full length novel in my very early twenties, not long out from university, while staying at home being a full time mum to the first two of our three gorgeous children. It was supposed to be a humorous contemporary spy story set in Canberra, the beautiful bush capital of Australia. I researched publishers via my local bookshop, sent off my ms, received a devastating rejection, and went off to be a teacher instead.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I have loved teaching (even the talking to people on purpose bit), but underneath there was always this urge to write stuff. And have people read it. And hopefully quite like it and recommend it to their friends. Sort of thing.

 

Bit by bit, I gave in to this urge, but decided to be a bit more strategic about things. I enrolled in a distance course, all about writing novels.

 

I didn’t finish the course, partly because I moved house towards the end of it and started a new job, and partly because the last module required me to read and critique a book I just plain didn’t like.

 

I did, however, learn things.

 

And so, slowly, I started again.

 

This, by the way, was in the prehistoric times before the Internet.

 

I also re- read my first novel. And buried it. It was... not good... and fully deserved the rejection it received. Which, in retrospect, was not a devastating rejection at all. Well, I was devastated, but the rejection was a perfectly civil one sentence form response thanking me for my submission and regretting that my story was not suitable for their list.

 

I now have many of these and no longer take them personally.

 

I now know that publishers receive untold amounts of hopeful wordage and cannot reply to each and every one individually. In fact, these days you are lucky to receive a rejection at all.

 

I am thrilled that amongst the large collection of rejections that I have saved in my manuscript tracking folder I have some gems where I have been offered critical feedback and encouragement, and even been invited to submit further work.

 

I have also been validated by publication of short stories and articles in magazines and anthologies, success in competitions, and soon to be unleashed on the world is my very own children’s book.

 

To have got here, I must have really wanted to, because otherwise that first rejection would also have been my last. I will not tell you how many years have flown by since then, nor how many words I have written.

 

Of course, you may be saying, that is because I lack talent, and I won’t argue with that, but I will say, that the course of my career in writing is reflected in that of most writers. Yes, there are some who leap to fame, seemingly overnight, but I bet if they were honest there would have been a long apprenticeship of some sort for many of them, too. And for those who didn’t necessarily serve a long apprenticeship (true, JK had thirteen rejections before Mr Potter hit centre stage, but, hey, what is thirteen in the grand scheme of things? and I do believe that Ms Meyer has stated that she doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, publication is easy), they are in the minority.

 

If you just woke up this morning and thought for the first time, hey, I might write a novel, then there is nothing to stop you. You don’t have to be a tragic like me. You just have to know that you want to enough to persevere.

 

Of course, you might be an overnight success, and I truly wish you well, but if not, you are going to have to keep on wanting to write that novel, again and again and again, every morning.

 

Whether or not you go by the traditional route or choose to self-publish.

 

Despite everything.

 

 

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