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How to Write a Novel in a Year—3/20/2009 2:58:33 PM

by Bob Kruger

I just got my Norwescon panel schedule, and they put me in “Writing a Novel in a Year,” among other venues. The following will be essentially what I plan to say; hopefully they — and you — will find it useful.

First, I can’t tell you how to write a novel in a year. I can only relate how I did it. I say “did it" because I’ve only done it once. I finished my first book last year, so my authority here is not great. However, I’ve been trying to finish various novel-length projects for decades. I even took most of a year off in 1997, the year I attended Clarion West, to finish a book idea. I failed miserably even with a lot more time on my hands than I’ve had since. I did manage to finish a novella and a few stories that year and get a lot of editing done, but I should have finished the book. If I’d done then what I did this past year, I probably would have.

During my previous attempts at novel-length work, I followed common advice you’ll find all over the Web. "Pick a standard time and place to do your writing, preferably when your mental energy coincides with your free time — probably night or early morning. Outline your book. And write at least 300 words a day."

Well, didn’t work for me. This advice contained some of the right ingredients but missed some significant ones.

One thing I needed was to kick around an idea for years. If you’ve been struggling to complete your first novel — and why else would you be reading this? — you’ve probably got this well covered. I took a couple of disparate ideas that I’d had in my head for six or seven years and mashed them together.

Sometimes ideas take a very long time to mature. For the first few years I knew Lucius Shepard, I figured that he worked by cultivating a lot of ideas and cherrypicking the best ones, leaving the others to die. He’d tell me over lunch about something he was excited about, and then a month later, I’d ask how the idea was going, and he’d admit he was working on something else instead. It took about five years before I learned he did not in fact abandon old ideas. He revisited them, sometimes actually writing, sometimes just mulling them over, until one day he’d call me up and read the advanced draft of something he’d first told me about years before. After a decade, I became confident that every time he sprang a new idea on me, he’d eventually turn it into finished work.

I gleaned a few, provisional, lessons from his example. The biggest was that you may need to take the long view if you aspire to write good work, in terms of both laboring to perfect your craft and growing your ideas. You may have to stick an idea in your subconscious for a good long time, and you may need to accrete some more life experience before you can fully exploit it. Also, you need to keep ideas churning and have the confidence that even your time spent on the weaker ones — or those that seem weaker right now — is not wasted. If you’re committed to a lifetime of writing, don’t worry that the big idea you tried to write about last week, last year, or even last decade hasn’t yielded the story you hoped it would. Having said that, I suspect that most ideas should result in a story within a few years or you aren’t working hard enough. Lucius seems to germinate a few stories in a less than a year, many more over two to three years, and very few in a longer timespan.

So, armed with a basic idea, I spent about a month writing an outline, not a full-time month, just a month during which I kept the idea in my head on and off throughout the day and spent a few minutes in the evening writing notes and a rough synopsis. I was not mentally prepared to write a novel. I had a day job and family to attend to. Had it not been for Rob Furey at this point, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the novel any further.

Rob called me up and told me we were going to do Nanowrimo, a name assembled from the phrase “National Novel Writing Month" (which is a misnomer because it’s international). During November, the Nanowrimo organization hosts a challenge through their website for writers to finish 50,000 words of a novel. You create an account, get friends to join, and track each other’s progress.

My immediate impulse was to humor him until he shut up. It’s hard to take a name like “Nanowrimo" seriously, and, anyway, serious writers don’t need gimmicks to produce work. I’d turned down another friend just the year before who suggested we participate in a challenge to write a novel over a weekend. But whereas writing a novel in two days was completely ridiculous, one thousand seven hundred words a day was in the output range of working writers I knew, and was especially doable for just a month. I really wanted to finish a book, even if just a crappy one to prove I could do it, so I finally relented, and on November 1, 2007, I started Nanowrimo.

The first couple of days, I made my word count with a strong (and accurate) suspicion that what I was getting down wouldn’t make it into the final work. On the third day, I finally introduced the character I was most interested in, a character other than the viewpoint character, and exploring what she was about made it possible for me to finish out the month just over the 50K goal.

I was exhausted. During the week, I’d only found time to write between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., falling a few hundred words behind each night and having to make it up on weekends. With 50K behind me, I had some confidence that I could actually finish the book. The next month, I cut my pace by half, down from “grueling" to merely “challenging.” By the end of December, I had 75K. Now I really believed I would finish. In January, I added another 15K. February was rougher for some reason. I only managed 12, but I was around the 100K mark now, and that seemed like a significant milestone. I revisited my outline and fleshed it out for the remaining chapters of the book. I figured I was only 20 or 30K from being done.

I did another 20K in March. I began to see the end clearly. April was another 15K. Finally, on May 23rd, at 12:40 p.m. I put down the last line (and picked up a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard).

How did I manage it? Seasoned novelists may scoff, but the following I count as key to my being able to finish:

  1. I had a couple of ideas that I’d mulled over for years, and I had an rough outline. During the actual writing, the outline changed about 25% and even then supplied only about half of the actual plot points and characters. But it gave me an armature and helped keep me focused.
  2. I had a main character and a supporting character I was interested in. I rate this as extremely important. Your characters are the lenses through which the story is told. Every detail is picked to support their state of mind. I once believed in plot stories and character stories; it’s a weak and misleading distinction. Every story has a viewpoint, and that implies some sort of character. Even a story without actors like Bradbury’s “There Shall Come Soft Rains" has a character observing it, picking out details. If you don’t have a sense of your characters, you’ll have a hard time writing anything coherent. Moreover, developing your characters is an act of self-discovery. Your pretensions are laid bare as you try to really get in the head of a character and then realize that, of course, you’re getting into your own head, your own potentials, good and bad. This is the most exciting and disconcerting part of the whole exercise.
  3. I found some music I could write to. A friend, Tim Simon, introduced me to a Dutch Goth-metal band that had just the right emotional drive. I must have played it a hundred times. It takes some pretty overblown passionate music to affect me when I’m writing. I need to be able to tune out the music with my forebrain but still be able to take inspiration from it. Most music is either too strong or too mellow to help. What works for me probably won’t work for you. I’ve tried to write to other people’s magic writing music, and it didn’t help. Find your own.
  4. I hit a pace that enabled me to write just ahead of my internal editor. At a pace of 1,700 words in three hours, I did not have the luxury of editing as I went, not even a little bit. When I did succumb to editing “just a little bit,” it took me four hours, and my best lines were not the ones I wrote while editing. No one has a more vicious, nitpicky internal editor than I do. For over a dozen years before I transitioned into software, I made my living as an editor and technical writer. This experience was a big help in the rewrite but a handicap during the first draft. The main reason I slowed down considerably after the first 75K wasn’t that I spent less time at the computer but that I went back and reread some of my work from the day before and started editing it. I probably needed to do this at this stage in the writing, because I was becoming invested in its quality and needed to reassure myself that it wasn’t all complete crap and that the rewrite wasn’t going to be a hopeless chore, but it sure slowed me down.
  5. I observed the standard advice about having a regular time and place to write and an idea of an acceptable pace. After I finished the first draft, I took a week off and then began editing the book. In the rough draft, I didn’t even have it broken into chapters, just scenes. After I’d gotten half the book shaped up into what I now consider the true first draft, I began showing it to people. I’m glad I didn’t show them the rough draft. By August 2008, the first draft of 140,000 words was done, so all in all about ten months from outline to first draft.

Publication is a different consideration, of course. I’m gathering feedback and still undecided as to whether I want the book to be longer or shorter; I’ll probably send the book to an agent by the end of this summer, 2009. In the meantime, I’m working on the next one. . . .

If you want to share your own writing experiences or call bullshit on any of this, feel free. I promise to give you a prompt reply. I may refer to what you say in the panel and/or include here.