A Few Things You Should Know Before You Write Your First Novel
Five years ago, I sat down to write my first book. For what it’s worth, I didn’t think it would take five years. I didn’t even think it would take one. Three novels later, all in varied stages of completion, I’m happy to say my current book is safely on its way to the shelf.
I even like it a little. That said, the whole thing hurt a great deal more than it should have. If I could go back in time and give myself a few pieces of advice before starting the process, they would be this:
1. You Haven’t Read Enough
In the same way aesthetic sense naturally improves after a visit to an art gallery, your sense of story improves each time you make it out of a book, cover-to-cover. In my experience, learning happens through osmosis, not intellectualization or memorization of rules. Anyone truly exceptional in any field works on an automatic level-- flow, I think, is what they call it. So, absorb what you want to produce. Take time to read, six months to a year. You’ll save yourself five. If this is the only advice you follow, you’re already -- ready -- “standing on the shoulders of giants” (thanks, Newton).
2. You will be Lonely
You’ll write the best line in the world for a silent room. No laughter, no applause. You’ll doubt everything, even the good stuff. Each day will be full of small victories you can’t share. The only question anyone can ask is how far along you are. After traveling to the bounds of your capacities to bring back samples of the human soul, this question will seem cruel. For months, you’ll politely tell these people more or less the same thing: you’re working on it, it’s pouring out of you, it’s always almost done.
What’s more, you’re a writer -- you’ll start making a long series of connections between your work and the world outside. You have jokes to make, comments for your friends, if only they knew what you were talking about. You seem dead on the outside, but internally you’re very much alive. You will reach the limits of your abilities time and again. For a while, there will be no one to help you. But see, it’s your story. You’re obligated to see it through. You’re also obsessed with it -- it’s a redundant, perfectionistic, unproductive kind of obsession.
But let me tell you. If you make it to the other end of the tunnel, and if you write with a deep respect for the story you are telling and the people that read you, the opposite of loneliness will be waiting for you there.
3. You will Learn a Lot
Unfortunately, writing isn’t a skill of the mind, but of the heart. Sure, that’s a tacky notion, but it is fundamentally true. No matter how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of a story. But, you can figure out what you think. You’re going to have to break open the lowest boxes of your mind. You’re going to feel at risk. You’ll probably withdraw from the world, and be fine with it. You’ll be forced to question your fundamental beliefs, about yourself, about society as a whole. You might not like the conclusions you come to.
You’ll wonder about answers, solutions. If you invent enough characters, you might get the unshakable feeling that your personality doesn’t really exist. You’ll develop a deep appreciation for the slivers of beauty in the world, as well as a fascination with their polar counterparts. Your paradigm of black and white will shift away from the commercialized norm, isolating you from everybody else. At least, until you make it far enough along the road of epiphanies to realize they’re just the same as you.
You still won’t behave the same way. Things you used to accept as ordinary will now strike you as inhumane or at least peculiar, and no one else will feel exactly the same or understand the origin of these feelings. You’ll feel more than you used to. Your sensitivity will increase dramatically. You won’t be sure how to explain.
This, I think, is why Ray Bradbury called himself a madman. But at the end of the day, the more you understand yourself, the more you come to realize how ordinary you are.
4. Read Zen and The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Let me tell you a story: during the summer of my freshman-sophomore year in college, I had a habit of wandering through bookstores, picking what I liked, sitting down in the aisle, reading the book, putting it back, and walking out. Since I was still lost in the trenches of a manuscript, one of my favorite sections to exploit was the writing section -- writing about writing.
About half way through the summer, I got the feeling I would never make out of any book at all. I thought I might have to move to some very secluded place with an extraordinarily difficult, bland language and no internet connection and stay there until the story was done (alas, that wasn’t a joke). That was the same day I noticed Bradbury’s name on the bottom shelf. After reading a page of Zen and the Art of Writing, I immediately bought the book. I wanted this one. I sat down on the Esplanade by the Charles River and cruised through his essays in under an hour. Then, I went back home to write. The rest was just a matter of putting words down on a page. Six months later, I finally had a full-length first draft.
That said, the only other book that launched me off like that was Stephen King’s On Writing. That one’s also fundamental, at least to me. I can’t yet write freely, but Stephen always could.
5. It will take longer than you think
Not a month, or two months, or three months, if you want to write something good. Your first book will take at least a year to write, and probably another six months to a year to get into the light of day. That’s about two years total. And this is the short time frame, if you work every day. Now, I know there are varied personality types out there, and some writers are very prolific and write very fast.
But in my experience, the modern writer is more calculated. Modern books require careful plotting and rearranging, multiple edits, thematic overturns, careful design. Attention spans are shorter. It’s difficult to write something that breaks through to people, and friends, people are who books are for. You’ve got to have an equal balance of depth and engagement, the qualities that make the story both significant and a joy to read. The world has seen more than enough thoughtless stories. Take the time to give it your best shot.
6. The Reason You’re Good is the Reason You can’t Handle It
All the things that make for a good writer, also make for a highly anxious, generally sensitive individual. I won’t go in depth with this one, but you know your weaknesses -- remember, in reverse, those are your strengths. Or maybe it’s just me.
7. It Will Be Worth It
I mentioned this before. Working on a book is like self-development in a tank. A free psychotherapist. You might even get paid. Few things provide an equal level of clarity in such a short period of time. You might not see the point at first. You might not even see it for a while. But if you felt the point earlier on, you must’ve seen it somewhere out there in the world. The intellectualized explanation will come to you eventually. You’ve just gotta make it through.
I didn’t write this to discourage anyone, but rather, to encourage you. Knowing these things and accepting them from the start will save you a great deal of trouble. Set your hopes aside, keep your head down, and work until it’s finished. That said, I’m only speaking from my experience. Maybe you’ll have an easier time of it.
Happy writing, my friends.
P.S. If I could actually go back in time, I’d probably give myself the book. For convenience reasons. I don’t want to talk about it, but getting it there was more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. The second time around, I might not even have to think about it.