I recently came across the following quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I find it reassuring that such a prolific writer, with twenty novels and hundreds of essays, short stories, travel books and other works to his name, should have confessed to struggling to define the magical formula for writerly success, despite his achievements in this field.
When I write, I try not to think of the rules. All writers know the basic ones. Plot. Character. Convincing dialogue. Yes, yes, yes. But, once we feel confident of having mastered these basics, what do we do with them? How do we transform the enormous, perfectly formed but almost indefinable idea for a book which is in our head into a coherent narrative, and maintain it over tens of thousands of words? In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King likens the unwritten story to a fossil which the author must slowly and gently tease from the soil’s grasp, brushstroke by agonising brushstroke. But even King admits to not fully understanding what makes good fiction work, including his own.
If I were to pick my own three rules for writing, based upon personal experience – and assuming that the usual rules involving plot, character and other technical matters have been taken as understood – they would be the following:
1. Just Get On With It
Day-dreaming about writing, and talking about writing, are not writing. Yes, getting those initial words on paper can be excruciating. You may struggle to form basic sentences, or you may go off on a 5000-word tangent which, while great jinks at the time, does not advance the narrative of your novel one iota. And yes, some of the stuff you read back to yourself will be cringeworthily bad. But that doesn’t matter. Truly. As American author Shannon Hale puts it in one of my all-time favourite writing quotes, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”
It is reassuring to remember that while you are in the process of getting the tumult of ideas down onto paper or screen during the first draft process, it is okay to write bad prose, as long as you are writing something. It is far easier to edit a whole lot of mangled writing than it is to edit nothing at all, because you spent three hours trying to find the perfect word for ‘nice’. Just put down nice and move on. There will be plenty of time for theasaurus-browsing later on, but with nice down on paper you will be halfway towards success. And success, as we all know, means Getting The Job Done. Because while there are plenty of fairly average books out there in print, no publisher is going to be interested in a half-finished novel, no matter how felicitous, copacetic, or pulchritudinous it may be.
2. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Don’t promise yourself that you will finish your novel in a month, or six months, or even a year. When the deadline rolls around and you’re nowhere near completion, you will feel disheartened. Similarily, don’t go all gung-ho on yourself and commit to putting down 5000 words a day – not at first, anyway. 5000 words is a lot. Heck, it’s longer than most of the short stories I have written. 1000 words is a perfectly decent amount to get you started, and if you can write 1000 words – be they good, bad or plain ugly – every day, five days a week, in a year you will have 260,000 words. Of course, you probably won’t, because 260,000 words would give you a novel over 800 pages long to edit, and therein madness lies (besides, novels of this length are generally considered by publishers as being comercially unviable). However, it does mean you will have a 65,000 word first draft completed in three months, leaving you the rest of the year to try and shape that sand mound into a castle through subsequent drafting.
My own, personal novel writing goal for when I get back to writing following maternity leave will be to write 500 words per day, five days per week. 500 words is nothing, less than half the length of this blog post. It took me half an hour to thump out the first 500 words of the first draft of this post (please bear in mind that polishing that lumpen prose took a lot, lot longer, but worry about the editing later, once the sand has been piled up). And yet, if I write 500 words per day, five days per week, I will have the second draft of my poor, neglected opus completed within six months. Peasy!
Furthermore, since my overall weekly goal is only 2500 words per week, I can easily miss a day and catch up later, without falling short of my overall target and becoming disheartened. Small, realistic goals are much more likely to be achieved consistently, which will give you the confidence to return to the keyboard (or the notepad or the papyrus, or whatever) tomorrow. All music to the ears of this soon-to-be mother of two-under-two.
3. Enter the Zen zone
The Zen zone is where the magic happens – where your characters comes alive and begin to lead you on a journey of their own choosing, rather than you doggedly trying to force them to follow a strict plotline mapped out in your head. The Zen zone is a beautiful, liberating place to write from, and it took me years before I learned to let go of my right-brained, ‘on-the-surface’ writing and allow myself to enter that mysterious place where time appears to stop and I am no longer at my desk, but instead running breathlessly alongside my characters as they take me on unexpected pathways through the stormy narrative of their lives. It is a feeling mildly akin to becoming lost in the reading of a fantastic story, but oh, so much better.
This may seem paradoxical coming after what I wrote above about how torturous spitting those initial words out of your brain onto paper or screen can be. But writing is only hard work when you try to force it (or when you are editing, but that’s a whole other matter). And if everything I’ve written still makes no sense to you, well, never mind. As W. Somerset Maugham said, nobody knows the rules. If they did, then we’d have computers writing novels by now. It really is just a matter of planting yourself behind your desk and having the determination to stay there until you have produced a work you are proud of. Which is, ultimately, what the whole gig’s all about.