About a year ago, I wrote a blog entitled Getting Your Screenplay Done. People found it helpful, so I thought I would write a similar blog about getting your novel done. This may be useful to you whether you are writing your first novel or you’re a veteran writer who is experiencing writer’s block and/or a lack of motivation with your current work in progress.
I recently wrote a novel in about two months and I did this during a period of time when I felt extremely burnt out as a writer and also when I had a bad wrist that made it difficult to type. Looking back on it, I’m not sure how I pulled this off, but I did. There were many moments when I thought I was going to quit, but I somehow managed to move forward.
Ok, when I say that I wrote this novel in “two months,” I feel like this statement should be made with a couple of asterisks next to it. First of all, the novel is not overly long. It’s about 60,000 words, so we’re not talking Stephen-King-length here, but we ARE talking about a novel that is 10,000 words longer than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is about 48,000 words, but who’s counting? Second of all, when I say I wrote the novel in two months, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I first wrote a screenplay version of the story that itself took me about two months to write. I never would have written the novel so quickly had I not written the screenplay first and I’ll explain why that is in a moment. All in all, I guess it would be more accurate for me to say it took me about four months to write the novel.
How did I do it? In the words of the wealthy industrialist John Hammond after he’s asked by Dr. Grant how he created Jurassic Park:
“I’ll show you.”
The best way to ensure that you’ll be successful in getting your novel completed and in a timely manner is if you start with an extremely detailed game plan. For some people, this game plan may come in the form of a very detailed outline (to learn about my outlining process, refer to my previous blog Getting Your Screenplay Done). As for myself, I find that the best way to write a novel is if I take things a step further and write the story as a screenplay first. The screenplay not only is great to have in case you want to turn your story into a movie someday, but it also ends up functioning as an incredibly detailed (super-detailed, really) outline for your novel. With a screenplay completed, you will have the structure of your story all worked out ahead of time. You’ll also have a bunch of dialogue all written as well.
Whether you prefer writing an outline or writing a full screenplay like myself, you will find that it’s so much easier sitting on your ass and beginning the writing of your novel when you have a good solid roadmap navigating you through the novel-writing process. I’m sure some novelists out there simply sit on their bee-hinds and start typing with no game plan whatsoever and, who knows, many of them possibly end up writing a masterpiece, but if you’re reading this right now you are likely not one of those writers. You do not want to begin writing your novel without some solid, extremely well-thought-out game plan because, trust me, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure.
Once you have a good solid game plan, whether in the form of an outline or a screenplay, the next step is to sit on your ass and begin writing. You will feel extremely overwhelmed knowing that a modest novel is about 300 pages and around 60-80,000 words, give or take, and you have yet to write a single word. But you must put yourself into the proper mindset. Your goal right now is not to write the entire novel, because that will feel overwhelming and, when you’re overwhelmed, you have the desire to quit before you even start. No, your goal should be to write the first ten pages of your novel. That’s it. First ten. No more. No less. Ok, maybe a few more pages if, say, your first chapter ends on page 13, but you get what I’m saying.
After you’ve finished the first ten pages, edit what you have written so far and make them look as nice as reasonably possible. While you’re doing this, you are working certain things out in your head that you want to work out before you proceed with the rest of the novel. This is kind of like your “trial period” where you determine whether your story will actually work as a novel. As you go over the ten pages, you will get a feel for whether you have enough material to fill approximately 300 pages of a book. You will also get a feel for how the story should be told, whether in the first-person point of view (think Great Gatsby, told from the perspective of Nick Carraway), third-person omniscient POV (where the narrator has access to every character’s thoughts), limited third-person omniscient POV (where the narrator has access to a single character’s thoughts), second-person POV (think Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City) and also whether you should be telling the story in the past tense, present tense etc. Nine times out of ten you’re going to realize you do, indeed, have enough material for a novel and, once you go over those first ten pages a few times, you are likely going to feel energized and excited about continuing with the novel-writing process. In short, seeing the first ten pages come together puts to rest any doubts you may have had about whether writing the novel was a good idea. If the first ten pages are garbage, which, again, will only happen one-out-of-ten times, then put the novel to rest. But nine times out of ten, you will be pleased with the first ten pages and subsequently feel more confident about what you are doing.
Once the ten-page trial period is over, what you want to do is come up with a writing schedule. In my Getting Your Screenplay Done blog, I suggest that you be on a ten-page-a-day writing schedule, but I think ten pages a day when writing a novel is extreme. I would say five pages a day is more reasonable. Depending on how busy your life is, you may have to do three or two pages a day. Or maybe only writing on the weekend works best … say, 25 pages per weekend? Whatever you come up with, it’s important you stick to the schedule no matter what. Sure you can take a day off here and there, but the more you stray from the schedule, the more likely it is that you’ll lose your writing momentum and losing your writing momentum greatly increases the chances of you throwing in the towel altogether.
So let’s say your writing schedule is five pages a day. If you keep that schedule up, you can have a novel of reasonable length completed in about two months. Will you take days off here and there? Sure, but a 60-80,000-word novel could be all done in two-month’s-time if you adhere to the schedule and it is so much easier to stick to said schedule when you have a good solid game plan and, remember, you do have a good solid game plan because you’re working off of an extremely detailed outline or even a straight-up screenplay. See how this is all coming together?
Now, this next step is optional, but what I did for my most recent novel is I stopped every 20 pages, give or take, and went over what I had written so far. I mainly did this out of necessity, since, as I mentioned before, I was typing with a bad wrist, so I could only type so much before I NEEDED to give my wrist a break. There is a voice-to-text feature on my computer, but I find voice-to-text awkward and annoying because it doesn’t get all the words right and you usually have to immediately edit all the text as you go. I did use the feature here and there, but I mostly tried to type manually for as long as my wrist could handle.
Anyway, yes, about every 20 pages or so (or until my wrist started hurting) I stopped, went back and rewrote everything I had written so far. I of course still needed to use my wrist for this, but rewriting and editing isn’t as hard on the wrist as straight-up writing in the raw, so it was one way I could give my wrist a rest but also remain productive at the same time. I wanted to make sure I kept moving forward with the project no matter what.
Although I did this rewriting out of necessity (i.e. to give my wrist a rest), I still found that stopping to rewrite after every 20 pages or so was very helpful. I usually found myself saying, “Hey, look, those 20 pages turned out much better than I would have thought,” and this encouraged me to keep moving forward with the novel. Basically, every 20 pages, I was reassured that writing the novel was a good idea and not a complete waste of time.
So would I recommend you doing this as well, even if your wrist is in fine shape and don’t need to rest it every 20 pages?
On one hand, yes, I would recommend doing it, especially if you get to a point in the writing process where you fear that what you’re writing is terrible. Once you go back and clean up/re-write what you have written so far, the writing will inevitably get better and you’ll feel more confident in moving forward.
On the other hand, you may simply be better off not stopping and going back to clean up your writing until you get to the very end of your first rough draft. Why? Because there is the distinct possibility that you stopping may kill … yes, that’s right … your writing momentum and that’s the last thing you want to do. I remember that when I wrote my first novel way back in 2009, I went full speed ahead all the way to the finish line and never once went back to clean up what I had written. I was so afraid that, if I stopped, even to rewrite, I would screw up my pace, kill my momentum and somehow convince myself to stop writing the novel. I didn’t even want to give those doubting voices in my head a chance to get the better of me. I just wanted to get the rough draft done, as quickly as possible, even if what I was writing was a mess. I knew editing later on down the road would take a lot less self-discipline than what was needed to get an initial rough draft completed.
So, again, rewriting as you go is optional. If you’re afraid that it will kill your momentum, which I think is a very real possibility, then just keep going, man, and don’t look back until you get to the finish line.
At this juncture, I feel it’s important to mention that, around the halfway point of writing your novel—that is, around the 150-page area or so—you will more than likely start running out of steam. You’re going to burn-out bigtime, baby. I think it’s pretty much unavoidable. Most people will see this as a sign that you need to take a break and, although this might be a good idea in order to recharge, I would recommend against doing this. The problem is that, if you take a break, you will kill the aforementioned writing momentum and once that is killed, there is a very good chance you’ll call it quits and never go back to the novel. What I suggest doing instead is shifting gears into a different writing-mode, one that is extremely bare-bones. What I mean is that all you should worry about from this point forward is getting the bare bones of your novel down on paper. And I’m talking as bare as it gets. Imagine that you’re running the Boston Marathon and you’ve run strong and at a great pace during the majority of the race, but now you’re on your last couple of miles. You’re completely gassed out, but you’ve come too far to simply give up. What you need to do is shift gears into a half-assed-looking jog in order to get yourself over the finish line. If you’ve ever run in or watched the Boston Marathon, you know what this looks like. We’ve all seen the gassed-out runners doing the limp-legged, bare-minimum jog down Boylston Street in order to finish the race. This is what you should be doing in order to complete your novel: do a sorry-looking, limp-legged, bare-bones-minimum jog over the finish line. Don’t worry about fleshing everything out. Just stay the course, get those bones down onto paper and do whatever it takes to get yourself over that finish line.
In the case of my most recent novel, I got to a point somewhere between the halfway point and the three-quarters point where I felt I was running out of gas. I was going to stop. In fact, I was literally saying to myself, “This isn’t happening. It’s not meant to be.” I was pretty sure the novel was terrible, but I wasn’t going to be completely sure until I had gone the distance with it. Also, I had already come so far. It would be a shame to throw in the towel after writing 150-plus pages. So, what I decided to do was not worry about the writing being perfect. Just get the barest of all bare bones down on paper. And then worry about fleshing everything out later when I had the rough draft completed.
Well, my plan worked. Not only did I end up getting the draft done, but when I read over what I had written, I was shocked to see that, although it was by no means perfect, my first rough draft ended up being waaaaay better than I thought it would when I had my … well, let’s call it a mid-novel crisis. I’ll put it to you this way: I was extremely glad that I hadn’t stopped writing the novel when I had my ‘crisis’ and wanted to stop.
Using the Boston Marathon analogy again, the mid-novel crisis is tantamount to getting to Heartbreak Hill. It’s the point when things get extremely rough, but if you’re able to persevere, you will be able to get to the finish line on schedule, somewhere around the two or three-month mark. Victory!
Once your draft is done, you can take a deep breath because the hardest part is definitely behind you. Sure, you have to go back and flesh everything out, especially the parts where you were writing in “bare bones mode,” but I find it’s much easier to go back and do that when you already have a draft done.
When it comes to rewriting and fleshing everything out, I would recommend going chapter-by chapter. I usually start with chapter one, go over it several times until it’s looking as great as possible and then move on to chapter 2 and do the same thing, then chapter 3 etc. I basically treat each chapter almost like a separate short story unto itself that I need to make as perfect as possible until I move on to the next. I find that I feel less overwhelmed when I do the rewriting of the novel in this manner because I feel a sense of accomplishment after rewriting each chapter, almost as though I’m completing multiple short stories in an anthology.
While I usually start at the very first chapter in the rewriting process, with my latest novel I actually started at the midpoint area, so at around page 150 or so. I did this because I knew the first half of the novel was in much better shape than the second half. I knew that most of the second half of my novel was written in bare-bones-mode after my mid-novel crisis and would need the most work. So I rewrote from the middle to the end and then went back to the beginning and rewrote all the way until the end. This way, the second half of the book that was written in bare-bones-mode went through two solid rewriting phases. By the end of it all, the bare bones were no longer bare. They were nice and fleshed out.
When I’m done with this rewriting process, I like to then read the entire draft out loud to myself. Reading your work out loud is essential. I don’t care if you’re the best writer in the world. You can’t get a good proper feel for the rhythm of your writing until you read it out loud. You also will pick up on words or phrases you use too often, such as ‘very’, ‘just’, ‘really’, ‘sort of’, ‘kind of’, ‘some’, ‘pretty’, ‘but’, ‘a little’, ‘a bit’, ‘starts to’ and ‘however’. Trust me, reading the work aloud is a game changer. To use a Spinal Tap reference, your writing might be a ten, but reading your writing aloud to yourself will bring it up to an 11.
My Microsoft Word software has a “Read Aloud” feature on it and I find this tool extremely helpful. However, I still read the work aloud to myself since there are issues with my writing I only pick up on when I myself read it out loud. Ideally, it’s good to do both: have your work read aloud to you by the computer and also read it aloud to yourself. For more tips about making your writing as great as possible (i.e. taking your writing “to an 11”), read my blog Making Your Good Writing Great.
All right, I think that’s all the novel-writing wisdom I want to impart to you right now. Everything I’ve said so far in this article is not a full-proof way to successfully get a novel completed. You may ignore some parts of my advice and heed others. Some of my suggestions may work for you while others don’t, but I feel that there will be at least some useful takeaways for you here, however small or large.
Overall, I think that the most important thing to remember is to keep moving no matter what. There are little devils lurking in the wings, patiently waiting for you to stop to take a sizeable break (i.e. more than a few days break) and they seize this opportunity to pounce and convince you that your writing is no good and it’s best to stop. Don’t let this happen. Don’t break the momentum. Don’t ever stop. Taking a break to recharge your battery and get a fresh perspective on your writing is definitely a good idea, but I personally would recommend you don’t do this until you have a first draft completed and that means after you’ve gone through every step I’ve mentioned in this article. Ok, if you MUST take a break between the bare bones rough draft phase and rewriting phase, then so be it—that’s probably the safest time to take a break if you need one—but otherwise I think you should keep moving until you have a draft complete that is edited, rewritten and fleshed out. Once you have that draft done, I would actually say that it’s essential to take a break, get away from the work a while so you can recharge and get a fresh perspective on your writing.
MATT BURNS is the author of several novels, including Weird Monster, Supermarket Zombies!and Johnny Cruise. He’s also written numerous memoirs, including GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films, MY RAGING CASE OF BEASTIE FEVER, JUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES and I TURNED INTO A MISFIT! Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
Other writing-related articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
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A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)
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I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)