Over two years ago, I challenged myself to write a novel. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and was enamored with the idea that I could create a story with a plot, characters and setting.
Always a wannabe-creative type, I was stuck in that head space: reading a lot, enjoying certain writers and finding out how they wrote their stories. Then I’d buy Writer’s Digest magazine from time to time and surf on websites about writing. That’s when I found a podcast called Writing Excuses.
- Writing Excuses: “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”
Listening to Writing Excuses while working out at the gym motivated me to move beyond thinking about writing, and to actually start writing. The podcast is aimed at aspiring writers who are always finding excuses to avoid writing. By offering up fifteen minutes of motivational chatter, you feel a certain guilt about not turning on the laptop.
It was on Writing Excuses that I learned about NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, the annual worldwide grassroots effort that encourages people to write a novel in 30 days. So, I registered (no cost) and started writing. The month of November passed and I didn’t achieve the 50,000-word goal. Not even close. I tried again the next year, this time with a story outline prepared over the summer. The second time around, I achieved my goal. It felt good. Well … I almost achieved it. I wrote over 50,000 words, but it definitely was not a novel. Even so, I was hooked on fleshing out the new world I had created.
While participating in NaNoWriMo and listening to Writing Excuses, I learned one basic thing about writing a book. Success is only possible if you follow the AIC Method. Many amateur writers complain about this demanding procedure. It’s torture, they insist. Others believe in the AIC Method theoretically, including me, but have difficulty putting it into action. All professional novelists absolutely insist that AIC is the only way to go. It’s a simple, universal rule that must be followed. Just sit your Ass In Chair and write.
- Chuck Wendig‘s view on AIC
You know what. AIC works. And it works with just about any kind of chair. Personally, I prefer something slightly uncomfortable: kitchen chair or lawn chair. It only works with your ass, though… no one else’s.
Atmosphere, ambience, whatever you want to call it, is important for writing. If you’re going to sit on your ass for so long, it should be located in a supportive environment. I did most of my writing on the back deck in hot weather, which helped me a lot, given the setting of the novel. Also, I need focus… no noise. I think my brain has concentration issues. But I also like people to be around – but just not disturbing me. It’s a hard balance, because you may feel bad if you’re squirreled away from the rest of the world.
- Stephen King‘s view on solitude while writing
Some writers can just sit down and write a story from beginning to end. I can’t do that. I needed an outline — a beginning, middle and end. I wanted to incorporate my community into the novel … but the thought scared me, too. In the end, the basic premise for the novel came from a vacation. While on a dive trip on a Caribbean island, I thought, maybe a bunch of friends get caught up in a murder and end up risking life and limb.
So began the bulk of the process that took two years … figuring out the plot, creating a world half way between reality and fiction, developing a wide range of interesting characters, laying out the story on a calendar, researching everything from firearms to paper weights. It was fun — and distracting when I had writer’s block — to brainstorm about what kind of a car the love interest drove (an old Toyota Delica) or the drink my murder victim preferred (an Old Fashioned).
At this point, it also helped to tell a couple people what I was doing. “I’m working on a novel,” is all I’d say. I didn’t provide any more detail – none. As long as I knew they knew I was writing something, I couldn’t hide behind the secrecy of telling no one of my plans.
Eventually, the basic first draft of the story appeared on my laptop — all 220,000 words of it. The complexity of the thing was overwhelming, and I had to insert headings within chapters to keep track of the twists and turns of the story. Then, reluctantly but proudly, I asked three people close to me to give it a read. A few weeks later, we gathered in a friend’s basement rec room and my “Alpha Readers” told me what they thought. For the most part, it was positive – which you should expect from family and friends – because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
Around that time, I read Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, a self-help book for aspiring authors that is pretty dismissive about asking friends to read your work. I disagree. My readers were very frank about which characters stood out, what plot points were lost to them, and what they thought about my protagonist, and so much more. Their criticisms were very helpful, despite being shrouded in bubble wrap.
I recorded the suggestions of my readers and tried my best to tackle those issues head on. Meanwhile, from a technical perspective, I explored a few rabbit holes that were important to ensure the story was as believable as possible. A family vacation to the setting of my novel helped facilitate this. Ahead of the trip, I reached out to several people on the island, and a few responded. I set up appointments, and they generously met face-to-face and answered my questions. Then, through winter and spring, I hunkered down and cleaned up the second draft. Characters got melded together, names changed, and writing was tightened up. Setting goals was important (“I’ll have it done by Easter”; “I’ll have it done by Father’s Day”; “It will be done by Canada Day”…) and eventually I triumphed. Encouragement from those you love is very, very helpful, too. (Thanks Tracy for pushing me to keep at it, and for designing the cool book cover!)
The Way Forward
So, what now? My second draft is back in the hands of my readers, and I await their feedback. Others have expressed interest in reading the novel but, sorry, no. My goal now is to get it published, and then the others can buy it! I’ve decided against self-publishing so the search for an agent has begun. Yesterday, I sent out my first query, including bio, synopsis, and first ten pages of the novel. I expect a rejection eventually, but will keep shopping it around. In the meantime, I’ll continue to tinker with it, fix typos, and incorporate any feedback I receive. I’ve already started thinking what the next story will be.
So, what is your story? Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to many people who have the desire to write a novel. Everyone has a story to tell. It’s up to you to decide what it is. And then … get your ass in a chair and write.