Back in my younger, more naiive days, I used to imagine what life might be like if I ever got to be a professional novelist. People would come up to me at cocktail parties–because writers always get invited to cocktail parties–and ask me what I did. And naturally, I would awe them with my answer. “You mean you’re that Marc Giller?” they would gasp, and proceed to make a fuss–all while I tut-tutted and assured them it was really no big deal, even though I secretly enjoyed the attention.
Sigh. Well, it’s a nice fantasy.
Reality is a little more down to Earth. Most people seem to believe that if you’ve published a novel or two, you must be rich–but the truth is that very few writers have that kind of name-brand recognition, and not many more can afford to make a full-time living doing it. The same goes for the writing process itself. There’s a fine scene in the movie Something’s Gotta Give where Diane Keaton, inspired by her affair with Jack Nicholson, is writing a play about her experiences, swaying over her PowerBook and consumed with laughter and tears: so moved is she by the power of her own prose. I always chuckle at that–and not just because it’s never happened to me over the course of ten novels.
It’s just the fantasy. It’s not the real thing.
But like Billy Joel once said, sometimes a fantasy is all you need. If it gets you started on that novel you’ve had creeping around in your head for a while, so much the better. Eventually, though, that fantasy is going to give way to the day-to-day drudgery that is writing a book–and it is work, friends and neighbors. Like taking out the trash or picking up dog poo in the back yard, it’s a chore–but unlike those aforementioned tasks, it’s also an immense pleasure. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you type that last word, print the pages out and then stare at your manuscript for the first time. You’re an author now, baby. All you need is a cocktail party to go to.
However, you need to finish that novel first–and that ain’t exactly an easy thing to do. Temptations beckon you away from writing. Confidence comes and goes. And the idea that seemed so great in Chapter 1 might wear pretty damn thin by Chapter 4. Some days it’s like you’re Indiana Jones, exploring some cave where sudden death awaits around every corner. Lots of manuscripts have hit the porcelain highway under such circumstances, never to be seen again.
If you’re brave enough to challenge those odds, though, here are a couple of tips to get you through the tough times. You’ll find that with a little bit of persistence–and a lot of chutzpah–you just might have what it takes to join this crazy little club of ours.
To Outline or Not to Outline: That is the Question
This is a toughie, because different writers have different approaches to stories. Me, I wrote my first three novels flying by the seat of my pants–no outlines, no synopsis, pretty much nothing but a cool title to start. It was only after I started pitching my stuff to publishing houses that I had to start writing out the storyline ahead of time, so editors would know what I had in mind for a proposed novel.
Now I know that some writers believe that outlines are the death of creativity. They would rather let the story flow organically and let the characters develop on their own. These writers also tend to hate, hate, HATE writing outlines, and so they look for any ways they can to avoid doing so. I can’t say I blame them–compared to writing prose, doing a bare-bones synopsis is kinda boring. On the other hand, if you’re like me and prone to allowing yourself to wander, having a basic outline as a guide can be a lifesaver.
Besides, it’s also helpful to know exactly where your story is headed. That way, you won’t get three-quarters of the way through and not know what the hell happens next.
The Horror of the Blank Page
There’s only one thing tougher than finishing a novel, and that’s getting one started. If you don’t believe me, try sitting down at your favorite computer (or typewriter, for you old-school types) and staring at an empty page–knowing full well that you need to fill it with words that somebody will actually want to read. Then imagine having to do the same thing, say 300 or 400 more times. Aside from self-flagellation, I can’t think of many more greater pains you might be able to inflict on yourself.
That’s why I recommend the Band-Aid approach: just tear it off and get it over with. It doesn’t matter whether your beginning is great or even good for that matter–just that it gives you a jumping point to get your story started. Chances are it’ll take you a hundred or so pages to find a rhythm for your book anyway, but you’ll never find it unless you get things going. Just keep in mind that you can change anything you want later on, so don’t sweat things too hard right off the bat.
The Editing Beast
There’s an overwhelming urge to think that everything you’ve written is total crap, which leads to another urge: to edit as you go along. Admittedly, I have fallen prey to this habit myself–which is why I find it much harder to crank things out compared to those days in college when I could easily do better than 50 pages a week. Now a certain amount of editing on the fly is natural, and even desirable–but only if you can keep the beast in its cage. If you let things get out of control, however, it can slow you down to such a crawl than you’ll never get that first draft done.
Your best approach is to just do a little nipping and tucking as you go, but to leave the big stuff for your first run-through after you’re finished. Your first impressions are usually the best, even if they’re rough around the edges–so just go with the narrative flow until the end, and then–and only then–whip out the red pencil and hack away.
Beware Writer’s Fatigue
A novel is a long commitment–longer than most Hollywood marriages. And like a marriage, you’re going to hit some rough spots along the way. There will probably be days when you asking yourself what you’re doing this for–after all, the odds of getting published are slimmer than slim, so what’s the point?
I’ve found that most aspiring writers hit this point around 300 pages in, when the end is in sight–and that’s precisely the problem. Believe it or not, it’s often an easier proposition to keep tinkering away at a book rather than finishing it–because once it’s done, it’s done. You have to show it to other people. You have to get their opinions. And then there’s the whole business of sending it to agents and editors and waiting for the inevitable rejection slips. Even if you’re not thinking consciously of these things, subconsciously you could be sabotaging yourself–and the subconscious is where your creativity lies.
The best way to combat this is to take a step back from the work for a day or two. Not for too long, or you’ll risk losing momentum–but just long enough to take a little breather. Have a beer (or better yet, get someone to buy one for you) and regroup your forces, all while reassuring yourself that your story is the coolest ever know to man. Think about how relieved you’ll be when the novel is done. The rest should fall into place naturally.
Now get out there and write that novel!