“Everyone says they want to write a novel,” my undergraduate mentor told me once over coffee, “but what most people want is to have written a novel.”
I didn’t really understand or believe this until I published my first novel, Nantais. It’s a space opera that also deals with the perils of neurodivergent communication, but not many people even asked what it was about.
What most folks expressed was envy: “Wow, I’ve always wanted to write a book!” And what stood out about that response was that I never heard it even once while I was in the process of writing the book.
The first draft of Nantais took me ten months to complete. During that ten months, what most of the world thought I had was “a tedious delusion,” as Marge Piercy put it.
If you’ve been Googling “How do I write a novel?”, chances are that you too are more interested in writing than in having written – or, at least, you’re starting to realize that in order to have written, you need to write.
Writing is a deeply personal thing. My method may or may not work for you. But here’s how I did it.
Steps Zero, Zero, and Zero: I Practiced, I Thought, I Learned
I decided I wanted to be a writer at the ripe old age of 7 years. Since writers write, my second-grade brain reasoned, and since I was now a writer, I would write too.
I haven’t stopped since.
I published my first poem at 17, my first essay at 18, and my first short story at 21. At age 27, I decided to try making a full-time living at writing – something not a lot of writers ever accomplish. My first novel came out when I was 34.
Between 7 and 34, I wrote something every single day. Since age 7, I’ve been getting feedback on my writing almost every day: from teachers, friends, editors, and audiences.
When I finally decided to sit down and write Nantais, very little of the book came out of nowhere. Nirala has existed in my head in some form since I was about 9 years old.
It’s changed a lot since then. But I’ve been thinking about it off and on, and writing about it off and on, for years.
Where do writers get their ideas? Literally everywhere. Ideas are cheap as free, and they’re worth about as much until you start writing them down.
Step One: I Got Organized
You may have noticed a pretty big age gap up above. I started submitting works to publishers at age 17, but my novel wouldn’t come out for 17 years after that – another entire lifetime for my high school age self. What’s up with that?
The number-one problem for me was getting organized and focused. A big part of that was the fact that I had untreated (and undiagnosed) ADHD – but it also had to do with having to build a writing system and routine from scratch.
The basics of my current routine are so laughably simple, I’m almost embarrassed to admit they took me 17 years to figure out. They are:
- A notebook. I write in single-subject college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks. I buy them for about 25 cents each during back to school season, when they’re heavily discounted.
- A pen. The writing utensil isn’t a big deal for some writers, but it’s a huge one for me. The tactile experience is a big part of why I write every day. I buy Pilot Precise V5 roller ball pens by the dozen.
- Some space. The desk from my childhood bedroom now lives in our spare bedroom. It has one job: it’s where I write.
- Time. The bulk of that 17 years was spent learning how to give myself permission to take the time writing requires – not just to put words on paper, but to think and plan, as well. Boredom is a huge asset to my writing: so much so that I took up running, which I find mind-numbing, just to ensure I had enough boredom to drive my creative mind.
So far, so good. What to do with these things?
Step Two: I Made a Plan
I am terrible at outlining, so I use various tools for it. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!was a lifesaver for me in the planning process, as were John Truby’s 22 Plot Building Blocks (especially since I, like many Snyder fans, did not initially realize the “Finale” is a five-step process).
A good outline is the cure for writer’s block. With enough planning, I can go anywhere, because I know exactly what comes next the moment I sit down at my desk. It also works for any genre: action/thriller, romance, YA, horror, mystery, you name it.
Though you only see slivers of it in Nantais, the world in which the book is set is absolutely enormous – additional parts of it appear in “Scene From a Barbershop,” “Kill Your Darlings,” and other pieces I’ve published in other venues. To keep all the plot, setting, character, and timeline pieces straight, I use Microsoft OneNote. It’s free, the phone app syncs just fine with my laptop, and it lets me make notes on the go when I can’t get at my notebook (for instance, when I’m standing in a grocery store checkout).
To give myself an extra layer of organizational complexity, I developed Niralanes as an actual language with an actual vocabulary and grammar rules – which meant I also had to keep track of those words and rules as it developed. For this, I use an Excel spreadsheet, which currently has about 520 entries.
Step Three: I Wrote
At my desk. From 9 pm to 11 pm. Every night. For ten months.
Well, almost every night. I stuck to Chuck Wendig’s plan: 350 words a day, weekends off (although once I got rolling, I no longer wanted to take weekends off).
I also added a caveat: That 350 words a day had to be related to the novel in some way, but it didn’t have to be words I intended to appear in the finished novel. If I needed to spend two hours just planning the next scene, or working out a character’s backstory or motivations, or on worldbuilding, that’s what I did.
I also had to spend the entire two hours at my desk, unless I was sick. Then I could write in bed and go to sleep early if I needed to.
Some days, I got 350 words down in the first fifteen minutes. Other days, I spent every second of those two hours fighting for each word, wringing them out one by one.
What I didn’t do was give up.
The point was to be there with the book. If I did that, I won. If I missed a day, I got back in the saddle the next. That was all.
My husband deserves another shout-out here for being wholly supportive of this process, even though it meant (and means) two hours a day he doesn’t see me. Supportive people are a must.
Step Four: I Rewrote
Once I had a draft on paper, at a time and place that was not 9-11 pm or at my desk, I opened up a Word file on my laptop and I rewrote the entire novel.
You read that right. I rewrote every word. From scratch.
I had the handwritten draft to guide me, but I treated it as guidance – as 85,000 words of really, really detailed outline. Probably 90 percent of the sentences in the book you can buy today differ from the sentence in the handwritten draft.
Why? Because it kept me on track while writing the original draft.
- I fall down the Wikipedia hole very easily. If I needed to look something up, my two hours of writing were gone. Instead, I made a note in the margin as I worked on the handwritten draft, then looked the thing up and inserted it as I typed. For instance, “Groombridge 1618” appears in the handwritten draft as “STAR WITH HABITABLE ZONE.”
- I also fall down the hole of my own OneNote file on worldbuilding very easily, so I used the same method for character minutiae. The handwritten draft is filled with notes like “how old is Jiya?” or “whatever I named that other moon.”
- I especially fall down the hole of my own conlang very easily, so unless I could translate from memory, every piece of Niralanes in the finished book appears in the handwritten draft in English, placed in brackets. I did the translations as I typed.
Revising is also far too easy on a computer. I’ve sabotaged any number of projects by backspacing and trying to get each sentence just right before I move on. In the notebook, I just move on. I make a note if I think I need it, but I rarely do – when I’m rewriting, I can tell which sentences work and which don’t.
Finally, because I also do freelance writing for a living, I’ve come to associate my computer screen with speaking to an audience. My notebook, on the other hand, I associate with privacy: no one ever sees it. This frees me to write utter crap and trust my future self to recognize and fix it.
Step Five: I Got Feedback
The first set of eyes that sees my drafts as I produce them belongs to my husband. He’s also great motivation – if I give him the draft of one chapter, it won’t be long before he’s bugging me to give him the next one, which means I have to go write it.
The second set of eyes that sees my drafts belongs to my best friend and primary editor, Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon. I can trust my husband to praise me and make me want to keep writing: I can trust Athena to tell me exactly why what I just wrote isn’t going to work as literature and definitely why it isn’t going to sell.
After I’ve revised enough times that Athena runs out of reasons to say no, the novel goes to my publisher.
Step Six: I Got By With a Little Help From My Friends
Nantais was published by NeuroQueer Books, an imprint of Autonomous Press, where I’m a developmental editor. The press partners demanded first dibs on the manuscript pretty much the moment I described it to them, back in the summer of 2015.
If this is the part where you want to chuck this blog across the room, remember: first dibs isn’t the same thing as automatic acceptance. The press could have rejected my manuscript, and they would have if it weren’t up to the standard of the other books they publish.
At this stage, four more people started telling me why this book didn’t work and wouldn’t make any money, which meant I did more revising. In fact, thanks to the critical eye of editor and Weird Luck co-author Nick Walker, I did a lot more revising.
Had I not had AutPress behind me at this stage, I would have done what most authors do: started looking for a literary agent, or perhaps submitted the manuscript to another indie publisher and crossed my fingers. Either way, once a press did pick it up, I would certainly have had to deal with four (or more) bright, thoughtful, experienced people telling me exactly what needed to be revised before they could sell it.
Step Seven: I Learned Marketing
No author gets by without doing their own marketing these days. Even J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have Twitter accounts.
And “learned” is misleading here: I’m still learning marketing. I’ll probably keep doing it for the rest of my life.
This was the stage at which I set up a Goodreads account, shined up my Amazon author page, and started paying serious attention to updating this blog. I worked on creating a mailing list. I set up a Facebook page. I ran a Patreon for a while, then moved to Ko-fi. I looked at reviewing options on AuthorsDen and Reedsy. I started giving talks at local schools and bookstores. Marketing took me from “have written a book” to “author.”
My biggest surprise? Book marketing is actually pretty fun. It’s adaptable to the methods you like most – I love teaching, so giving presentations is a natural for me – and you get to meet a ton of bright, passionate people.
Step Eight: I Started Again
I took about a month off after I submitted the final draft of Nantais for publication, and then I dove right back in on its sequel, Nahara. I’ve also written several short stories in the same universe. Once daily writing is a habit, it’s very hard to break.
…And that’s how my first novel became a real thing in the world.
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This is a great post! I’ve also written novels, and though it’s difficult, the process is really not as complicated as people seem to expect it to be.
Also, “To the Young Who Want To,” by Marge Piercy is one of my favorite poems, so I enjoyed your quote.