With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) just days away, here’s an excerpt from How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever, on sale now!
Rule #3: Find the writing style that works for you
I’ve always been fascinated by other writers’ creative processes. When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I studied. I observed. I felt that if only I could divine some common thread in the creative lives of the writers I admired, I would then be able to emulate these individuals and be as good as they were.
Going to an Ivy League school and marrying a socialite worked for Fitzgerald, but should I do that?
Volunteering for wars in exotic locales worked for Hemingway, but should I do that?
Drinking and drugging themselves into oblivion worked for most of the writers of the Western canon . . . but do I really have to do that?
Even apart from biography, I delved into the writing process itself. Did they lock themselves in a room? Did they outline? Did they write stream of consciousness?
How did they do it?
Then, after college, I had the good fortune of working for a literary agency, where I had the opportunity to closely observe the habits of some incredibly successful writers, many of whom I had admired since childhood.
And I discovered this: there is no single way to write a novel. There’s not much of a common thread that links great writers. The only thing they have in common is that they somehow, at the end of the day, find a way to get the words onto the page.
Yes, this may seem like odd wisdom in a book that claims to tell you how to write a novel, but it’s true. There isn’t one way to write a novel. There isn’t a formula.
Now, before you scurry for a refund and write a nasty review, please trust that this guide will most definitely help to steer you in the right direction. I will help you avoid the pitfalls, and I will help you channel your innate tree-killing thirst, you ritual destroyer of trees at the altar of books.
But you have to figure out how you write best.
Po Bronson writes in a closet. Hemingway wrote standing up. Vikram Seth once told me he traveled to India and intentionally stayed on U.S. time because the disorientation of jet lag helped his creativity.
Are you an outliner? Are you a seat-of-the-pantser? Do you need peace and quiet? Noise? Do you need to write in a cafe? Would you rather work in a closet? Do you want to write on a computer? A typewriter? Pen and ink? Do you want to write quickly and revise a thousand times? Write a near-perfect first draft slowly? Do you want to write every day? Only on weekends? Do you want to stay up late and burn through fifty pages? Do you want to write during the daylight hours and agonize over five words at a time?
It’s all completely up to you. There are no common threads shared by great writers other than hard work and talent.
Even the ages at which authors become awesome varies tremendously. Some start young and flame out. Some people arrive at writing late. Some start young and work at it for years before achieving a breakthrough.
I hope you are absorbing the enormous freedom presented in this chapter. Let me say it again: there is no single way to write a novel. You don’t have to be constrained by the styles of other people. Don’t let other writers get in your head, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong.
You don’t have to force yourself to outline if you don’t want to. You don’t have to write every day. (You hear me? You don’t have to write every day. I certainly don’t.) You don’t have to love every moment of writing. You don’t have to find it all agonizing drudgery, either.
You just have to be yourself and find what works for you.
All that being said, it is beneficial to be aware of what kind of writer you are because it will allow you to develop a writing rhythm, which will help you feel normal and comfortable, and it will help you to better enforce this rhythm when your attention starts to wander. Whatever style you adopt, you must be diligent and productive.
While everyone is different, every writer falls somewhere on the spectrum between total planners and total improvisers.
The planners outline, plot everything in advance, choose their words carefully, and tend to write a little slow. They go into the writing process with a pretty clear idea of where they’re going. But when they’re finished, they usually (but not always) have less revision time waiting for them.
The improvisers go in blind, let their instincts guide them, move through quickly, and might not even know where their novel is going until page fifty. They write and write and write until they find the story, and the mere notion of planning everything would stunt their creativity. When they’re finished with a draft, they usually (but not always) have a lot of work to do, as they must go back, rewrite everything, and stitch it all back together.
A lot of people are somewhere in the middle. And everyone is doing just fine.
So if you’re a planner, just know that it’s okay if you move slowly. It’s okay that you feel as if you’re plodding along, even if your improviser friends have written whole novels while taking a bath.
If you’re an improviser, just know that it’s okay if you don’t know exactly where things are going all the time. It’s okay to write in terrific bursts of energy and just get it all on the page, even if it doesn’t all make sense or fit together at first. You can trust that you’ll figure it all out.
Don’t let other people control your writing style or make you feel inferior because of the way you go about it.
As long as you’re getting words on the page, you’re doing just fine.
Read the rest of How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever. On sale for just $4.99 at: