It’s a dream so many of us share: walking into a bookshop and seeing your face staring back at you from the jacket of your very first novel. You love reading, you’re not afraid of a challenge; you’re ready to start your first novel. Now what?
Having just published my first adult novel, The Regulars, after having two young adult novels published, I know novel writing is a long and difficult road that will drive you crazy and compensate you poorly. But nothing compares to the thrill of crafting a story that is entirely, uniquely yours. Plus, everyone wants to meet you at parties. So here’s how to make it happen.
This guest post is by Georgia Clark. Clark is an author, screenwriter and performer currently living in New York City. Her third novel, The Regulars, has just published by Emily Bestler Books (Atria/Simon & Schuster).
The Regulars is Georgia’s first adult fiction novel.
1. Pick Your Genre (hint: you already know it)
It took me an oddly long time to learn this very simple fact: write in the genre you read. The genre you love most, whether it’s literary fiction, racy romance or nail-biting thriller, is the genre you are an expert in. You already know the heavy-hitters, and when it comes time, you can connect with these authors authentically. But most important of all: you know what fans of this genre want, because you are a fan. You know what is a cliché and what would have you clicking that Buy button. Write the book you want to read.
2. Start With a Vision
When I start a project, I write a short pitch for it. For example, The Regulars was “a funny, dark, and truthful look at female beauty in the modern world.” This is a powerful intention you’re setting for yourself. As Gloria Steinem said, “Dreaming is planning.” Your novel will take on a life of its own, but being clear from the get-go about what it is really about will help you stay anchored. If you’re lost in a scene, ask yourself: How does this scene relate to my vision? Am I exploring that vision, or have I gotten lost?
3. Create a Road Map
Some writers revile structure and end points. Personally, I thrive on order, deadlines, and maps. While I’ll still let myself be surprised and discover what’s working in the moment, I love sitting down and knowing exactly what scene I’m writing.
No matter where you fall along that spectrum, I’ve found that it’s helpful for first-time writers to have at least a little bit of structure. Typically, I start big—the emotional arc I want to take someone on—and slowly work down to a more granular level until I have a scene-by-scene breakdown. Sometimes, this isn’t more than just which characters will be in the scene, but I’ll know what I need it to do emotionally. (I’m more like a screenwriter that way, so it’s no accident my novels have three-act structures inspired by the Heroes Journey.) I use index cards on a corkboard, color-coded for each character, to have a big-picture look at my latest book.
Generally speaking, each scene must be essential, and will usually show a character trying or failing to achieve a small goal that is tied to their overall goal. The higher the stakes and the more we, the audience, are invested in the character’s journey, the more compelling the scene will be. You can’t ask your audience to care about characters or relationships you haven’t shown them in action. For example, if your story involves a break-up that you want people to feel gut-wrenched by, we need several scenes of the relationship working in an emotionally vital way before we care about it being taken away.
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4. Improve Your Craft
I did not study writing at college or do an MFA. I learned to write through a lot of trial and error on my own, then workshopping through a class, and eventually, working with an experienced developmental editor. You are probably naturally talented at some aspects of writing (for me, that’s plot and structure,) and weaker in others (for me, that’s craft: description, sentence composition, language etc). Take a class, read a book, or work with an expert that focuses on your weakness.
5. Find a Routine That Works For You
On my writing days, I get into the NY Writers Room between 10 AM and midday. On the commute in, I mentally run over where I’m up to and what I’ll be working on that day. Once in, I turn the internet off using the app Freedom, and work in three two-hour blocks until around 6 PM. That’s drafting: writing out scenes. Then I go home, make some dinner, pour a glass on wine. As I relax, my mind wanders back to the day's work, curious and excited. I flip open my laptop and read over it. I make notes. I allow more scenes to show themselves to me. I fantasize about my characters and record their dialogue in notes.
This is my process, and I love it. Your routine will likely be different, but once you’ve found it, you must stick to it. Think of writing like a commitment as serious as having a job. Deciding not to go to work because, uh, you just don’t feel like it? Not an option. Success is persistence. It’s as simple as that.
6. Challenge Yourself to Think Harder
When creating a character specific, plot point or important line of description, I list out five to 10 options. You’ll often find your best idea is not your first idea, because it’s a bit of a cliché (the first idea that springs to your mind probably sprung into everyone else’s).
Find spins on your genre’s tropes. In The Regulars, I wanted to write an entertaining, raunchy feminist fiction about young women. Often in these types of stories, the characters are pretty, thin, straight, white women. My characters are ethnically diverse, queer, regular-looking girls. The story centers on a magical realist device of a potion called Pretty that turns you pretty for one week at a time. Usually in body switch-type stories, the transformation is painless and easy. I made it gross and painful, because so much about traditional beauty standards are gross and painful. It’s funny and poignant.
7. Be Kind to Yourself
As an author, you are both the talent and the manager. And what kind of manager screams at the talent that she’s no good and she’ll never be published? Fire that manager, and replace her with someone who’s firm but kind, who understands when the talent is most likely to work and arranges his schedules to reflect it, who rewards meeting deadlines, and who doesn’t let the talent wallow in setbacks. The most important thing you can do as an artist is learn to manage yourself well.
8. Connect with other Writers
Other writers are your support system and your champions. They are not your competitors (jealousy and envy are natural but know they are unhelpful: publically express those feelings at your peril). Connect with other writers online, or in person. When I sold The Regulars I started a monthly salon for fiction writers from my home. I cold-emailed people and asked for introductions through professional connections. These writers went on to blurb my book, be my beta readers, cheer me on at my book launch and have me at their own events. Try to attend other writers’ book launches. Connect via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Start a book club. Go to readings. Get involved.
9. Love Your Project
Novels are the longest of the long game. It can take months (or, more likely, years) to write the first draft, turn it into a second draft, find an agent, go out on submission, and land a deal—which is only the beginning of another very long process. To maintain a connection to and passion for your project, it must be meaningful for you. The ideas must excite you, the characters enthrall you, and the message speak directly to your soul. You must love it (even when you hate it).
As a final note, remember to keep things in perspective. Repeat after me: A book deal won’t make you happy or successful. You can choose to be happy and successful right now. Good luck comes to those who keep going. Write on!
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.