It is hard to explain the process of writing a novel to people. There is so much brain power that goes into writing a novel. You have to be constantly planning and thinking. A novel takes over your head-space and it becomes an obsession. And once you write one, you know you can write more — better. It is frustrating and beautiful and it is the ultimate test to finding out if you can tell the story without looking away or giving up. With the creative power comes complicated spiritual, mental, imaginative, and ethical moving parts that move perpetual. These are just a few of those parts, but they are a good place to start.
The Great Disappointment
The novel not yet written is everything to a writer. Characters, plot, twists, language, the work, writing in coffee shops all seem so honest to the writer who has yet to write. There are endless possibilities to writing when you’ve committed nothing to paper. This is a visionary place of repose. The writer is all at once a visionary and a complete bullshitter. The potential of what could be is limitless. And then the novelist begins to write. And you begin to make choices.
In a book titled Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, he says, “A significant part of the writer’s practice — maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes — is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” Once you commit your ideas to real words, real chapters, real things, we see the talent collide with the dream. As far as the writing goes, you may do well for a few pages, but you are still making choices. You may even make a run to page fifteen or twenty until you hit your first problem. It’s a crucible, a test, a moment. And then it gets hard. This is where the writing begins. You may skip over this issue and write something else. But when you get to the next problem — you will begin to doubt your novel and wonder why it is all falling apart. You may even wonder if this is worth it. Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction also mentions “the idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead.” We must “work ourselves” into accepting this novel and that it will not be easy.
I should mention that when the rough gets going in my writing, my craft journal gets a lot of new entries. The journal is made for solving and dealing with issues and problems. It really is a journal of disasters because all I do is work on what I am thinking and why it isn’t working. I highly recommend keeping one and showing it to no one. It is your personal space. More importantly, this is your running thought process as you write. In a few months, this journal becomes your archive to what you were thinking and feeling at the time. (More on journals here).
As we write, we make choices, and I’ve used this word intentionally. Every time we make a choice in our novel, we are slowly moving the characters and the story to its completion (like a giant game of chess). Creativity is choice (what color, what effect, what do we want to say, is it enough, is it too much?). When we begin to choose we begin to resign ourselves to fastening our ideas into place. And like building a good foundation, from there we will hang more things on what we’ve already created. If your writing hold up through the great disappointment and survives, it is likely that you have a novel worth writing. Keep writing. And there’s good news.
The Act of Writing
In Why They Can’t Write, Warner explains that “a writer’s practice involves discovery, previously hidden things revealed by doing…. They will only reveal themselves to me as I write. This is not something mystical; it is merely a semi-organized, semi-systematic way of thinking.” And while I really like the clarity of this idea, I think it is semi-organized because in writing novels we can’t possibly know hundreds of details (choices) and concepts all at once, but pulled along a plot, built scene by scene — we can see an emerging design. Discovery in the act of writing is the lifeblood of my writing — it is why I write — to find things out. And it is completely undersold in writing books, courses, and articles on Medium.
And to that point, writing produces more writing. And more importantly, the process of writing and making those “choices” into a powerful tool. I know there are a lot of writers and books that discuss knowing everything before they sit down to write. But that isn’t why I write. The greatest moments of creativity, vision, and emotion don’t come from some half baked outline on my computer. It comes from the very act of writing.
Writing is a process of discovery and you have to be there, eyes wide open and really paying attention. You will come to see where a story takes on a life of its own, where it moves off script, where it blossoms out of words and into eloquence. You have to find it, write it, become intimate conspirators with the words. And then one day you will have an epiphany and realize, “that’s it, I found what I’ve been looking for.” You will know it because it will take your breath away, it will fire off neurons that have been waiting for a decade to fire off. It will create an emotional response. It is a feeling like falling in love, it is a feeling that you have tapped into something bigger than you, it is a feeling that you have created something new and emotionally important. And then you have walked into the light of artistic prose writing.
As a novelist there is no trophy. I would even go a step further and ask you a question that is raised in Why They Can’t Write — that writer’s seldom know or even have an clear process or effective gauge to measure their writing skills. “This is true for every writer regardless of experience and regardless of past success. There is no such thing as terminal proficiency.” Do you really know when you are done editing? Do you think if you rewrite the book again an agent might change their mind? Do you think — why isn’t this good enough? Maybe you are holding up your writing to something already written, a great novel, or something like a great novel — is that terminal proficiency?
Look at the submission guidelines and ask yourself, am I all that? Should I jump through all those hoops to get someone to read my work? What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t answer? Is your work good enough? Are you at terminal proficiency? No one is going to tell you you are a writer. The hardest part of writing is the open ended, seemingly never-satisfied world that reads your book — I liked this but didn’t like that. It’s not right for me. Doesn’t fit. And there will be every reason to believe you are not ready.