10 Things to Consider Before Writing a Novel

Painted caution on road to slow downCurrently life is preventing me from reaching my daily quota on my new writing project.  I suppose if I hadn’t considered a few rules to set for myself before I began this project, I would be spinning my wheels in the endless morass of counter-productivity.

I set some basic ground rules before I began writing, and that keeps me on track to finish the novel when I have planned to finish it:

  1. Why? – I had to first ask myself why I am writing a novel.  What is the main reason I torture myself with a 6 month background preparation, design of six planetary systems complete with alien races, culture, and weird predatory animals?  The reason I’m writing a novel is because it is something I love to do.  It relaxes me, takes my mind off of the stress of my job, helps me cope with certain demons, and is in many ways therapeutic.  So ask yourself “why?”.  If the answer isn’t strong enough to sustain you through a lengthy project like this, then reconsider how you would benefit from so many hours focused on the job.
  2. What Style? – I decided on a style of a third person singular, hard-boiled detective story where the detective is cynical and sarcastic toward everyone around him because he has lost hope that the human race will survive past the end of his own lifetime.  I thought about Blade Runner, about District 9, about Forever War and about Foundation.  I write in a style that matches the science-fictoin I love.  Decide on a style that your novel will have.  However, if it doesn’t work out, don’t scrap the whole thing.  I have considered several styles and have even written multiple drafts until I find the one that works for both myself and my readers.
  3. What Reason? – Why are you writing this particular novel?  Is it because everyone else is writing a dystopian teen novel and you want to jump on the bandwagon?  I usually start with some kind of overarching thematic message which I call the “soapbox idea”.  This is some kind of philosophical, faith based, or far reaching idea that strikes deep within the human condition.  This gives me the fuel I need to continue with the project even when I hit a wall.  I can always write about what I’m passionate about, and that keeps me from getting stuck halfway through after writing 25,000 words or so.
  4. What Are Your Expectations? – I usually write the first draft of the novel just to get it out of me.  After that comes the long and difficult battle of drafting, proofing, drafting again, revising, editing, drafting again, etc.  If you expect to write the great American or British or (insert language here) novel, it will not come with the first draft.  Good writing takes much work and effort, and writing the first draft is only the beginning.  If your expectations are to get a novel produced after all of this work is completed, and you are willing to go through this process, you shall come out of the other side of it with a good product.
  5. Beta Readers – It is essential to have a couple of beta readers lined up for when you get the novel into a working form, that is after you have revised, revised, revised.  Don’t send your first draft off to a beta reader.  Make sure you have done everything to the novel that you can possibly do yourself.  I used to do editing for people, but quit not because the pay was too little (I charged $1 a page) but because usually the writers I worked for would send their unedited first draft that had very little changes from the original.  It was a nightmare to read as well as edit.  You want your best work to shine for the beta reader, that way when they provide their all important feedback it will be used to heighten an already strong novel.
  6. What You Will – Set out to write whatever the flip you want to write.  I’m currently working on a sort of detective novel set in a future where the human race is nearly extinct (and within the first few chapters becomes extinct) all but one.  I wanted to see what went through someone’s mind who knew they were the last of their kind, and what kind of deep human issues might arise because of that dilemma.  I’ve heard from friends of mine that this is “strange”, “unheard of” and “just plain weird”, but I don’t really care.  I’m going to explore it if it kills me.  I’ve already written tons of backstory, a 400 year future history, six different planets with flora and fauna and four alien races complete with culture and their own pre-history.  I guess I’m too deep now to stop.
  7. Time and Deadlines – If you are an indie novelist like me, then you have tons of time on your hands to write a novel, right?  I don’t.  I have to make time.  This is a huge issue.  We have to decide at the onset of writing a novel if we really have all that time to write one.  NaNoWriMo is over, but this doesn’t stop you from writing a 50,000 word novel.  What stops you is usually life.  Set some deadlines for yourself, and then stick to them.  Reward yourself when you reach them.  Don’t do any of the fun stuff of life until you reach your daily goals.  I use Scrivener, which has a handy goals meter where you plug in how many words you want to write and the date you want to finish and it calculates how many words you need to write each day to reach the goal.  I find it very useful.
  8. Read About It – I will suggest the following books that every budding novelist needs to make sure they read cover to cover: Story by Robert McKee, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King, On Writing by Stephen King, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein and Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman.  I’d also suggest Elements of Fiction Writing: Characterization by Orson Scott Card.
  9. Write, Write, Write – You should write at least 1,000 words per day if you want to stay salty.  Plan on doing this, but if you don’t then don’t beat yourself up.  Sure, life will get in the way.  Most real life writers make an average of $5000 a year, and about 90% of writers don’t make any money at all.  Write because you want to, because you must, and because you want to get that story out.  I do it to relax, actually.  When I’m writing I’m living in that weird place I made up and I feel at home there.  Writers write.  This is a concrete fact.
  10. Writing Garbage Is OK – That first draft is going to be a dog.  It always is.  I usually write a first draft and then I lament ever starting the darned thing.  That usually fades when I do my first read-through and find little gems that pop out of the narrative that can be used to brighten an otherwise clunky mess.  If you are one of those writers who writes a sentence and then erases it immediately, then you just need to relax and unplug the garbage chute on the Death Star compactor.  You might at first experience a tense writing situation, the walls closing in, the screams of your protagonists begging you to help them out of their predicament, but light will shine after revision, and Threepio will remember to shut down the garbage masher on the detention level.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

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