Writing a novel…it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, like most people (including myself before I dove into it head-first) would believe. It’s sort of like being blindfolded on a roller coaster. You sit down, prepared only with the knowledge that you’re about to go on some sort of journey, get strapped in, and then you’re off without even the vaguest clue when to brace yourself for the sharp turns and sudden drops. I’m writing this post partially to give advice to potential novelists who are beginning to toy with the idea of taking the same journey that I’m currently on, and partially just to help people understand why this is the best journey that I’ve ever been on.
I will start it off by saying that any views, opinions, methods and thoughts that I share in this are only my own. I cannot speak for anyone else and I would have to assume that (after reading the blogs of many authors) my methods are likely not the same as a lot of other people who have done this. That’s the amazing thing about it though; there IS no wrong way to do things. The only way to write a novel is by doing it your own way – by doing whatever works best for you.
I am a planner. I plan everything out in advance – meals, clothes, things to do. Try as I might, I cannot plan a book out beforehand. There have been innumerable times where I have sat down with a notebook and sparkly pen and attempted to map everything out – from main plot lines, down to individual chapters and character developments. I’m sure that works for people. I would think that, in order to release books in a series separately, it would be the only way to get things done. You would need to have everything perfectly planned and all details sharpened to a point to be capable of making sure the characters and story did not get away from you. It does not work for me.
I have written two different series of books. I went into both of them with an idea and thought that I could keep control of them; I could not. To me, creating a story is creating an entire world. You imagine the scenery, the landscapes, the buildings. You create issues, ways of living. And then, you plop little people down into some place that you made up inside of your head. Sometimes those things change as you’re writing. The most magical thing about it is that – just like in the real world – these people grow and adapt. They live and make choices. They surprise you, they make you angry. They make you want to punch them in the face.
When writing my first series, the only thing that I could compare it to was a boulder rolling down a mountain. I felt like I had pushed it from the top and was simply following it down as it made its path. I had no control at all. I could not control the characters and their decisions any more than I could control the decisions of my best friends, or of random people walking down a street. They might not be real, but they were alive enough to live in the world that I had stuck them inside of. Beautiful. Chaotic. Stressful.
I had so many issues when writing that first series. I couldn’t count how many times I discussed those issues with my friends and family, attempting to get their opinions on how things should be handled (without really telling anything about the story to anyone but my husband because I am unbelievably paranoid about them). At the beginning of 1-3 (the third book in the first series), I was having a huge issue with one specific character. During the course of their time in my little world, they had changed (shown their true colors) and made it impossible for them to continue playing the specific role I’d had set for them. What an issue to have for an important character! What to do, what to do? My best friend suggested that I have them do something that would change the dynamic drastically; she gave me a few examples that might possibly work with the limited information I had given her at the time. I couldn’t do it. It truly wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, but that I just couldn’t. I said, “I can’t make them do something out of character. It would be like intentionally slamming my own hand in a door. I wouldn’t do that. I can’t make them do something that they wouldn’t do.” It wouldn’t even be like cheating to get what you want; it would be like a betrayal to what a person stands for.
Frustrated, I continued on, letting the dynamics naturally change just like they would between any two people. Eventually, another character popped in. Now, one would think that – because I am writing – I would have the final say in how much or how little a character will be in a story. Again, I don’t. That second character was meant to be fleeting – just some random person met in the course of the story.
You meet a ridiculously large, uncountable number of people throughout your life. Some of them you don’t care for. Some of them are alright. And sometimes, you meet people that you just click with. My main character in that series clicked with that fleeting character. I could not get rid of them. They caused so many problems in the story, so many stressful situations that drove me insane as I was writing. Then one day…everything fell into place. That fleeting character (I call them accidental characters) fixed the situation that I’d had so many issues about in the first place. Of course they created new ones, but that was not the point.
Accidental characters – while initially frustrating or nearly rage-inducing – can be a saving grace.
Another example. At the beginning of 2-2 (second book in second series), accidental character shows their face. I wrote them out. I complained to my husband about it. I said, “I don’t want them there. I can already see the problems they’re going to make. I do not want them there.” Two different times I wrote that character out – opened new documents and started the chapter over. They just kept showing back up in different forms. On the third try, I went with it. Again, that character ended up being integral to the development of the main character.
You cannot write people out of your own life, can you? No matter how badly you occasionally want to, once a person has met you, they have met you. That is never a bad thing. You are the main character of your own life story; every person you come into prolonged contact with leaves some sort of mark on you – whether it’s a different way of thinking about something, or simply a memory that you’ll never forget. It’s personal development. I could never deny that to these poor, unfortunate souls that I torment in my books.
After so many different attempts at keeping control over my books, I decided to just go with it completely – to trust the base story and the characters to carry themselves through whatever messes came their way. For me, it works. It’s why my second series was written so much quicker than my first. That’s why it went more smoothly and gave me (hopefully) less gray hairs that I have to cover up than the first. Sometimes, you have to trust other people to make, maybe not the best decisions by other people’s standards, but the best decisions for themselves. Sometimes, you have to trust yourself enough. Sometimes, you have to stop being such a control freak. (Those last two sometimes statements were mostly for me.)
Oddly enough, when giving up some of that control, I felt like I had more of it. It’s possible that I had initially been so focused on squeezing the life out of it to keep hold that I didn’t realize it just needed a push here or there in a certain direction. In the second series, while I felt I could not say where one relationship went with another, I could say that I had hold of the main thing – the story. At the end of the day, I said who was good and who was secretly bad. Sometimes, the characters played it out in a way that I could not make them anything more or less than what they were. Mostly…I had some sort of say in the decisions where they did not pertain to any specific character and their relationship with any of the others. But can I really claim that? If a person is good, they are good. If a person is bad, they are bad. Do I get to claim that I decided it for them? I don’t know. Isn’t that fun? *shakes head and sighs*
I know that many people have separate jobs while they work on their books – that it’s the enjoyable thing they do for themselves in their time off. Personally, I don’t know how they manage it. For me, it was/is/has been the most consuming thing that I have ever experienced in my life. I slept those stories, I ate them, breathed them, drank them. My god, I feel so sorry for my husband having to deal with me staring off into the distance, trying to work things out in my head for such a long time. “Did you hear what I just said?” “Uhm…what? I’m so sorry, I was thinking about my book.” “Don’t you remember what I said to you yesterday?” “Uhm…you were talking to me yesterday? Wait. Oh yeah, I remember you talking. About something. At some point. Yesterday?”
I’m sure it sounds humorous that way, but imagine my husband having to deal with that constantly for the past two and a half years or so. I feel bad for him, but he says that I’m doing what I love and that makes him happy. Support is worth more than gold.
Writing is the loneliest place imaginable. You feel like you live for the sole purpose to get this story out of your head. You can’t think about anything else. You can’t concentrate on anything else. Every second of every day that you’re not physically working on it, you’re mentally working on it. You’re trying to figure out where to go next, you think of a tiny snippet of conversation to put in, you’re trying to line up little details with big details. Then, at the end, you can’t even be satisfied because all you’re doing is thinking about all those miniscule details that don’t add up, all the things you have to change to make it perfect, all the things that hardly anyone else would notice, but are giant, flashing neon signs to you. It is…exhausting. Add onto that the fact that you are constantly attempting to improve your writing…it goes to some place beyond exhausting. Some place that makes you pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow (as long as you are not focused on some scene that you’re trying to work on). I’m not sure if all writers believe their writing is crap, but I’m convinced that horrible feeling is integral to improvement. As long as you always feel like it is never good enough, you can make it better. One thing that you change might be the one thing that kept someone else from appreciating your work. I watched Jurassic Park yesterday so I’m hearing Malcolm in my head talking to Ellie about the butterfly effect. One person might not sound like a lot, but one person might tell ten people, who might tell ten more. One person might write an amazing review. That one person might just need to hear some joke that you slipped into the cracks of your book to feel better. That one person might just need to read about your characters getting through something awful to know that – if some made-up person can do it…they can too. That’s what books are for. Well, one of the many things that they are for.
I will admit that when I first started out on this extremely long, stressful, beautiful journey, I had absolutely no intention of ever attempting to get anything published. I wrote my first book for myself. It was only when I was partially through the first series that I realized the selfishness of it. Why should I keep it to myself? Sure, a lot of people would hate it, but some people would like it. It would make some people laugh, or cry. Why should I be selfish when I could help people the way that authors have helped me with their books? I get my pride from my father – this unwillingness to ask for help when I most desperately need it. I get a double-dose of it from my mother, who is incapable of sitting down for five minutes and stares out the window when it rains or is cold because she cannot go outside and do something. I grew up watching both of them almost literally kill themselves to take care of their family. So asking anyone in this world to help me is like some sort of betrayal to the person that I want to be for my parents – the person that I want to be in case I have children one day. Asking an agent to take a chance on me when – on paper – I am not worth taking a risk on…even though it’s the way that things are done, it kills my soul a little every time. I can’t explain it. So, going into this sort of thing with the knowledge that it is impossible to do on your own…it’s something that you’ve got to accept. It’s something that I’m still working on. Can we really do anything entirely alone in life? There will always be people who want to help, you just have to look in the right places and let them do it.
You get hung-up when writing. Some conversation won’t work out, some scene, some character isn’t doing what they’re supposed to. Now, my best friend has written about half (I could be wrong, don’t hold me to it) of a novel. She and I deal with the hang-ups in opposite ways. She skips and goes back to it. I angrily trudge along through the muck. That is mostly due to the fact that I cannot connect things; they have to be written in order completely. I have tried it the other way and it just doesn’t work. Hang-ups are to be expected (and usually happen at the most inopportune times, for good measure to rain on your happy parade). If you work on them, they go away for a time, but they don’t ever stop. Expect the hang-ups, mentally prepare yourself for them, have a few motivational things to tell yourself to get through them (It will be over with this scene, If I get through it I can work on the next part). If you’re writing anything – be it a blog, or a novel, or a journal entry…they happen. You hit roadblocks, mental walls. Break them down and tell yourself that you won’t let an inanimate object control your life. It sounds silly, but it might work for some people. It would be a shame to let ten lines of a conversation ruin the entire process. Hurry up and write a book; it might be my new favorite. I might tell ten people about it. Who knows?
I’ve been asked how I find the motivation to work so much. When I am actively working (writing or editing – not query-ing), I do it between 9-14 hours a day (or night because I am a night owl and it is the only time where there is nearly complete silence in the world – meaning it is usually the only time that I can actually think). It’s why I could finish an entire series in about six months; I worked my back end off on it. The only answer that I can give people is, “It’s what I love doing.” I watched my father wake up at precisely the same time every morning to go to work to provide for us until he was injured. He overslept once when the power went out. He was late once when his truck rolled down the hill and was hanging over the drop-off above the creek. I don’t know that my father ever loved what he did. He loved his family so he did what he had to for them. I had a conversation with him about this a few weeks ago when I was feeling very downtrodden about the whole getting-published thing; it’s difficult to have a conversation when you’re attempting not to cry on the phone to your daddy (I don’t like crying where people can see/hear). I don’t want to look back on my life and say that I did what life forced me to do. I want to look back at the end and say, “I did what I loved.”
It’s quite likely that I will continue to be life’s play-thing for the entirety of my time spent in this world. But…it’s possible (though highly unlikely) that one day, I will look life in the face, smile, and say, “I won.”
If you want to write a book, write a book.
If you want to learn how to sail a boat, go sail a boat.
If you want to fly a plane, go learn how to fly a plane.
If you want to be a teacher, go do what you need to do and spend your life striving to sharpen children’s minds. (We need some good teachers out there who care).
If you want to be a nurse, go take care of people.
A vet, to fix up animals. A therapist to help people deal. A chef to make beautiful, tasty food.
If you want to see the world, go do it.
Find a way to make your dreams happen. Don’t let inanimate objects hold you back.
It’s your life. Do what you love so that one day, you can look life in the face, smile (or possibly laugh) and say your own variation of, “I won.”
Be happy. Why else are we here?