25 Things You Should Do Before Starting Your Next Novel
I’m about to tackle a new novel (The Blue Blazes, coming in something-something 2013!), and also, I see the green flash on the horizon that indicates the coming reality storm that is “National Novel Writing Month,” so this seems like a good time for a post like this one, yeah?
Do you actually need to do all these things? No, of course not. This is merely a potential checklist. Scan it. Pick and choose what works, ditch the rest. End of story.
1. Get Your Expectations Firmly In Check
Writing a book is like a long trek through unfamiliar wilderness. It doesn’t take long before you feel lost, disoriented, hungry, ready to give up, lay down, eat your hands, and let the book die on the ground next to you like a gut-shot coyote. Know this going in: we build into this experience expectations that are unreasonable. We expect every day to be bliss. Every chapter to be perfect. Every word and sentence and paragraph to click in some kind of shining sidereal alignment. Some days will be bliss. Some chapters and words really will be perfect. But you also have to build room for things to suck. Because they will. Parts of this book will be the literary equivalent of you dumpster-diving through dirty needles and old Indian food just to find some spare change. Get used to it. Remember: this is just the first draft. Others will come. The work is ahead, but the work is clarifying. You have time. You have space. Be ready for hard days.
2. Find Your Own Personal “Give-A-Fuck” Factor
Seriously: why the fuck are you doing this? Not just writing a novel, but writing this novel. Are you excited? Does the prospect of writing this thing both geek you out and scare you in equal measure? It should. If you don’t, this might not be the story you want to write. People ask me sometimes, “How do I know which story to write right now?” Write the one that engages you. That lights up your mental console like a pinball machine on full fucking tilt. Write the book you care about writing. Find out why you want to write it, too — there’s great meaning in discovering your own attraction to the characters, the story, the themes.
3. Draw The Map For The Journey Ahead
I don’t care if you write an outline (though it remains a skill you should possess as one day, someone will ask you to do so and a lack of familiarity will leave you twisting in the wind), but for the sake of sweet Saint Fuck, do something to map your journey. Listen, a novel? It’s a big deal. It’s many tens of thousands of words shoved together. And in there are all these moving parts: character, plot, theme, mood, past, present, future, text, subtext. Gears and flywheels and dildo widgets, spinning and sparking and hissing. Don’t go in totally blind. You don’t need to map every beat, but even three hastily-scrawled phrases on a bar napkin (“narwhale rebellion, yellow fever, Mitt Romney’s shiny grease-slick forehead”) will be better than nothing. Bonus link of some relevance: 25 Ways To Plot, Plan, Prep Your Story.
4. Become Wild West Scrivening Inkslinger “Quick-Note McGoat”
Have a way to take notes. Sounds obvious, so let me add another squirt to the salad: have a way to take notes quickly and unexpectedly. It is incredibly awful to wake up in the middle of the night, or while out walking your dog, or in the midst of one of your Satanic meetings in the basement of the local Arby’s and suddenly have an epiphany about your coming novel that you think you’ll remember but, of course, it’ll slip through one of the many mouse-holes in your mind-floor. You get it all figured out and then the idea is gone, baby, gone. So: fast notes. Notebook. Or a note app on your phone. Or a tattoo gun.
5. Know Thy Characters
I talked about this last week, but seriously, with your characters: get all up in them guts. It’s not the worst thing to recognize that all of our characters are in some small ways representative of the author — even if it’s just us chipping off the tiniest sliver of our intellectual granite to stick into the mix, it’s good for us to find ourselves in each character (and find the character inside us). Er, not sexually.
6. Test Drive Those Imaginary Motherfuckers
I will advocate this until the day I die. (Or the day someone clocks me with a shovel and turns me into the mental equivalent of a wagon full of cabbage.) Grab your main character, and take him for a test drive. (No, I said not sexually. Holy crap, tuck that thing back in your lederhosen, weirdo.) Write something, anything, featuring that character. Flash fiction. Short story. Random chapter from the book. Blog post. Don’t worry: you don’t have to show it to anybody. Look at it this way: it’s like taking a new car for a spin. First you sit down, everything feels uncomfortable — “How do I turn on the wipers? Where’s the A/C knob? Is there a place for my pet wombat, Roger?” But then after you take it down a few roads, you start to feel like you ‘get’ the car. It starts to feel like a part of you. And Roger likes it, too!
7. Dig Up All Those Glittery Conflict Diamonds
Every story is about a problem. A story without a problem is like a drive through Nebraska: flat, featureless, without form or meaning. Identify the problem engine pushing the story forward. Heist gone wrong! Spam-Bots gain sentience! Murderous husband! Lost wombat (ROGER NOOOOO)! Sidenote: Problems born of and driven by character are more interesting and organic than those created as external “plot events.”
8. Build An (Incomplete) World
Just as the story and plot need a map, the setting needs one, too — you’re god, here. This is your genesis expression — no, we’re not talking about you, Phil Collins, get out of here! Shoo! Cripes, that guy’s like a rash. He just keeps turning up. ANYWAY. This is your let-there-be-light moment. But worldbuilding is like a game — you’re trying to predict what you’ll need without going overboard. You don’t want to create every last granular detail of the world (“Bob, there’s a section in your story bible titled THE TEETH-BRUSHING HABITS OF TREE-ELVES.”), but you also don’t want to hit a patch of the story where you feel like you’re floundering for details you totally forgot to determine. Try to build the world around the story instead of building the story around the world. That’ll provide a more focused — and more relevant — approach.
9. Identify The Major Rules
This is true more for genre fiction than anything else — but sometimes, a story’s got rules. The vampire drinks blood but doesn’t fear the sun. The spaceship is made of hyperintelligent fungus. All ghosts are lactose intolerant, unicorns are the Devil’s steeds, and when that dude from Nickelback marries Miley Cyrus or whoever it is he’s sticking it to, the child born of such a union will be a soulpatch-wearing robot bent on the domination of meat. Suss out the rules early on. Then cleave to them like a needy puppy.
10. Find Your Way Into The Tale
Every tale is a mountain and we have to figure out a way inside. When Day One of your novelstravaganza begins, you don’t want to shave off hours just staring at this massive wall of rock trying to figure out how the fuck you’re going to get into it. You should already know how it begins. First line, first chapter, whatever. Know your point of entry or spend your first day flailing around like a shock treatment spider monkey.
11. Also: Identify The Great Egress
This is a point of contention, and rightfully so — but BY GOSH and BY GOLLY I have my convictions and I’ll spread them before you like warm cheese on a crostini, and those convictions tell me to have your ending figured the fuck out before you even begin the story. Even if you don’t outline, even if the whole of the work is guideless and without aim, know your ending before you begin. Here’s why: the ending matters. Like, really matters. It’s you, sticking your landing. It’s the last bite of narrative food the reader gets, and if the meal has been good up until that last shitty bite, it means you ruined it with a bad ending. Planning an ending allows you to aim for that ending. To write to it. To lead your tale to that moment. Do you need to stick to it? Fuck no! You will almost certainly envision something better through the course of the writing, but that’s okay — but what you don’t want is to cross over into the final leg of your story with zero idea how to wrap things up. Because, you do that, next thing you know you’ll be all like, I DUNNO NOW THEY HAVE TO FIGHT A GIANT SPIDER OR SOMETHING AND QUIT LOOKIN’ AT ME.
12. Learn All The Appropriate Things
At some point I’m sure I could do a whole new “list of 25” on the subject of research, but for now, just know that you need to get some of it out of the way before you actually suction your tush-meats to the office chair to begin the book. You can research as you go, too (and I’ve written drafts where whole sections get notes like, LOOK UP THE SEX RITUALS OF THE ALIEN ASTRONAUTS AND STUFF), but researching early gives you confidence. And also gives you new ideas. My means of researching is simple: identify topics I know that require researching, then, uhh, research the hell-fuck out of them.
13. Suss Out The Fiddly Bits
A novel has a lot of little fiddly bits: theme, title, mood, narrative tense, POV, and so forth. Know what’s what before you step into the draft. The more of these you have figured out, the more comfortable you are when stepping through that manuscript-shaped doorway the first time. And, by the way, that’s the entire purpose of this list: to give you comfort. Writing a novel can be a weird, dark time. Some discomfort is good, and knowing when to discard preparations is critical. But just the same, you want to walk into the thing with confidence, and confidence comes out of having your literary mise en place ready to rock.
14. The 13-Second Closing-Window-Of-Opportunity Pitch
I don’t know how often a logline or “elevator pitch” really helps new authors get a deal, so this isn’t about that. But learning to distill your story down to a single sentence is a powerful thing. It’s like squeezing it until you can fill a small phial with its most potent essence and that allows you to find out two things: first, just what the crap is this book about, and two, what makes it awesome? Plus, it gives you an easily spit-out-able line of information at parties. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” you don’t want to be standing there for 20 minutes telling them. HA HA HA JUST KIDDING nobody’s ever going to ask you that. Silly writer.
15. Hell, Write The Whole Goddamn Query
As above: finding ways to express the most elemental elements (shut up) of your book is a clear win. Write the query letter. Yes, query letters suck — I’ve often said it’s like putting a 100-lb. pig in a 1-lb. bucket. Still, try it. Find clarity in brevity. Aim for two or three paragraphs explaining the hook, the story, the critical bits, and so forth. It’ll feel good. You may even have one of those moments where you’re like, “Ohhhh, that’s what the book is about. I didn’t even realize the whole thing was a metaphor for how the American political process would be improved by adding more ponies.”
16. Know Your Word Processor Intimately
I don’t mean you should actively “love up” your word processor — I use Microsoft Word and it’s far too cranky and ugly to ever be my digital lover. (Scrivener, on the other hand, keeps flashing me stretches of milky thigh.) What I mean is, know your tools. Work that word processor till you have its smell all up in your nose. You don’t want a day one question of, BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SAVE THIS DOCUMENT SWEET CRISPY CHRIST THE POWER JUST WENT OUT.
17. Establish A Daily Schedule
Write every day, sure, duh. But more importantly: figure out how much you’re going to write on each of those “every days.” Five hundred words? A thousand? Five thousand? FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND? Okay, don’t do that last part. I did that one time and my brain supernova’ed and formed its own Wendigian universe where all is beards and liquor and everyone watches porn based off the Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s. Point is, establish your daily schedule. Then, uhh, stick to it.
18. Build a Timetable
From there, you can build the first timetable. Because, if you know you’re going to write 1000 words a day and this is going to roughly be a 90,000-word novel, boo-yay, looks like the book will take about 90 days to write. Then, you can build secondary timetables — figure out how long it’ll take to edit, to write a second draft, to wallow in your own treacly misery and muddy despair.
19. Ensure That Life Accommodates The Book
Tell people you’re going to be writing the book. No, not because this way you establish a clear line to the shame associated with failure (“How’s that novel coming along, Dave?” “It’s fine, I’ve been writing it for sixteen years now and OKAY FINE I GAVE UP ON IT GO FUCK A DONKEY I’M GOING TO DROWN MYSELF IN THE PUNCHBOWL KAY THANKS BYE”). But rather because, you need the people in your life to know that This Is An Important Thing to you. That they’ll need to accommodate your writing hours. That if you don’t come out on Friday night, it’s because you’re masturb… I mean, writing. The people in your life deserve to know. And they deserve a chance to help you accomplish this thing you want to accomplish.
20. Have A Publication Path In Mind
It’s a bit “cart before the horse” (or, for a more futuristic metaphor, “the hover-rickshaw before the taxi-bot”) to think about publication before you’ve even written Word One of your Literary Masterpiece, but peep this, peeps: knowing a (rough) publication path helps you steer the story a little bit. Knowing you’re going to self-publish helps you know that you are not bound by any rules (which sadly can include “the rules of making a book readable,” but, y’know, don’t be that guy). Knowing you’re going to go the traditional path (agent, big publisher) tells you that you may want to write something more mainstream, hewing closer to genre convention. It is as with the narrative: knowing the ending helps define the journey.
21. Clean Your Shitty Desk, You Filthmonger
Is that a pair of dirty gym socks brining in a glass of Kool-Aid? Why all the receipts from Big Dan Don’s Dildo Emporium? Why does your desk smell like old jizz and Doritos? Clean your desk, you disgusting cave-dweller. Do so before you dive into the book. The desk will, over the course of the book’s writing, once more return to its primal state of divine chaos, but start clean lest you get distracted by all the science projects scattered around (“The gym socks have developed a nervous system. They respond when I call their names, which, incidentally, are ‘Loretta’ and ‘Vlornox the World-Eater.'”)
22. The Backup Plan
Figure out how you’re going to back up your novel. One backup should go to The Cloud. Another should be carved into the bedrock of an external device — and no, not your power drill dildo — I mean like, a USB key or hard drive, you silly sexy kook, you. A third might get carved into the back of a captive foe.
23. Set It And Forget It
In the weeks preceding the start of this book, use your brain like it’s an overnight slow-cooker. Go to bed thinking about the story at hand. Envision problems. Ask questions. Drum up the research of the day from the slurry of thoughts and focus on it. Then, slumber, young penmonkey. Your brain will absorb this stuff like a corpse taking on river-water. When it comes time to write, you will find it disgorges what it absorbed — and then some. (This isn’t backed by any kind of science or anything, but I believe it works, so there. I also believe in Bigfoot. So. Uhh. Maybe you shouldn’t trust my instincts.)
24. Commit, Motherfucker
Mentally commit. Seems simple. Kinda isn’t. Take this idea of writing this novel and then take your heart and all the willpower that lives in it and smash the two together in a flavor explosion that tastes like GETTING IT THE FUCK DONE. Sometimes there is great power in committing to something in an emotional, intellectual, even spiritual sense. I mean, what, you’re going to hit Day One and say, “Maybe I’ll finish this, maybe I won’t?” Piss on that flimsy whimsy — hunker down, dig your heels in, ball those soft hands into hard fists, and commit to writing this motherfucking book.
25. Stop Doing All This Other Stuff And Write Already
Just to be clear: you actually have to write the thing. Which means all this stuff? Do it. And then stop doing it. There comes a point when you have to stop outlining, stop researching, stop thinking and dicking around and fiddling with your intellectual privates in order to put pen to paper and finger to keys and write that book. Once any of these tasks becomes a distraction — a disease instead of the remedy — then it’s time to shovel that aside and get to work. Because at the end of the day, nothing is as clarifying as just going through the paces and building words into worlds and sentences into stories.
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