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Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Secret Key to Writing a Novel

Over the past year or two, I've had several aspiring writers contact me to ask...

What's the secret to writing a novel? 
How come so many people try and give-up?
If you could give only one piece of advice, what would it be?

Okay, so this is going to sound very tongue-and-cheek (and I don't mean it that way), but for all of the folks who dream of writing a novel; who research information, create an outline, or take a class (or several) in order to learn how to write a novel; for the thousands who actually sit down and start a novel, very few will ever complete one.

Why is that?

And what is the key to actually finishing that novel?

Before I plow forward with the answer, I do have to say that there is a difference between completing a novel and completing a good novel; and that even if one completes a VERY good novel, there's still that whole hurdle called "publication." That said, one thing is for certain: If a writer can not complete a novel, then whether or not it's good -- or whether or not it gets published -- is a non-issue! For that reason, I believe the greatest hurdle facing a would-be-writer is finishing their first novel, and the answer to 'how to finish a novel' is far simpler than one might think...

Not unlike that old adage, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single-step," a novel of one-hundred thousand words begins with a singe-word.


And just as that journey begins with a single-step, it ultimately continues with the next step...and the next...and the next...

Keep writing.

In the end, the journey is accomplished because the person keeps right on walking until they eventually cross the "finish line."

Write until the story is finished.

Okay, so that sounds way too simple, but I think that's why so many great stories never get told: people over-complicate the issue...ignore the obvious. Yes, some writers begin with an outline. Yes, some writers follow huge blocks of inspiration led by a creative muse. And yes, some writers take years and years to dream of, imagine, and work out their stories in their heads. There are hundreds of ways to conceive of a novel, to organize a novel, and to research a novel. And there a dozens of skills one can acquire in order to craft a good novel (plotting, characterization, dialogue, grammar & punctuation, conflict development, pacing, etc). But there's only one way to finish a novel: by writing it.

Do you see my point?

If you want to start and finish a novel, sit down and write.
Whether your formatting is perfect, non-existent, or all over the map, write.
If it's only ten-minutes a day, three-days a week, or even twice a month for two-hours, write.
If it's the most brilliant prose you've ever penned, or such complete doo-doo that you wouldn't show it to your kindergarten teacher, write.
If it's one-hundred pages stirred by a burst of inspiration, or only two-paragraphs that felt more like you just had your wisdom teeth pulled, write.
If its fully researched ahead of time or you have to leave holes all over the place in order to go back and fill in the blanks, write.
If you're not sure if the scene is going to work or if it even ties into what you already wrote, write.

In other words, don't try to create the world's greatest literary work at this juncture, just write something.

Just keep going!

And remember: It doesn't have to be good; it doesn't have to be perfect; and it doesn't even have to make sense at this juncture. It does, however, have to exist somewhere other than in your head: In order to finish a book, you must sit down and write it. You can always rewrite and edit later. 

I think that bears repeating: you can (and should) always edit later...

You can always change the formatting, or the character's names, or even the main or sub-plots. You can always polish your dialogue, look up the rules of English, or make your gibberish sound like prose another time. (Yes, it's okay to write incomplete thoughts, outrageous repetition, or even short sentences like you're three-years old...just so long as you get through the scene). You're building a foundation on which the house will later stand; you can always add the doors and windows later. And so what if you end up cutting more than half of what you wrote, or completely moving it around, or even changing your mind -- and??? (There's a reason why developmental editing, copy-editing, and proof-reading are considered separate from writing -- a reason why they're an integral part of the publishing process). The more you do it, the better you will become on your first try; but until then, you've got to start somewhere.

So just tell your story. Get it out.

Because, believe it or not, the primary difference between someone who finishes a novel and someone who only starts one, is that the former kept writing where the latter stopped writing. Really, that's it.  Writers can get lost in all the thinking, organizing, editing, formatting and planning; or we can write. We can let the need to create the world's greatest masterpiece stop us from writing anything, or we can become true story-tellers, tell our stories, and trust that we can always fix it later.

Yes, the craft matters. And there's a whole heck of a lot to weaving a well-written story, but one might be surprised by how many professional writers get stuck, lost, annoyed, forget a basic rule of English in the middle of a sentence, write stuff their readers wouldn't recognize (and not in a good way), call their characters by the wrong names (okay, so maybe that's just me???), and lose their inspiration (more often than they'd like). The difference is, they keep writing anyway because they've learned to trust themselves and the process. And over time, through repetition, and with practice, they get better and better at what they do. So, take those classes; imagine those heroes and heroines; work tirelessly on your craft, and try to perfect your technique.  That's a huge part of becoming a better writer. But in the meantime, WRITE...AND KEEP WRITING UNTIL THE STORY IS FINISHED.


  1. Great Blog post, Tessa! Pretty much describes my experience to a T. To say my first draft was rough is like saying the maiden voyage of Titanic was a little bumpy. But it was a start, and it led through multiple versions to where I am now, on the verge of being published.

  2. I tried to post a comment earlier, but the Internet seemed determined to stop me. I will prevail nevertheless if only to say thank you for this blog. It may seem simple to some looking from the outside in, but your words are powerful and inspiring. Too often we make things more complicated in our quest for perfection. We can be impatient and we try to control the writing process instead of working with the process. I know that has been the case for me. When I sit down to write now, I will hear your words and just write...

  3. Hey Chad & Dennis, I'm so glad you both got something useful out of this blog (and understood exactly what I :-)) It's so easy to get stuck on the simplistic, and I think we are our own worst critics, which can really hamper the writing process.

    I also agree that patience is a big challenge in writing -- trudging through word by painstaking word... :-) Sometimes it's glorious; sometimes it's just painful. Sometimes it's embarrassing, lol. The key is, writers know this and just keep going.

  4. Great post, Tessa. I would also add that people who are not avid readers generally don't make good writers. If you don't love books, and don't enjoy reading other people's books, you probably won't enjoy writing one.

  5. I couldn't agree with you more, Dariel. And by "read books," I would suggest hundreds and hundreds. I try to read a little every day even when I'm too busy to write :-)