Never mind the old cliché that says ‘there’s a novel inside everyone’. It might well be true, but the tricky part is getting it out and on to paper.
After 23 years trying, I think I’ve finally discovered the secrets of writing a novel the easy way.
I’ve served time as publisher, reviewer and writer and I’ve met a few authors in my time, ranging from Stephen King, Ian Rankin and Ken Follett to Ken Bruen, Terry Pratchett and Minette Walters. Although you can never lump everyone into the same pigeon-hole, generally speaking people who write books, especially novels, are ‘different’. There’s something about them that sets writers apart from the rest of society.
For a start, they have to be single-minded. Working out a story, inventing characters and putting it all down on paper (all right, probably a computer screen, but don’t pick hairs) is a very daunting process. Most novels range in length from 50,000 to 150,000 words: a lot of writing, with plenty of opportunities along the way to think ‘the hell with this!’ and run off and watch reruns of the High Chaparral.
Veteran American mystery writer Joe Gores quotes the advice given to him when he asked a Notre Dame professor how to become a writer: ‘It’s very easy to be a writer. Go to a big city and get a little room with a table and a chair in it. Put your typewriter on the table and your backside on the chair. Start writing. When you stand up ten years later, you’ll be a writer.’ Today we can substitute ‘computer’ for ‘typewriter’ (have you ever tried to get ribbons for those things?) and we have to conquer the urge to edit whilst we write, but essentially nothing fundamental has changed.
To be productive, writers need to have a strong belief in their own talent and a confidence that what they are writing is ‘good enough’. As a former publisher who had to wade through piles of submissions, I can vouch that very often this confidence is very often misguided. Having said that, several terrible writers I rejected (no names) went on to have great success with other publishers. So the question to ask yourself is ‘good enough for what?’. And frankly, that depends on what your goals are.
If you’re attempting literary fiction and you suffer from lack of self-confidence, then you’re probably a masochist who should think about switching to self-flagellation: it’ll be immensely less painful in the long run. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to write a thriller, a romance, historical mystery or similar genre novel, keep at it. As another old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Writing is a craft that can be learned and the way to learn is to work at it. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just get writing. There’s nothing you write that can’t be edited and improved on later.
I can confess that I suffer from a severe lack of confidence in my writing. At the moment I am reading The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, a brilliantly multi-textured work of fiction by any standard and I can’t help comparing Burke’s flowing prose to my own miserable efforts. Which is silly. A guy I know who teaches writing at university suggests that would-be novelists keep a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to hand. It sold millions and zillions of copies, but let’s be honest, Dan Brown is no William Shakespeare, nor I suspect would he want to be.
So that’s how you write a novel. You simply sit down and write. There is no easy way unless you are the type of self-obsessed, doggedly persistent person that will make a natural author. For the rest of us, I can recommend a very helpful eBook: Mark Timlin’s Write A Novel in 60 Days That Will Sell. It covers practically everything you need to know to conquer writers’ block, as well as plenty of other unique writing tips. I know because I helped write it. It’s the best. Honest.