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Three Steps to Finishing Your First Novel: Left brained solutions for a right brained problem.
Three Steps to Finishing Your First Novel
In the wake of a number of hubs and other stuff I've found recently that seem to focus on the frustration and, to be frank, procrastination of lots of would be novelists regarding how to get that first novel done, I thought I would offer some suggestions that maybe will help a few people still sitting on the novel-writing fence jump down and get going.
Right out of the gate, I want to get something clear: I'm not promising you'll get it published. In fact, I'll be really honest, you probably won't (at least not by a traditional, brick-and-mortar publishing house. The odds are horrifically against you, so, if you're writing a novel because you think it's a way to make money, well, A) you are delusional, and B) this won't be the article for you.
However, if you aren't delusional and you just love to write, and you think that you're a novelist at heart, but just haven't been able to muster that goddamn thing onto paper yet, well, I can really help you out. I recognize that different people think in different ways, so, this won't be the panacea of prose. However, I'm on my third novel now and my last first draft was done in under eight weeks (570 pages). So, while I'm not rich from my novels, I am getting them down on paper, which is more than many of my writer friends can say. So, here's what I suggest you do. Three steps to finishing that first F-ing one.
1. Make a Timeline First
Ok, for many people, plotting a novel seems to be the hardest part. I hear "I get started all the time, but around sixty pages it all falls apart" frequently. I used to do that too, get all excited to start, get writing, and... then, well, everything starts to slowly, inexorably fall apart. The problem was, I didn't have a plan. As much fun as it is to just start writing, immersing yourself in the dream world and watching the story reveal itself as if it were a play, ultimately that just doesn't get most people to the end.
Think about it, say you were an engine designer for a big car company. You want to build a new super engine. What do you do? Start bolting parts together? Of course not. You design your engine first. Carefully. Meticulously. You need to make a plan. A novel is the same way.
Here's a suggestion for how to get that done. For starters, figure out what you want to happen in the end (this can be a climax scene if you'd like rather than the actual "very end"). I write sci-fi and fantasy, so let's use an example from what I know. Let's say the climax of my book is going to be that the brave prince saves the hawt princess from the evil dragon. Easy enough, right? So, that's my climax: Prince saves Princess from Dragon. I'm going to put that on my timeline.
Alright, so there it is on my timeline. But now what? I mean, how did she get caught by the dragon and why? Thinking logically, not like an artist; if Prince Charming is going to save her, she needs to get captured first, right? So now we're going to work backwards from the climax. So I ask myself, why does the dragon catch her? (For your book it might be why does the murderer kill the mayor, or why does the pregnant lover choose to keep the baby and move to Santa Fe... it doesn't matter what, we all write what interests us.) So, this part requires some imagination, but, come on, if you want to write a novel and you don't have imagination, well, perhaps you're not dreaming of doing the right thing. Anyway, so, why is our dear princess in the dragon's lair? Since this is my article, I'm going to say it's because she's an airhead and decided to take her new pony out for a ride in the woods and the dragon found her. (Sure, it's random, but imagination works like that. Just go with it.) Alright, so that means I need to put that event on the timeline too.
Ok, so there is: princess rides her pony out into the woods.
I might even think to myself as I'm coming up with that genius idea, where's the pony come from? That's a great question, I tell myself. So I decide her father, the King, gave it to her for a gift. Cool, that's a minor detail, but it matters, so, since I'm thinking of it, I'll toss it on the time line, somewhere before the pony ride: "Princess gets pony as gift." See how easy that was?
Alright, now, we pull back from our story a bit and look at what we got. We got a gift, a pony ride and a rescue. What else do we need? Just think logically. Plots don't have to be weird or psychedelic, despite what so many artists are trying to do these days. You want to get fancy, do it on novel number two. So, hmm, what's missing? Well, for starters, I'm looking at this timeline and the prince doesn't even know the princess is captured anywhere yet. So I need to figure out where he finds out that the dragon has her in his lair. Then I realize, oh shit, I don't even have a scene plotted for the dragon taking her either. I guess I should put that on the timeline too.
Well, that looks better. But now what? Hmmm. Time to pull out of imagination and time for logic again.
Ok, so he found out she's gone, right? But, umm, when did he meet her? I'm assuming they're in love or something right? I mean, Charming ain't just gonna run in to a dragon's lair and save some chick he never met? What if she doesn't have all her teeth or something? So, I need to go close to the beginning of my timeline and put that in too, an event to describe how or why he cares what happens to her.
Anyway, I can go on, but I think you see my point. If you just timeline your plot out, you'll start to see obvious places where events need to take place. You won't necessarily think of them in sequence. In fact, you almost definitely won't. You'll look at your timeline and have lots of, "Oh shit, I need XYZ to happen before this or that does." It will fill itself in if you just pull yourself away from it and study it logically from time to time (a left brained approach to a right brained novel. Trust me, it works). Just start with the climax, or even with the very end. It's perfectly acceptable to start with "Prince and Princess get married and do dirty things in the hot tub at the hotel." It doesn't matter, just get to the part at the end and then figure out how that came about. Once you have it plotted out - for me that can actually be the work of several weeks (and occasionally years) - you're ready to begin writing now.
The odds are, anyone actually interested in "writing their first novel" probably has some really well thought out ideas by now. They might need to be timelined or "plotted" but, I doubt too many still reading at this point can't at least see how they might line their idea out on a timeline. Bottom line is, just put the climax on there near the end, whether it's dragon rescues, mass murder, sex, finding the grail, leaving the evil spouse, whatever. Just put the climax at the end of the timeline and fill it out from there. Word processors make really great tools for this, because you can keep moving stuff around. Anyway, try it. It's easy and it will make a roadmap for you to use when you move to step two.
2. Write to your landmarks
Alright, so now you have a nice timeline giving you lots of major events, which I call "landmarks." Since you spent the time to map it out, you need to start thinking about how the story is actually going to go in smaller detail. This is where chapters start to form. This is where you start filling in lesser-details on your timeline, or even make new outline/timelines to get you from point to point with the major events you have plotted out, mini-maps from landmark to landmark.
Ok, so my first main scene on my time line is probably about my Prince meeting my Princess. Fine. But I can't really just have that happen in the first chapter can I? I mean, "Once upon a time this hawt guy met this hawt chick and they both started drooling everywhere." I don't think so. So, I need to introduce her and I need to introduce him, right? Well, how am I going to do that? So, here I was all ready to start writing, but first I have to think some more. Maybe I should have a party, a big ball and they can meet. Alright, if that's the plan, I need to write "The Ball" down on my timeline.
You're probably thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, I thought we had moved to step 2 on this guide, but you're putting us back on the timeline again."
Yeah, sorry about that, but step 2 has some more of that. You have to think through a bit more before you write so you don't write yourself into a corner.
So, I got a ball I have to have. Well, obviously I can write a great chapter about the ball. That's easy AND fun. But, think about it, how do I get them both to the ball?
Alright, so the king is going to throw the ball in honor of... Hmm, minor detail here... maybe because his favorite horse just had a baby. Fine, we'll go with that. So why does the prince show up? (We already know the princess will be there because we decided that she's getting a horse from her father for a gift... see how this timeline starts to pay dividends?). So the prince has to be invited or something.
So why ... hmm... ok, he likes horses, because.... Because.. he's a kick ass prince who wins all the fox hunts and jousts every year.
Ok, look, we're in random mode here, but, you see how I'm still brainstorming, not writing just yet?
So, we put that down on our timeline. I indent that stuff, but hey, whatever works for you. Alright, now I'm getting close to being able to write. I need to throw a ball for the birth of a little horse for which word has to get out to attract the attention of a horse loving prince. Ok, now I'm ready to write. I have lots of stuff that I can write in, lots character stuff about who they are as people, what they like, what motivates them etc. I know the king likes horses, the prince does, I know the princess will like them... OMG.. WAIT... hah, totally random thought, but, she's getting a pony later on, right? So why does she get one? Because she was inspired to want one because the prince is so hawt looking at the ball!
See how this works. Ideas come from ideas, little pieces fill themselves in. Trust me, just outline/timeline the crap out of your story. It's really fun and you'll find this stuff filling up your head in the most delightful ways, making car trips and bus rides and boring dinners with your spouse's boss so much more enjoyable. Little nuggets for your timeline will just pop up out of life. It's a blast.
Anyway, the whole thing works like that. Get the main events on your timeline by working backwards on your timeline from the climax, then, once you have it ironed out, you fill in the main details by working forwards from main event (landmark) to main event (landmark). You'll find you bounce back and forth between step one and step two for quite some time as ideas from step 2 (like my "why she wanted a pony" inspiration) will feed back to your main outline in step 1. If you work these two steps together, you'll be amazed at how organized and detailed your story will become. In fact, you'll be getting little epiphanies all the time and your friends will be like, "WTF?" when, suddenly at dinner some night after a sip of rather cheap wine, you say stuff like, "OMG, the princess only got captured because her father forbade her to see the prince again due to his comment at the party about hating red wine (which, you decide is the king's favorite now)... which is WHY she rode out of his protected lands!"
Seems lame, or maybe even remedial to some, but I'm hoping you see what I mean. Remember, the bottom line is about getting your first novel process under some kind of control, making less intimidating... making it possible. Doing steps one and two will give you strong direction in which to write. Done patiently, you'll find it fun and find it gives you a very easy to follow road upon which to write yourself finally to a novel's end. By the time you actually start writing, you end up just filling in all the beautiful details of the ball, her gown, the cute little horse, and the prince's clever repartee as you work your way from one landmark, large and small, to the next.
3. DO MATH
Ok, this sounds counter-intuitive I know, especially with all this other stuff. You want to write a novel, and here I am telling you that now you should do some math. How does that make sense? Well, believe it or not, it kind of works on that old "opposites attract" idea. It's about human nature and about staying motivated to get it done. Here's how math can help.
A super short novel, seriously short, is about 70,000 words. Using Times New Roman, 12 font and double spaced we're talking roughly 225 pages. And that's a short ass novel. Ok, here's where doing math will help you get it done.
Decide how long you are willing to spend on this project, or how soon you want it to happen, either way. Be realistic. How fast do you type? If you don't know, go to a site like http://www.typingtest.com/ and spend five minutes on a test. It ain't super accurate, but it's close enough for you to get an idea. Say you type 40 words a minute. Alright, do the math: A 70,000 word novel typed at 40 wpm = 70 ÷ 40 = 1750 minutes. So let's turn that into hours: 1750 minutes ÷ 60 minutes in an hour = 29.16666 hours, which we will call 30 hours.
Ok, so what we just did was determine that you can write a super short novel in 30 hours of work if you can type at 40 words per minute. Obviously, most writers type much faster than this. Some type slower. Concentration factors in. Whatever. Look at the main point. You can use this formula to figure out how long it will take you to just type a novel. But we're not done.
The truth is, you ain't gonna sit down for 30 hours and write a novel. Even though that's technically doable in two days, including sleep and food, we all know, ain't gonna happen. However, this is what you can do. Take the 30 hours and divide it up into chunks that you think you can do (keep in mind, you have a nice, well laid out plan this time, not just writing randomly).
Let's say you're a lazy piece of crap like me. Let's say that you can't commit to writing for an hour a day because you drink too much or you play frisbee with your dog or, I don't know, whatever. Let's say you can only commit to half an hour a day. Hell, let's say you can only commit to an AVERAGE of a half an hour a day, meaning, you're going to write an hour one day and pour beer on your dog the next. Fair enough. So we average half an hour a day. How long does that take to get a first draft done? Well, back to math: 30 hours of writing ÷ .5 hours a day = 60 days. So, it will take you 60 days (two months) to write a 70,000 world novel if you can just average 30 minutes of writing a day.
Now here's my SUPER secret. Just commit to 15 minutes.
Ok, probably confusing, since I just said you have to average 30 minutes a day. Well, writing your FIRST novel is an emotional business. You'll get to weird spots. You'll write yourself into corners. You'll get pissed at how lame something seems. Maybe your significant other comes in mid-scene wearing leather chaps and spurs. All kinds of stuff can distract you. So, commit to 15 minutes, no matter what. Tell that leather-clad lover to chill for 7 more minutes while you finish up real fast. Come on, anyone can do that much. Never do less than that. (For your next novels, it will be considerably more, but, remember, we're trying to get the first one done. That's the hard one.)
See, here's the thing, while you will do some 15 minute days, probably more of them than you wish, you will also do 2 and 4 hour days as well. I'm telling you, it all averages out. Just so long as you NEVER go less than 15 minutes. That's the only promise you have to make to yourself. 15 minutes. (This means no skipping and paying yourself back tomorrow.) Just write for 15 minutes no matter how you FEEL. If you can't do that, you suck. You probably spend more time than that in the bathroom every day.
Now listen, I ain't promising you a masterpiece. If it's anything like my first manuscript, it's not going to be all that impressive when you're done. But, the thing is, everyone wishes they'd written their FIRST novel. But they never do. They always just wish. So, what I'm giving you is a way to getting the first one done. Once you've written your first, you will discover that it's actually not all that hard to do. The first one is just intimidating. The day you finish it is like the day you finally punched the 5th grade bully in the nose and made him cry. You realize all your fear was in your head. The real work is in revision anyway. So get the first one on paper. You can revise it and mess with it later. But get it down; DO NOT GO BACK AND EDIT ANYTHING until you have the whole thing down. Just write the damn thing and learn from the process of finishing one. You will learn that you are capable of pulling a novel off. It is an amazing accomplishment, no matter if you can get it published or not. Odds are, you won't. So there you go. Don't even bother if you think you're going to dash off Anna Karenina on your first go round. I mean, you might, but I ain't holding my breath for you, no offense. However, if you are a writer that's stuck in short story land and wants to find a way past that novel block, well, this is a set of three steps that will help you get it done. Good luck, and don't be a puss', just write the damn thing already.
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