With the publication of my second novel, Bacon and Egg Man (Nook), a number of people have reached out to me expressing admiration and mild jealousy. Some of them I knew were writers. Others were a surprise. Still others were completely imaginary and I’m using their imaginary questions as inspiration for a blog post. But the message tended to be the same. HOW do you do it? You must be so disciplined. You have a non-academic, year-around day job and still find time.
While I like a good ego stroking, I always feel a little guilty about this. Because in my head, I’m a lazy, unproductive turd of a writer. I read about these lawyers who had full-time caseloads AND a full-time family AND they wrote from Junior’s bedtime until 3 in the morning, then woke up, went to the gym and then went to work. Or even those full-time writers who lock themselves in a basement all day, coming up only for coffee and cigarettes.
Deep down inside, I feel like I should be on my seventh or eighth novel by now. I’m turning 40 this year and I have two published novels, one unpublished one and one in progress. I beat myself up about this constantly. Which just goes to show! (That I just can’t be satisfied with what I have.)
But how DO you write a novel? Here are some simple steps.
1. First you make a roux.
Wait. That’s for making gumbo. Sorry. Let’s start over.
1. First, you come up with an idea.
I know! Easy, right? There’s usually a bag of ’em hanging around someplace. But I’ll say this much. We’re tired of vampires and teenage girls with magical powers. Or magical teenage vampire girls. Unless you’re a great writer who can twist this. Then proceed.
2. Find the perfect computer. Or notebook. Or pen. Or writing software.
By all means, spend two months to a year worrying about the tools you are going to use. Because these things really matter! Okay, clearly I’m lying. But I speak from experience. I spent a few years saying I need a computer. Or a laptop. Or this and that. Some people fret over novel-writing software, whatever that is. Hey, whatever WORKS for you, use it. Just don’t put off writing because you haven’t found a magic solution yet. There is no magic solution.
You know how I’ve written these two published novels and the one I’m currently working on? First draft was completely pen and paper. In a notebook. Then I typed it into good ol’ Word for Windows. Does this impart some mystical power, some romance with the page? Hell no. But it does do this:
- Prevent me from deleting ideas that may prove useful later. You CAN read scratched out writing. You CAN’T read something you’ve erased from a Word document.
- Force at least on layer of self-editing into the process. Nothing like typing up your handwritten work to come across a passage and say to yourself, “What the fuck could I possibly have been thinking.” (Hemingway was a fan of this write on paper, then type editing process.)
- Allows me to doodle and draw maps and other such things! I think it’s important to have something to semi-mindlessly occupy yourself while you might not be physically writing but your mind is actively churning. Doodling became even more important after I quite smoking. (Don’t smoke!)
3. Find the perfect quiet spot — or noisy spot!
After you’ve dropped a couple of grand on the perfect laptop, you should call up a contractor about adding a library or writing room to your home! I kid. I kid. Find a spot where you can think and you’re free of the sort distractions that, uh, distract you. I write in a coffee shop. In fact, most of Bacon and Egg Man was written in the Starbucks on Court and Pacific in Cobble Hill. A lot of people who know nothing about writing crap all over this idea. For me, writing is lonely enough. And I’ve never been able to escape the notion that SOMETHING EXCITING IS HAPPENING OUT THERE AND I’M GOING TO MISS IT! Sitting in a windowless room in a Brooklyn apartment only makes it worse. Also, that apartment is full of TV. And internet. And Xbox. And girlfriend. And poodles. And food. And booze. A coffee shop is a little noisy. But it turns into white noise (and if it doesn’t, in go the earbuds). And there’s just enough traffic to occupy the part of my mind that needs to see action. Hell, the worst thing that happened to coffee shops is free WiFi. Because the internet is your enemy. You know what I should be doing right now? Revising a novel. What am I doing instead? BLOGGING!
4. Spend six years on research.
Unless you’re writing historical fiction, then spend 12 years on research! Yes, you’re novel needs to be believable. And there are cases where it just won’t work without research. For my friend Luis Urrea, the research was the journey and part of the fabric. Also, he was writing about some wild, whacky spiritual stuff. (Also, also: He was cranking out nonfiction books and OTHER novels while researching for the other two. And teaching. And being a journalist. He wasn’t on Facebook writing about how hard it was to research and not doing anything else.)
But chances are, you aren’t writing about a turn of the century Indian medicine woman. And chances are the research can turn into a perfect excuse for plagiarism. My first unpublished novel (there’s a copy in the ULL Library as it was my master’s thesis) was about Jesus. The research about the historical Jesus changes every damn week! Oddly enough, I did almost NO research on the priesthood and I’ve had people tell me that their priest friends felt it all rang true.
5. Just start writing. Who needs a plan?!
I can only write when I’m motivated. I can only write when I’m inspired. I used to believe this, too! Let me tell you something, hombre, when it comes to novel writing, it’s horse shit. And you will never finish. This isn’t poetry. This isn’t a short story. Where you can just sort of see where you’re going as you go along. I take that back. You CAN do that. But you’re going to find yourself ten years later still monkeying around with the first 60 pages and frustrated because no ending is materializing.
So here is what you’re going to do. You’re going to come up with an outline.
I know! I know! It goes against every creative thing in your body. But trust me on this. After you think of your idea and have most of your characters floating around in your head and have maybe bashed out a first chapter or an intro, sit your ass down and try to think this thing all the way through. Come up with a middle and an end. This is harder than it sounds. In fact, it might be harder than writing the damn thing! (Well, maybe harder than the first draft. Editing and revising is harder.) This is painful. I hate outlining. Hate it. Until I find myself writing and I’m like, “Hey, here is a very useful map!” Do you have to stick to this map? No. Of course not. Take detours, shortcuts, longcuts. Doesn’t matter. Hell, the ending you think up during outlining might suck. It might be contrived. It might not work once the characters flesh themselves out. But I find an ending point to shoot for simplifies a lot of things.
6. Write your novel.
Here’s what I do. Two hours a day. Every week day. Before I go to work. Until I’m done. Some days it’s one page. Some days it flows. The important thing isn’t page count, but rather giving yourself a time period every week day to devote to this. I do it in the morning when my mind is fresh, before it’s filled with hatred for technology and passive-aggressive Facebook updates and idiots on Twitter and horrible PR pitches.
There, you’re finished writing. Congrats!
7. Okay, now really write your novel.
Guess what. The first draft is likely horrible. Take a few days, a few weeks, a few months. Show it to your spouse, your parents, your friends if you want. Have some champagne. Not many people make it this far! But now the hard work starts. You have to edit and rewrite. You have to make it into something. You have to add humor. You have to fix the pacing. After all, the middle should be in the middle! You might even have to add in a bad guy! Throw in some real conflict. The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival was, in its first draft, about a self-absorbed priest who really just skated through life. Then Jackie Cangro got hold of it and said, “YOU NEED SOME DAMN CONFLICT KEN WHEATON!” Okay, she was more gentle than that. If you HAVE a couple of trusted readers and a thick skin, let them go at it with red pens.
Then start the process over and finish that thing.
8. Find an agent and get published.
Sorry. I can’t help with any of this. My head will explode if I start in on the agent querying process. Just keep in mind, they’re very busy people. And while they don’t have time to reply to each of us individually, they do have time to mock our query letters on Twitter!
The FDA reached out to me and insisted I include the following: Results may vary. Side effects include nausea, loose stool, ego inflation, self-absorption, self-aggrandizement, self-loathing, general loathing, red eye, dry mouth, itchy rear, cramped hands, envy, ennui and the yips. YIP!