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How to write a novel in 21 slow and easy steps

November 09, 2012|By Hector Tobar
  • Step 9: Start writing paragraphs that sound like the writer you've always wanted to read but have never found. That writer will be you.
Step 9: Start writing paragraphs that sound like the writer you've… (Luke Jones / Flickr )

It’s National Novel Writing Month. Across the U.S., people are writing books, posting their work on the NaNoWriMo website, each trying to reach the goal of 50,000 words. As of this morning they’ve got 21 days to go, and they’ve collectively written a little more than 1 billion words.

It just so happens I have my own manuscript in progress, for my fourth book. Earlier this week, I hit 51,125 words — but it’s taken me a year to write that much. Trying to write 50,000 words in a month strikes me as both an insane and wonderful thing to do.

If you’re trying to write a novel in a month, you are going to be obsessed. Writing will be your lifestyle, your everything, the air you breathe. I sort of live that way myself, even if I’ve never written 50,000 words in a month. My own prescription for becoming a novelist is a little lest frantic, more tortoise than hare.

I’ve boiled down my go-slow novel writing approach to 21 steps in the list you’ll see below, steps that can be completed in a couple of years, or a decade — there is no time limit.

1. Read a lot.

2. Start writing down some ideas for short stories.

3. Actually write a paragraph of a story that sounds like a writer you admire.

4. Live with the characters in the story you imagine. Walk around with them in your head all day.

5. Buy a moleskin notebook. Carry it with you wherever you go.

6. Read even more by writers from as wide a variety of styles, time periods and countries as you can.

7.  If you have time, sign up for a writing workshop at your local university extension, community college or literary arts center.

8. Take long walks, wash the dishes, garden. As you’re doing these non-writing things, ideas for sentences in the book/story you’re writing will come to you when you relax. Write those down in your notebook.

9. Start writing down paragraphs that sound like the writer you always wanted to read but never really found in the books you’ve read. That writer will be you.

10. Come up with a grand, ambitious plan for the novel you want to write.

11. Think of that novel as a bunch of small pieces, challenges. For example, try to write an original and vivid description of one character’s eyes.

12. Patiently tackle one piece or challenge at a time.

13. Repeat steps 4, 5, 6, 8, 11 and 12 over and over again for several years.

14. (optional, for the especially paranoid) Don’t tell anyone you’re working on a novel, because that might jinx you.

15. Send what you’ve written to a literary agent, or apply for an MFA program in creative writing, or a summer writing conference at which you might meet editors and agents.

16. Take criticism from your peers and learn from that criticism, while secretly holding on to the idea that what you want to do is unique, and no one precisely understands it as you do.

17. Go to work at a real job, that pays, while your novel is methodically rejected by publishers. If no one buys your novel, return to step 10 and start over again.

18. Pop the cork on a bottle of champagne when your novel finally sells.

19. Don’t buy a second bottle of champagne, because with your small advance you’ll only be able to afford one.

20. Go to your first reading as a published author and never, ever forget when you were at Step 1.

21. Start the next book.

A final note. Each time I’ve completed this list, it’s taken me at least five years. One time I reached Step 17 and had to start over again, then completed it again. For this novelist, slow and steady is the way.


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