by Jenny Hansen
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
~W. Somerset Maugham
Novel writing isn't for sissies.
However, since this is Spring, it felt right to step out of my happy little pre-published cozy zone and share my "3 Writing Commandments."
We'll see if y'all agree (or disagree) that these three babies will help you keep your sanity while you go through the long, often lonely process of penning your stories. Just so there's no ambiguity, I even put them in my order of importance. *drumroll please*
Commandment #1 ~ Thou shalt not quit.
"The only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying."
Susan Mallery was the one who really brought this home to me in the talk I linked to above (just click her name). She freely admitted to being "an OK writer who didn't give up until she became a good writer."
Note: In my humble opinion, she's a damn good romance writer at least 95% of the time and I don't think you can ask for more than that in this business.
All the writers I know, except a few tentative ones who worked hard on their craft before they put their
babies books out there, were rejected for years...
- By agents and editors they really, really wanted
- In contests they wanted to place in
- By critique groups
- By family members and friends who pooh-poohed their dreams
Did they give up?? No they did not.
They kept learning and working until the doors that were previously closed inched open. Maybe those doors only opened a teensy little crack but, like the prisoner who digs for freedom one spoonful of dirt at a time, these writers kept writing.
Our own Laura Drake went through 13 years of rejections before her door opened. Here's her post on the subject: 5 Things I Wish I'd Believed Before I Sold.
Commandment #2 ~ Thou shalt not adopt nonsensical rules.
The only rules that matter are the ones that work for you. Really. Truly. I promise.
I'm not saying you don't need to have great Craft and good structure. I believe you do. A novel without structure is a paper brick you'll end up heaving under the bed with your dustbunnies.
Those of you who've been at this for a while probably shake your head over your early work. This is what beta readers and critique partners are for, so you don't throw that brick onto Amazon before you know better.
The point of this commandment is you must write your stories in a way that allows you to finish them. Period.
It doesn't matter if you're surrounded by linear, plotting writers. If YOU aren't linear in your process, nothing -- not rivers of chocolate or jiggy dancing tunes -- is going to lure you to The End of that book.
No magic potion will help you zoom straight through to the end using "someone else's methods" because you can't. Your brain doesn't work that way. It works your way.
Learn good craft, but above all learn your own process! Part of why I'm unpublished is it took me so damn long to figure out I'm a scene writer. I don't write straight through a book. I simply can't do it.
And -- important side note here -- I was hung up on that silly, stupid, stopping "S" word: Should. *boo-hiss. throws virtual tomatoes*
I HATE that freaking word. It has wasted a boatload of my time.
What I can do is build a basic structure to work in, even though I write my scenes out of order. (I know all you organized linear peeps just got the heebie-jeebies over that last sentence.)
Here's how it works for me:
- I lay out some character sketches - often in the form of short stories.
- My critique group helps me hash out the basic 3-act structure and turning points.
- I scribble up a list of all the scenes I know (sometimes this takes a few sessions).
- I write those scenes as they come to me, with an approximate idea of what comes before and after each one.
- I stitch it all together later.
Diana Gabaldon and Lorna Landvik write like this too, which makes me feel better since I love their books.
Writing like my linear pantser friends gave me nothing but frustration and bad self-esteem.
Using other peoples' processes ensured that somewhere between page sixty and one hundred, I'd start moaning to the Writing Gods about what a failure I was. My old ways guaranteed that I'd grow bored with my books because I never progressed past the beginning of the second act.
My way lets me see pages pile up and allows me to participate in challenges like ROW80 and Fast Draft. Plus, now that I've figured out "my system," I've got about 9 books to finish. Sweet!!
This leads me to my third point, and the one I'm working madly at right now...
Commandment #3 ~ Thou shalt finish thy books.
I wrote a post called The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned about a conversation I had with my pal, Natalie Hartford.
No one has a masterpiece on the first run. The key is to start writing. Remember, done is better than good, my friend. You can make your “done” into “very good” MUCH easier than you can make a little bit of good stuff into a finished novel.
We went on a bit longer, but basically this conversation was about fear. Like all writers, Natalie was floundering out of the gate because she felt like she had to get some “BIG IDEA” to run with.
There’s only like six story ideas on the planet so we all need to chill and just write. And never, ever forget that “done is better than good.”
If you’re staring at your blank screen and need brainstorming ideas, you might also enjoy this post.
One last thought:
Part of the writing pain that led to Commandment #2 was good old fashioned fear. It's hard to make rational decisions about your story when you're scared.
The best post I've ever read on dealing with this kind of fear is called Talking Back To Your Brain. Susan and Harry Squires wrote it here at WITS. I'm not going to say too much more because you really need to click that link but here's an example:
We’re not asking questions like: How can I make this a better book? Too big, too vague, and way too scary.
We’re not asking negative questions such as, “Why isn’t my heroine likable? A really long list of answers will just be depressing.
Keep it small (one scene, even one paragraph, one character, one action, etc.). Then let your brain work.
That's the kind of advice that helps me stay sane during this crazy writing process.
Do you have some hard and fast "writing commandments?" What are they? What's guaranteed to take you in the other direction and hold up your forward progress? What's your position on the "S" word?
About Jenny Hansen
Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.
When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA and here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.