The Novelist’s To-Do List for Greatness

When I finished the first draft of my second novel, Caged Heart.

When I finished the first draft of my second novel, Caged Heart.

Today I finished the first draft of my third novel, ‘Fall Street’ (claps on the back, applause, and confetti here).  Now, the more times I do this the easier it gets, but I still remember being a nervous newbie who couldn’t imagine writing a whole book.   So with that in mind, here’s my very simple tips to help you get from beginner to Banzai! (which, of course, means awesome).  Warning — there are as many great ways to write as there are great writers; what follows is what’s worked for me.

Novelist To-Do List for Greatness

  1. Think up ideas all the time.  Make believe and playtime from when you were a kid should never end.  As the quote says “I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, “Damnit, Thurber, stop writing.” — James Thurber.   A news story, friend’s life, weird phrase, movie — don’t copy something but use it as the jumping off point for a whole new, exciting world.
  2. Pick an idea that keeps you interested.  I have lots of ideas I play around with, but only a few last and keep me coming back.
  3. Think about your story for at least 3 months, preferably 3 years.    I’m not kidding.  I find stories and characters that I’ve thought about, listened to, and obsessed over make better novels.  A great way to do this is to have several ideas going at once.  Right now I have about six ideas for novels that I’m developing in my head.  By the time their number’s called, their worlds will be very complex and, hopefully, interesting.
  4. Start writing.  Boldly begin.  There’s no magic like pen to page (even when it’s all digital!).
  5. Start your next session by rereading your last.  For me, I don’t edit a first draft too much, I let it have its space, but I do find reading over last time’s work and cleaning it up a bit helps me get back in the same mood to get excited and continue forward.
  6. Trust.  Trust.  Trust.  Follow what interests you.  Abandon what doesn’t.  Let the story and the characters lead you, not the other way around.
  7. Don’t believe in ‘Writer’s Block’.  Believe the only time you can’t write is when your subconscious is telling you something important.  Give yourself the time, space, and respect to figure out what it’s saying.
  8. When you get to the end, stop.  Lewis Carroll said it and it’s true.  Don’t worry about page count, length, and especially the considerations of genre.  I’ve written 140,000 word novels and 45,000 word ones — let that story be that story.  There’s plenty of time to think about the market later anyway.
  9. Be prepared for (and excited about) doing a second, third, and forth (and beyond) draft.  First drafts are about discovery (and most pro writers say even their first drafts are very bad) but the later drafts are how you turn that gold vain in the ground into an amazing piece of fine art jewelry.  After you see the whole story, you’ll start to understand how to tell it.  It’s very exciting.
  10. Take a few weeks break.  Come back with fresh eyes.
  11. Look at the big picture.  So far, my novels haven’t needed massive changes, but this is the time to realize if you do.  If you discovered your lead character half way through the book, now is the time to go back and continue the first draft to line up with the rest of the story you want to keep.
  12. Read your whole novel aloud.  As I work through each chapter, I read aloud to myself.  This is my number one secret to success — you won’t believe how different a sentence reads aloud, or how much better you’ll become as you polish toward acing this part of the process.
  13. As you edit through the drafts, look from large to small.  Look at big picture, smaller picture, each chapter, each scene (I had to add in a couple of scenes to ‘Caged Heart’ that I realized were ‘missing’ from the first draft [scenes that fleshed out relationships]), and finally each sentence and each choice of word.  It may sound intense, but you’ll probably love doing it and it makes for a great book.  I’m not sure why you’d write if you didn’t care about getting each word right.
  14. Get your ‘Moving Buddy’.  Find that one person — hopefully someone you love and who loves you, and hopefully someone with similar tastes, and have them read the good-as-you-can-make-it almost final draft.  Think about all they say and then change what you feel in your heart will make it a better, truer-to-your-vision story.  Discard any advice that doesn’t speak to your soul.
  15. Let it go.  You’ll come to that moment, that draft, when you can’t improve any more.  You know one day you’ll be a better writer, one who can do more, but for the time being — for this novel — it’s done.  Be happy.  Be sad.  Drink champagne.  And most importantly —
  16. Wake up and start your next novel.
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