As a subscriber to Anna’s Substack, I’m very much interested in her writing process. I am slightly obsessed by every writer’s process, to be honest. Including my own.
Truth is, we all get there in the end differently. Our methods vary. Last time, in Lesson Nine: Getting Back on the Horse, Anna said she doesn’t envy writers who ‘churn books out’. I am — or was — one of those writers. I signed a contract that bound me to two books a year. I didn’t mind. It was my choice. It was exciting. But I hit a wall halfway through the second book, with only a few months left to deliver.
I sat down one morning to write and thought: how am I going to get this done?
What I did was come up with a method that works for me. It’s outlined in my book How To Write A Novel in 6 Months. And it seems to have helped others to write their novels, too.
It does require planning your novel. You need to know the beginning, middle, and end. Not specifically, perhaps; things can change — I am not laying down rules here, just principles that work for me. But knowing where you are going helps you get there.
I teach creative writing in the community. The writers in the group are great; they have some wonderful ideas. But a common thread is: ‘I just can’t seem to get anywhere with my novel.’
I ask what their process is. They tell me they write when they can and just work on a scene. Usually the same scene — over and over and over.
No wonder those novels aren’t getting finished. One of only two rules of writing that I cite is:
FINISH YOUR BOOK.
I believe the way to make sure you do that is by having a map, a route, an outline. I recommend it. As specifically or as vaguely as you want, plan out your novel. Know the big scenes, the turning points; know the moment your main character has to make choices — and know a little about how it’s going to end. Sure, you can change your mind, but having an idea of your climax can really help.
So, you’ve got an outline. Maybe it’s twenty pages, full of details; maybe it’s two pages, just a rough sketch of the beginning, middle, and end of your book. What now?
And set yourself goals. I think this is important. But be realistic. So often we hear the advice: Write every day. I think those who proffer this guidance are either full-time writers who do nothing else, or those who write about how they think writing should be. It’s not real life. For real life I suggest setting yourself weekly word (or page) targets. When I’m writing my first draft, I set myself an 8,000-words-a-week target. There are seven days in a week, and it doesn’t matter if I miss a day or two, or sometimes three, I have the rest of the week to hit my goal (I support Anna’s view in a recent Substack, that you should take days off. Life sometimes forces them on you, of course, but take them even if it doesn’t). I know that in ten weeks or so, I will have an 80,000 -word first draft. A messy, chaotic first draft, but a first draft. I don’t stop to correct spelling or grammar or check facts or tidy a sentence when I’m writing that draft. I recommend you don’t either. Just finish it. The old adage: don’t get it right, get it written. Rule 1, remember:
FINISH YOUR BOOK
Once you have that messy, chaotic first draft, you can — like a sculptor with a piece of rock — begin to chisel away at it and turn it into a neater second draft… and so on… and so on. Until you have a draft that you’re happy with. A draft that doesn’t break the second rule of writing:
DON’T BORE THE READER.
Very important rule. Make sure they want to turn the page. Which is why I think planning your novel can help. If you know where all those crisis points are, where the tension is, you can keep your story moving along at a pace; you can make sure the reader keeps turning the page. Like Anna says, make the earth move for your reader too. That’s something else we agree on. It’s something all writers know they must do, whatever their process, whether they are planners or pantsters, ruminators or racers: get the book done and don’t put readers to sleep.
Nothing else to it.
• Thomas Emson is the author of eight horror novels, all published by Snowbooks. He has also published a story collection, The Trees And Other Stories, and a non-fiction guide, How To Write a Novel in 6 Months. His stories have featured in the anthologies Holidays Of The Dead and Leaders Of The Pack. You can contact him at thomasemson_info (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk. He’d also be really pleased to chat to you on Twitter, @thomasemson.