Author Guest Post

How to Write a Novel in 6 Easy Steps

April 5, 2017
Emma Chastain
Author of Confessions of a High School Disaster

I’ve wanted to write a book since I was in first grade, but for three and a half decades, I didn’t. Below, I’ve listed the six things that helped me finally get off my butt and do it. I’m an internet-addicted lazybones, and the tactics I used might not be relevant for more organized, motivated writers, but if you’ve ever found yourself watching videos of otters holding hands when you’re supposed to be working, one or more items on the below list might be useful. I hope so!

1. Write the book you want to read yourself

Every writing teacher tells you this, but it took me a long time to grasp the profound wisdom of the advice. For a long time, I felt I should write a searing, slightly dour work of literary fiction. Finally it dawned on me that the books I love, the books I read and reread, are comic epistolary novels narrated by well-meaning but completely clueless characters (to name just a few: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Diary of a Nobody; I Capture the Castle; Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging; Bridget Jones’s Diary), and that I wanted to write something that would fit on a shelf with these books.

2. Outline

Have you started umpteen novels, only to abandon them 1,000 or 10,000 words in because you have no idea where you’re going or what the story is? Me too! Plenty of writers can feel their way along, seeing only as far as their headlights, but I can’t. I need Waze.

3. Write a little bit every day

My goal is to write for 20 minutes a day. Twenty minutes is nothing, obviously—I could spend that long editing a tweet, or tweezing a single eyebrow. But I make the goal tiny on purpose, so that I’ll feel embarrassed if I can’t pull it off. Sometimes I write for 20 minutes, sometimes I write for two hours, but I never write for long. I think most people (including me) underestimate how much work they can get done in small increments. The every-dayness is important, too. If I stay away from my manuscript for longer than a day, I start to lose my intimate knowledge of it, and my interest in it.

4. While you’re writing, write

When I have my Word doc open, I don’t let myself open tabs, eat, listen to music, or even stand up. If I need to Google something, I make a note so I’ll remember to do it later. When I get a little stuck and feel the familiar urge to escape by looking at my phone, I don’t let myself. I force myself to be uncomfortable and work out whatever small problem I’m facing. Maybe you have better self-control than I do, and can glance at Twitter for a minute and then get back to your manuscript. I have zero self-control, so I have to abstain completely.

5. Leave yourself instructions

When I’m done writing, I jot down a quick note about where to start the next day (“keep figuring out Halloween dance,” “fix fight scene on p. 132”). You think you’ll remember where you were and what you were doing, but you won’t.

6. Give up things you enjoy

If you have kids or a job or school commitments and you want to write a book, you’re probably going to have to stop doing stuff you like to do or feel you should do. I don’t watch TV or movies anymore, and I don’t exercise. And I hate it! I desperately want to binge “Big Little Lies,” and I desperately want to feel like I’m a human being with muscles and not a quivering mass of Jell-O wearing yoga pants. But writing is more important to me than doing that stuff, so for now, I’m a gelatinous non-human who has not seen Nicole Kidman breaking down in her therapist’s office (does she break down, or is she icily composed? I have no idea!).

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