Philip Deal Books

(My) Six steps to writing a novel



I’ve already suggested there is exactly one step to writing a novel: Sit in a comfortable chair during a block of time you protect like Fort Knox and write.

But we all want to believe – need to believe? – there is a plan we can follow, a series of steps, shortcuts, tips, something that will make it easier. So I’m going to play along. I’m going to tell you the six steps I follow to write a novel (although you abandon my single step approach at your own peril):

Step 1 – Before writing a word, I try to think well about what I’m going to write, without over planning.

Step 2 – I write intuitively until I hit a roadblock (which I almost always do).

I follow steps 1 and 2 because I desperately want to be that writer who somehow blasts through his first drafts without losing interest or energy, and because part of me believes that a writer’s best work is created when his built-in editor is sound asleep.

If only everything were up to me. But it isn’t, and that is where roadblocks come in.

Step 3 – While I’m stopped at my roadblock, I try to figure out what lesson that book is trying to teach me.

Thankfully, I’ve always been smart enough to stop when I muck things up (although one time it took me two years to figure out it was time to stop), and when I do get stuck I am not shy about asking for help. My good friend, Bart, unstuck me while I was writing Love In An Iron Bowl by telling me to write more about China (the Iron Bowl in the title) to balance the love story. “You’re writing a novel,” Bart said. “You have all the time in the world to be discursive.”

Lesson 1, while writing Love In An Iron Bowl – Allow the reader to touch, taste, and feel place.

Lesson 2, while writing OHM – Write real people, even if they don’t like your story.

Lesson 3, while writing Peculiar Hallelujah – Welcome surprise, even while writing the final scene.

Step 4 – I do whatever it takes to learn that lesson.

These are all lessons you can read about in any decent “How To Write” book, but reading isn’t writing. Trust me. You usually have to learn these lessons on the job, and often in the middle of trying to figure out what went wrong with your first draft.

Step 5 – I rethink the book I’m working on with that learned lesson in mind.

Step 6 – I write the new book that the writing of the old book taught me how to write.

Sounds easy, right? Correct a mistake by learning from it and doing something different. But what if that translated into reality this way?

Seven notebooks of double-sided hand-written pages, which you’ve already transcribed into eight hundred and sixty-eight typed pages, and then transformed into a first draft, turn out to be missing big pieces of place, and have to be re-written? What a daunting task! Not only would you have to go back and find all the places in the book that needed more description, or where more description would be interesting, you would have to find the right places to add description, places where more description would add to the natural layering of the book. And then, of course, you would have to write all that new description, make it interesting on its own, work it into your existing text, then make any changes that those changes mandated.

Or, if after one year of working on the second section of a five-section novel, you discovered that not one single word of what you had written during the last year was worth keeping, so you re-wrote that same section during the following year, only to learn, once again, that not one word of what you had written was going to make the final draft? (that’s two years to end up with nothing, if you’re keeping track)

And, of course, there is this bonus. You get to do all that new writing while feeling particularly inadequate, weak, tired, frail, fragile, and despondent. After all, you just spent months (years?) writing a first draft that wasn’t good enough, and no one can guarantee your second draft will be any better.

As a writer, you don’t get to know how you will get to the next level, or how you will solve a particular writing problem; you can only do your best thinking, aim, do the work, take the painful rebuffs, do your best thinking again, then wait, never knowing if you’ll break the cycle, until you finally do (or don’t).

So why do it? That’s the easy part. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to write a good book, or how many lessons you have to learn. In the end, you have a good book. Think about that.

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