Experienced novelists know the focus and determination it takes to write a novel from start to finish. Read 8 authors’ advice on writing a book:
1. Discover when and where you write best
The Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison shared insights into her writing process with The Paris Review in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 134’. After discussing how she began to write early in the morning out of necessity, she shared this:
‘I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?’
Toni Morrison, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 134’, The Paris Review
What aids your writing productivity and creativity? What inhibits them? Being conscious about your process will help you establish a more consistent routine.
2. Invest and commit to writing without guarantees
The distinguished author Margaret Atwood has always been pragmatic and clear-sighted in interviews. So on the subject of managing our expectations of our writing she is clear as usual:
I think the thing to emphasize is that writing is a gambler’s profession. There is no guarantee of anything. You can put in a lot of time, a lot of effort, invest a great deal of emotional energy, and nothing may come out of it. There are no guarantees. So, unless one is fairly committed and willing to make that investment, don’t do it.
Margaret Atwood, interview with Roya Fahmy Swartz in Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, 1990.
Atwood outlines the need to make the work of writing novel ideas out its own reward. It must be ‘worth it’, in itself, before we start dreaming of publishing royalties or acclaim.
3. Learn from (and don’t look down on) your mistakes
Many authors are self-critical in evaluating their writing. Yet as Ray Bradbury says, we can only keep producing by learning from our past writing:
We should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops.
Ray Bradbury, excerpt from Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, available on Open Culture
In this way, your first draft might seem a failure, or incomplete. So rework it. Have a manuscript evaluation performed by an editor if necessary. Use what you learn to make draft two a major leap in effectiveness.
4. Read to learn and assimilate
A major part of becoming a capable author is reading with intent. Author Barbara Kingsolver, in an interview for Longreads, shares how conscious reading grew her own writing abilities:
I started reading novels when I was seven and I never stopped. Even though I didn’t form the ambition of becoming a writer when I grew up, because my world contained no indication that that was a possibility for me. But I knew I loved literature and I studied it because I study everything, it’s just the animal that I am. So pretty early on I was reading the likes of Virginia Woolf or Tolstoy, and pausing or backing up and saying “OK, I see what’s going on here.” In my 20s, when I started writing more seriously, I became more conscious of reading to learn. I’d study Dickens for plot, or I’d analyze Steinbeck for theme.
Barbara Kingsolver for Longreads, ‘I’ve Always Been Either Praised or Accused of Ambition’: An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver
5. Persevere against all odds
Many authors’ stories of their road to publishing are stories of dogged perseverance. In a piece titled ‘The Making of a Writer’ for Granta, Kent Haruf describes a time of his life when he had quit grad school, had avoided being drafted as a conscientious objector, and was trying to get published:
Then, in lieu of military service, I spent the next two years as an orderly in hospitals (for a while in Denver at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital) and as a house parent in an orphanage in Helena, Montana. My first daughter was born in Helena, and during all that time I still was trying to write stories – and I sent the stories off to the big slick magazines and they all came back. But once in a great while, a rejection slip had a line or two from the editor, and I took each of these lines as encouragement and kept them in a special folder.
Kent Haruf, ‘The Making of a Writer’, Granta
Haruf’s words show how we cannot let background conflicts or personal challenges and setbacks deter us in fulfilling the desire to write.
6. Learn to love the revision process
Many of us want the first draft to be seamless and perfect. Yet the first run is a practice run – often we do need a dress rehearsal (or several). Colson Whitehead describes the value of revision in his ‘Rules for Writing’ for the New York Times:
Revise, revise, revise. I cannot stress this enough. Revision is when you do what you should have done the first time, but didn’t. It’s like washing the dishes two days later instead of right after you finish eating. Get that draft counter going. Remove a comma and then print out another copy — that’s another draft right there. Do this enough times and you can really get those numbers up, which will come in handy if someone challenges you to a draft-off. When the ref blows the whistle and your opponent goes, “26 drafts!,” you’ll bust out with “216!” and send ’em to the mat.
Colson Whitehead, ‘How to Write’, The New York Times
7. Treat writing like a desk job
Often writing is couched in magical, mystical terms and authors speak of inspiration and their ‘muses’. Yet the writing itself is a practical task. A routine helps, as Jeffrey Eugenides told The Paris Review:
I try to write every day. I start around ten in the morning and write until dinnertime, most days. Sometimes it’s not productive, and there’s a lot of downtime. Sometimes I fall asleep in my chair, but I feel that if I’m in the room all day, something’s going to get done. I treat it like a desk job.
Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 215’, The Paris Review
8. Give yourself the time you need to write
Often aspiring authors tell us ‘I don’t have time to write.’
The truth is that you have to make the time. It starts with making writing a priority. John Irving had this to say about dividing time while writing a novel:
I don’t give myself time off or make myself work; I have no work routine. I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex; I can go without it for a while, but then I need it. A novel is such a long involvement; when I’m beginning a book, I can’t work more than two or three hours a day. I don’t know more than two or three hours a day about a new novel. Then there’s the middle of a book. I can work eight, nine, twelve hours then, seven days a week—if my children let me; they usually don’t. One luxury of making enough money to support myself as a writer is that I can afford to have those eight-, nine-, and twelve-hour days.
John Irving, ‘The Art of Fiction no. 93’, The Paris Review
Even if you need to spend more of your day doing non-writing work, squeeze in time elsewhere. Try waking half an hour earlier and finding 15 minutes to write, even, each day. Anything that builds writing into your day as a non-negotiable activity.
Need help developing your novel and establishing an effective routine? Work with a writing coach and stay accountable to your goals.