I’ve received a number of emails lately — from acquaintances, potential editing clients and strangers. And these sincere aspiring authors have one thing in common.
They haven’t started writing their books.
So that’s my first piece of advice. Write. Write with abandon. Write with acceptance. Write with forgiveness. Write with the knowledge that you are going to rewrite several if not many times.
Wait. Rewrite? Folks stop me there, especially if we’re talking face-to-face. “I don’t have time to rewrite,” they say. My reply? “OK.” I mean, really. Who am I to say that it will take someone four years to write a novel? That the novel they start won’t resemble the novel they query and the novel they query will only resemble the novel they sell in some ways, but not in other ways? Saying “OK” may be a copout but it’s also the truth. It’s OK with me if these folks don’t rewrite their books, but it shouldn’t be OK with them — and then they shouldn’t be querying or even self-publishing. But that’s not my job. I’m always eager to send a list of websites or some blog names or links; to recommend books and vouch for online forums. But the nitty gritty has to come from within, because learning how to write and publish a novel is only the start. Heck, writing a novel is just the start.
But what if you are at the point of writing that first draft — and you just want to get it out — onto virtual paper so that it’s real and can be “saved as” the first draft of your novel? Some people are ready to get moving but get so hung up on writing right and being perfect that they don’t make it past Chapter One. I did that for a long time. I rewrote the beginning of my book so many times that I had a fabulous first 50 pages and nothing else. Mind you — those fifty pages are not part of the novel I sold. They weren’t even part of the novel I queried. So I spent months and months and months writing something that went no where. I wish I knew then what I know now. And that is — getting the barebones story out is what’s most important. I don’t get held up in the what if’s and it’s not fabulous. I just write. And then I go back. A gazillion times.
Since writing and querying and selling THE GLASS WIVES, a process, that in its entirety, took five years, I have written one other almost-completed novel. One that won’t see the light of day. I have the beginnings of two others and ideas for yet one more (the keeper, I think).
Here is a post that I wrote for Writer Unboxed that first appeared on their site in October 2010, right before I signed with my agent, Jason Yarn. At that time I’d published one short story. Now I’ve published three and have had two more accepted. My goal was to be a published author.
So here’s my best advice for how to get started when you want to write a novel — or when you’re struggling through an early draft. I even do this in later drafts, but I find then it’s often a matter of trimming, not adding. We have a lot of lurkers here — who write all different kinds of fiction and some non-fiction and they just want a jumping off point. We can’t push them — they have to do it themselves — but a little nudge coupled with a smidgen of advice couldn’t hurt.
What color is your balloon?
By Amy Sue Nathan
I wrote, rewrote, proofread and edited my story. Three times. I typed ‘The End’ and then with a writerly sigh and a wink, emailed my fifteen-hundred-word short story to my best reader-friend.
“It’s really good, Ame,” she said over the phone. “But I want, well, I really want more.”
Who did she think she was? Oliver Twist? I replied as eloquently as possible. I was, after all, a writer, wordsmith and lover of language.
“Huh?” I said.
Until that time, my published writing had ranged from six-hundred-fifty to one thousand words. I had never written anything longer. Had she missed those additional five hundred words? Perhaps her version of Word didn’t have a counter.
I printed out my story and stared at the first page. I turned it upside-down, read it with one eye closed and read it aloud. Then, I read it aloud with one eye closed. I knew what the story needed and was up for the challenge but didn’t know how to start. The thought overwhelmed me. Then, because when writing didn’t work, doodling did, I uncapped my favorite, fine-line blue marker and drew a circle around the first paragraph. (I’m that delicate balance of procrastinator meets visual-learner.)
And that’s when I saw a blue balloon.
That first paragraph separated from the rest of the page as deflated blue balloon needing enough air to make it round, but not so much that it would burst. So, with short, precise breaths I exhaled into that first blue balloon and then the ones that followed. I meticulously added detail, emotion and meaning, all the while holding tight to the story so it didn’t drift away.
Those fifteen hundred words became three thousand. And eventually the story was published.
At one time I did not believe I could write more than one thousand words. Then for a while I thought three thousand was my limit. I’m happy someone had the insight, faith and chutzpah to ask me for more.
I’m even happier that I had more to give.
It’s now four years, many blue balloons, essays, stories and one seventy-seven-thousand-word, yet-to-be-published novel later. So, when writing friends and colleagues ask for advice (and sometimes when they don’t ask) I suggest looking at each paragraph as a deflated balloon. Just try it, I tell them. It doesn’t have to be blue. Go wild. Pick any color at all.
And it’s still my best advice to myself. When my writing needs a little (or a lot) of something, I automatically see each paragraph as a floppy, blue balloon. Then, I take a deep breath and huff and puff just enough of the right words to evoke the images and emotions I had truly hoped for.
And then not only is the page filled up, but so am I.