How to Write a Novel in a Year

 

There’s only one way, and that’s to begin. As my friend and mentor John Dufresne always says, “First rule of writing: sit your ass in the chair.”

And as the story goes on Quote Investigator (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/) …

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. “Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

Something similar has been attributed to many great writers including Wolfe and Hemingway. In other words, there just ain’t an easy way to do it, but to do it. Put black ink on white paper.  So now that that’s settled.  Here’s how I did it.

It took me at least five years to complete my first novel, Lemon Blossoms, set in Sicily, and about seven years to write my second one, The Secret Language of Women, set in China.  I did a great deal of revising.  Then I switched the order of these two novels and decided to write a third one to craft them into the Wayfarer Trilogy.

The third book of the trilogy is the one I’m finishing now, In America. Guess where the setting is? This novel took me only one year.  How did I accomplish this?  Easy.  I never thought I’d say that, let alone write it on paper for somebody to actually read.  I always marveled at how some authors produce a book a year. Now I’ve learned that it’s possible, and requires not just skill, but sacrifice and persistence.

I was under contract with Turner Publishing and my editor expected the finished novel at the end of November 2015. I delivered!  Determination plays a great part in getting the job done. If you don’t have those requisites, invent them.  Tell yourself you’re going to have a publisher, an agent, an editor, and set a date for yourself.  Write it on paper and make it come true.  If I can do it, so can you.

I began by talking about the story—not even.  I started by thinking about what I could possibly write, and sent notes to the acquiring editor, who had already agreed to the first two books, but she wanted to see more of the development of Book # 3— more and more.  Finally, I wrote a three and a half page “treatment,” which is what I called it for lack of a better word—it’s not an outline, because I don’t know how to write an outline, never wrote one and probably would feel like being locked in a prison cell if I ever had to write one.

I let this “treatment” sit overnight, and the next day, I refined it as much as I could, and it ended up being four pages.  I sent it off, and lo and behold, she liked it.  It was do or die.  With this sketch or skeleton to enhance, I could add flesh to design and form a story into a novel.

I started with a collection of things I thought might be good additions for this novel. I culled from the following: the Great Depression and the 1930s, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade; the Easter Parade; the year the first spruce went up in Rockefeller Plaza; notes on Camp Isida; a letter from my mother to my father in 1931; buildings being erected in the 1930s; names of bicycles; a list of popular words; dances, songs, movies of the era; etc.  You get the picture.  All of these things would play a part in the construction of this novel, aptly named In America, as it was a continuation of the story of Giacomo and Angelica coming over to the States from Sicily.

In October of 2014 I wrote fifty pages, and decided that would be my monthly goal. I considered three-hundred and fifty pages enough, and if I reached my quota every month, I could basically have a first draft in seven months: April 2015, and I could send the manuscript to my writing group for a thorough critique when we would meet in June.

November of 2014, I was in south Florida and still going to the beach every Saturday and Sunday with my family.  I was reading a novel that I came to detest, and set aside—in fact I gave it away.  Here I was lolling on a beautiful sandy beach while my head was back in my condo at the computer, pondering, thinking and fretting about what I’d write next to finish my page count.  As I awaited my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, and a third grandchild, I waited to hear if I was going in the right direction from a reader friend—not a writer.  I gave her fifty pages to read and said,” Let me know what you think.” She got back to me with one word: “Continue,” and so I wrote on.

Here’s how I wrote when I couldn’t be in front of the computer, where I wanted or needed to be:  I scribbled on a notepad, napkins, paper towels, envelopes, bills, and when I didn’t have any of these, I wrote myself e-mail and text messages and quick reminders on a little APP on my iPhone: Notes.  What did I write?  Anything and everything: thoughts for scenes, ideas for tension, character sketches, prompts to get the writing juices flowing.

Back in my office, as soon as I hit the computer keys again, I’d check out my notes and my e-mails.  There I’d find a few lines of dialogue without quotes marks, fast descriptions, things which were of essence to this novel and must be included, such as ideas for obligatory scenes.  All of these items I played around with like putty and “shaped” into something more readable.

Sometimes I’d write thoughts or snatches of words and phrases into my notebook and brainstorm before adding them to my novel file: characters, names, moods, actions, clothes styles, names of Italian dishes, titles of songs, names of wines and of bottled water, holidays, themes, impressions for tension, motivation, cause and effect, cost of merchandise, expressions used in that time period, and notes reminding me to research this or that.

I realized that for my other two novels, much of the time I got cemented doing thorough research, so much in fact, that I wasn’t always writing.  I used a different game plan and scheme this time—worked the tactic differently.  I wrote, and if I became glued or wanted to know something particular, or needed to find out some historic details, I’d Google them, call the library, or search information in other books.  Then, it was back to the writing, adding in particular details and needed information.

At the end of December after I’d survived the holidays, and was overjoyed with the addition of beautiful Isabella, our third grandchild, I found myself already advanced by ten pages for the following month.  I foolishly printed out and read over one hundred and fifty pages and put the corrections, nice and necessary as they were, into the file. This turned out to be a setback.

NEVER again! Never, until I’m finished a complete first draft will I print out partially. Why? It interrupted the flow.  I felt smug.  Ah, look at that.  One hundred and fifty pages of text.  Pat yourself on the back.  BS! And that’s not a college degree.  Never count your half-baked  accomplishments.  Finish the job.  Write every day, even if it’s only one word, one phrase, one sentence, one paragraph or one page.  Open the file and write.  Write on a legal pad, your kid’s notebooks, in a diary.

On New Year’s Day, I wrote only three pages, but for me it was important to get something down on paper, anything, because I believe what you do on New Year’s you do all year long and I wanted to write.  So the plan to write fifty pages, turned out to be a good goal that was doable.  But it wasn’t an easy year.  My husband had cataract surgery in March, and I had a hip replacement in April, but despite these life interruptions, I’d finished the writing task of a first draft. Without a draft, there can be no novel, because the real writing begins with revision.

I had been in Florida the autumn of 2014 when I’d started to bat out the words of this historical novel set in 1930s America, but in January 2015, I drove to Utah with my husband and in February, we cruised Malaysia.  I had a little note pad, an iPad, but with sporadic online access, because the costs are prohibitive on board a Holland-America cruise ship!

I’m lucky to have a great writing group.  We are five scribbling women.  Last spring before we met in June, a mystery writer member resided in Kuwait.  Another gal, a literary novelist, hosted us in Maryland.  A talented-switch-hitter writer between chick lit and mainstream lives in Wisconsin, and a North Carolinian resident is a British and American cozy mystery maven.  I had to cut some pages to ready the manuscript for the group.  I printed it out in May, read and corrected it.  My reader friend read it again, the same one who’d read the first fifty pages, now read the entire piece and gave me her thoughts and suggestions before I sent it to the Screw Iowa Writing Group on May 21, 2015. You always need beta readers!

I accomplished my goal of fifty pages, completed the first draft and readied it for these women writers to read.  They read it with the keen attention the way they’d want someone to read their work.  They are kind, but tough, and critique with careful eyes.  I respect them, but don’t always take what they say as Gospel.  Sometimes you have to go with your gut instincts.  We meet for one week in June every year.  This year was our 11th meeting.  I took their critiques—some were line by line—several with pages and pages of cross outs—OUCH! I returned to Florida and revised till summer’s end and autumn began.  October, I spent in Italy touring with my husband and friends and visiting my 101 year-old auntie in Palermo.  She’s sharp as a tack and I interviewed her for a couple of days for what may be a future novel.  I did no writing or revising, but I sure did when I returned.

In order to write a novel, you need determination, you need time, or you must make time, and you need to have dedication and discipline and then you must: “Sit your ass in the chair,” which for me equaled three-hundred and forty-seven pages. Are you going to call me a liar for the three little missing pages? There you go. How to write a novel in a year.  Good luck.