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how to write a novel

I wrote my first draft of "Phoenix" by hand.

I wrote my first draft of “Phoenix” by hand.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows them.”
-Author Kirby Larson, 2013 SCBWI Conference, Los Angeles, CA

I was eight or so years old when I had a sudden and certain epiphany that I would write books for kids when I grew up. I was in my basement reading a Beverly Cleary book when it hit me.

I ran upstairs to tell my parents, and their reaction was similar to one I would expect if I had I told them I wanted to saddle up a pig and join the rodeo.

I spent the next 25 years paralyzed by self-doubt and fear. Fear that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know anyone that had done it besides the people whose books I was reading.

But the dream wouldn’t leave. Since that day in my basement, it lived in me.

I had my first child before I finally accepted that the dream wouldn’t go away, and if I didn’t answer it, if I didn’t at least try, it would annihilate me. It became more painful not to try than to walk through the fear and just do it.

For the next few years, I woke up when the house was still dark and silent, while my two babies slept, and wrote my first novel, 1000 words at a time. I was terrified. My husband wouldn’t have his first sip of coffee before I was standing in front of him, eyes wide, panicked, “I can’t do this! I don’t know what happens next!”

Anne Lamott said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait, you watch, you work. You don’t give up.”

I haven’t figured out how to get my manuscript published yet—there is a learning curve to this process as well. But this post is about writing a novel, which is the necessary first step if you want to be a novelist anyway.

Here are a few thoughts I have about how to write a novel:

  • Make a space of time and a commit to show up on a regular basis.
  • It’s ok if you don’t know what you are going to write. I think it’s normal.  Just have faith, start writing, plug into your flow, step aside, and the words will come. It’s magic.
  • Read a book you love or an author you admire for a few minutes before you start writing to get creatively inspired if necessary.
  • Open up a blank page (I typed my first novel and hand-wrote my second before I typed it.) and dive in, just like you are jumping into cold water. 1-2-3 go.
  • Don’t stop until you have created a really rough and shabby first draft.  It doesn’t matter if it’s clunky and chunky. You will revise it many times and make it beautiful.
  • Throughout the process, try to get comfortable with Uncertainty, and write ahead of that asshole Self-Doubt.
  • Put one word in front of the other and don’t stop. This is a literary endurance adventure.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests letting the first draft simmer for a few months to get some distance before going back to see it again and begin the fine art of revision. I think this is awesome advice.

It’s such an amazing thing, to write a novel. To create something from nothing. It is a discipline and an art. It’s an honor to simply have the desire to write, and because of it, we must answer the call, no matter how scared we are.

I am finishing my second novel, which was a lot more fun to write than the first. I love it. I love them both. Whether or not they are ever published, they were born straight from my heart, bravery, belief, and effort. And for those things alone, every word was worth the effort.

The following photos are artifacts from writing Phoenix:


Some pages and days don't make the first cut.

Some pages and days don’t make the first cut.

I made a vision board shortly after I began writing Phoenix.

I made a vision board shortly after I began writing Phoenix.

I am still sending "Blue" to agents and editors, like a faucet dripping very.  slowly.

I am still sending “Blue” to agents and editors, like a faucet dripping very. slowly.



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