The #13WeekNovel Writing Challenge: Week One

During the first week of my #13WeekNovel Writing Challenge, the most important thing is to enquire into the nature of your story premise. Just sit back with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and let images and ideas emerge from your subconscious. This is primarily a right-brain process. There’s no right or wrong to it. If you allow your subconscious some time to play without imposing any structural limitations, your characters will probably surprise you, affording you many more dynamic possibilities when (if) you do finally begin to outline.

And for those who don’t like outlining, don’t worry: I don’t recommend even thinking about the structural possibilities until Day 4 at the earliest, and even then, I recommend a very loose, improvisational approach. An outline should be a tool to help you get to the end, not a rigid and inflexible end in itself. For those who adamantly refuse to do any form of structure, I’ll offer some “seat-of-the-pants” exercises you can do in lieu of the structure exercises. Either way is fine. It’s your story, it’s your process. Whatever gets you through to the end is the only “right” way to do it.

For the first week, I recommend keeping the following thoughts in mind.

  • There aren’t any rules. You can’t make a mistake.
  • The story you’re writing already lives inside of you, complete and fully-formed, like a Platonic Ideal.
  • You are singularly qualified to tell your story.
  • This is a trust process. You have to learn to accept what your inner voice is telling you. It’s not about being a good student and submitting a final project for someone else to grade. The only person you have to impress is yourself, and you only have to be better than you were yesterday.
  • Your idea of the story isn’t the entire story. Your idea isn’t “wrong,” but by asking questions and keeping a loose grip on your idea, a more complete, concrete story with a solid foundation will emerge.
  • Your desire to write is part and parcel with a desire to grow and transform. Your fears are a way into your story, not an obstacle.
  • What your protagonist wants is connected to the “what’s in it for me” mentality. For example, “When I become king, I’ll gain respect.”
  • Stories are about growth and evolution.
  • As a writer, your job is to set the rhythm in a way that’s both believable and urges the reader on to the climactic evolution of the hero.
  • There is a plight for your protagonist at the core of the story. The tension in the story lies in this plight between what the protagonist wants and what she actually needs.
  • Character suggests plot, not the other way around. You can’t shoe-horn any old character into any old plot. Frodo would have no idea what to do in the story of To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Virtue is its own reward. The thrill of creativity is a virtue, and likely to be the best reward you get from this game.
  • Writing a novel is a process. Over time, through diligent interrogation of your premise and your characters, your story will come into sharper and sharper focus.

Your First Week as a Novelist

To write a book, you first have to find the time to write. You can’t “make” Time. There isn’t a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine that cranks out more Time. It’s not a renewable resource. You only have the Time you have, and his Wingéd Chariot will soon hurry on. So forget about “making” Time. You have to find time. And once you find it, you have to beat it over the head, drag it home by the hair, and chain it to the leg of your kitchen table.

Many of us juggle competing demands: family, friends, jobs, dates, community work, household chores, hobbies, schoolwork. And (dare to dream), we’d even like to get down to the beach, put our toes in the sand and take a nap once in a while. “Write a novel? I don’t have time to write an extra holiday card!

You need to make some changes. Sorry, but there it is. I’m not saying you have to quit your job, leave your family, and live in the woods. In fact, if you remember from last week, I specifically said “Clear the decks… Don’t get married, divorced, or pregnant. Don’t schedule a kitchen renovation or move across country. Give yourself every opportunity to succeed.” You shouldn’t make any immediate, drastic lifestyle changes, so put the phone down and don’t check with the local monastery to see if they’re taking applications.

But writing is a lot like exercising. Let’s say you want to run the New York Marathon (and a novel is definitely a marathon run of fiction writing). You wouldn’t just sign yourself up, show up on Race Day, and expect your natural talent to carry you through to the finish. No. You train every day, you eat right, you set achievable goals, and you get in shape.

Just so with writing a novel. You’re not going to sit down for four hours on Day One and bang out 30 pages. Instead, you set aside a little time each day and gradually build up to a longer period that you can live with on a regular basis. I recommend two hours a day. Why? Because I’ve been doing it for two and a half years and I know it works for me, and I’ve arranged my life so that I have two solid hours every day. But that wasn’t how I started. It used to be that I worked in fits and starts, five minutes at a time here and there as my work and family schedule allowed. If you can find 24 five-minute intervals each day, you’ll have cobbled together two whole hours. So maybe five minutes every hour during your work day if you can spare them, and then thirty straight minutes when you get home, and another thirty minutes before bed. Or the first five minutes every time the baby goes down for a nap, and an hour after your partner gets home.

Or maybe don’t start with two hours. Maybe start with a word count goal instead. My own minimum goal is 2 hours a day OR 1000 words, whichever comes first. From years of practice, I know I can type about 80wpm, so if I can do nothing but plough away at the keyboard without distraction, and the juices are really flowing, and the constellations are all aligned, and a miracle child is born in Indonesia, I can (theoretically) bang out 4800 words per hour.

But most days, I’m busy with other things too. I have errands to run and clients to find and book marketing to do and an ex-wife to manage, and life really sucks. Most days, I’m lucky to hit that 1000 word minimum. And you know what? If that’s all I can do, even in two WHOLE hours, that’s still 91000 words by the end of my #13WeekNovel Challenge. Professional publishing guidelines define a novel as only 65-thousand words. So even if a third of my 1000 words a day are complete garbage scrawled in crayon, I’ll still get to the end.

So instead of thinking that you need to find some monolithic, undisturbed block of time, just find ways to write a little bit each day. If you can, then go on to gradually expand that time a little bit into a longer period that you can live with.


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