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I’ve been working on a novel for some time now and I expect it to be done in November or at least the second draft to be done in that time. The problem is that writing a novel is hard. A terrible fear grips me at some points during the day, mostly after an hour or so of editing the blasted thing. I may not be smart enough. I seriously fear this.

Grammar

This is the easiest part. Sure it can be confusing, but I’ve got seven or eight reference guides to help me out if I really get stuck. It’s not like I haven’t spoken English before, though I’ll admit falling into all the bad American habits and having a great deal of difficultly naming the parts of a sentence (do I really need to know what a Determiner is? Pshaw!).

Punctuation

I rather like punctuation. There’s nothing more fun or entertaining than seeing how long I can make a sentence by stringing together words with semicolons, colons, and commas. But I have a dirty little secret: Where do I put commas? Before “but” and “which” right? Are there times I can leave them out? What about ellipses and dashes? Can I replace semicolons and commas with them?

My word processor has a punctuation check and said punctuation check is absolutely worthless. It will flag things that don’t need to be flagged and it delights in telling me I’m wrong. I can be typing away at full speed and I’ll see that little green line and I’ll be like, “Oh shit.” So I’ll stop and I’ll look at it and I’ll be like, “That stupid punctuation check just wasted my time. Oh no!”

Then there is the small question of style. The British have a few things they do differently and I like some of them better. An example of this is putting the period outside of quotation marks. For instance: Johnny got his “gun”. In America we would say: Johnny got his “gun.” I like the British way better because it makes more sense. The period is not part of the word that is inside the quotes, so shouldn’t I keep it on the outside except in cases of dialogue attribution?

Spelling

Egad, what a pain in the ass. I’m a bad speller. Well, terrible really. So every word that I can’t spell I look up in the dictionary. One could argue that I could use my word processor for that, but I don’t trust it. It can’t even tell me that "convince store" is wrong. What do I buy there, Mr. Computer? What exactly?

I type relatively fast and so don’t catch myself typing “mater” when I mean “matter”. The computer can’t catch these either.

Characters

This is harder than you would think. It’s not just creating a person with a name and having them walk around. It’s a matter of making them convincing as real people. What makes this particularly frustrating is that during the second draft you realize that some of your characters don’t work or don’t seem real. If it is a minor character you can just edit them out or revise a little. If it is a major one you have to do some serious rewriting in every scene in which they occur. Just hope it isn’t the protagonist who is unconvincing.

Character motivation can be difficult too. Like when you’re half way through your second draft and you find a scene where your cute little innocent school girl is smoking and you’re like, “Where did that come from?” She doesn’t smoke. She’s a good girl! It doesn’t even make sense for her to be smoking!

Scenes

Detail is the problem here. How much is enough and how much is too little? Do I want the reader to feel like I’m shoving their face in the sodden earth of the old witch’s hut and cramming the cow dung up their nose or should I just hang back a little? Should I describe every single bit of clover growing in the field and every cloud in the sky or should I simply say, “It was a green field and a pleasant day.”? I could easily overwhelm the reader and just as easily underwhelm him.

Tense

My darling little novel is written in the present tense. This wouldn’t be a problem but I’m used to writing and reading things in past tense. I can write “she says” forty million times and still say “while she read Chaucer”. I find this type of problem all the time in my revisions of the blasted thing and now that I’ve gotten used to writing in the present tense I find when I try to write in the passive tense I write “she says” instead of “she said” a hell of a lot.

Details

Just minor things that quickly become a pain in the ass. Was the hero wearing a blue shirt or a red shirt in the last scene? Is the sink by the refrigerator or by the cabinets? Was Dr. Wallman smoking Marlboros or Camels behind the church? Or infinitely worse: Was that minor character’s name Jessica or Jennifer?

Sure I can go and flip back to the previous scene to see what was what and where it was, but generally after doing that seven or eight times I get tired of it. I start saying things like, “Why can’t I remember that pitiful little detail?”

Process

Probably the most tedious thing I’ve ever done. I’ve written various novel length stories before (none of publishable quality though) and my process is a bit like this:

Second Draft: Rewrite first draft as a second draft. Complete with research on anything technical I may have added, clarify, and check for grammar and spelling errors. Rewrite any glaring plot holes and character flaws. Send to a few friends for reviewing and proof reading when it is presentable.

Third Draft: Polish up. Go through every single sentence (I’m not exaggerating) and check for any errors. Fix any problems that have gone undetected. Make sure all details are consistent and look for tense errors. Use the word processors search option to find problem words that I never seem to be able to fix.

Fourth Draft: One final reading. I will record myself reading the novel and then listen to the tape. If anything strikes me as wrong I will pause the tape and fix the problem.

Final Draft: More of an extension of the fourth draft. All I do is reformat it so that it is presentable to an editor. After that I’ll hopefully send it to a publishing company or to an agent so that I can send it to a publishing company. This last bit is only if I feel the story is good enough.

Show and Tell

Showing the novel to my friends will be the hardest part. I enjoy my friends for a single reason: They speak their mind. Thus I’m likely to get a truthful description of what they thought of my story. And if it sucks they will tell me. This creates a little nervousness on my part. It’s not like an E2node. The votes are anonymous and if folks don’t like a node eventually this guy named Klaproth will eat it and that’s fine because he needs to be fed occasionally. Klaproth is the best kind of teacher. But showing it to friends who may not like what I’ve worked on is nerve racking. I know these guys. I respect their opinions. I think xirho described this feeling best in his node on writing.


I believe my novel to be good, but at this stage it has a lot of problems. Fixing those problems will not be easy. It will be very hard. But all the effort will be worth it if I can get it published. It’s not about money, or seeing my name in print, it is about entertaining some kid while he waits in a doctor’s office or being with some sick veteran who’s dying of cancer.

That’s what I want; to entertain. To take a person far away from their normal reality so that they can experience something new, something they’ve never dreamt was possible. I just wish it wasn’t so hard.

(And by the by, anyone who has or ever will complete the Three Day Writing Contest in a reasonably sane condition is an absolute badass.)

See that writeup up above this one? The one by BookReader? That boy is on the ball, isn't he?

Writing a novel is hard. Don't let anyone kid you about that. All that grammar and punctuation and spelling? Thank you, Johann Gutenberg, for inventing the printing press and forcing modern languages to codify a frightening number of rules and such. Do you think Chaucer had to worry about infinitives? Hell no.

The real fear? The real fear is actually putting forth the effort to do it.

Writing a novel is hard.
Ideas are easy.

I was one lazy, cowardly bastard.

I'm not the only lazy bastard, don't get me wrong. Look at John Keats, for example. He spent so much of his life pissing and moaning about his great despair that he wasn't able to even finish his masterwork, Hyperion. And why the hell did Harper Lee only come out with one novel? How about Ralph Ellison? These people were gifted, not some random hack like myself, and they couldn't complete more than a work or two in their life.

I had known for years that there was a novel inside of me, but instead I spent those years sitting on my lazy ass, creating this fantasy in my head that I had years - years - ahead of me in which to put this grand opus down on paper. It was to be called Rings of Saturn - a gigantic, enormous paean to the greatness of man's individual spirit, a monolithic science fiction-tinged epic that would call forth every bit of the power and majesty of the human existence into one immense tome of such literate beauty that it would bring Samuel Delany to tears.

I had the framework of the novel all worked out in my head: the growth of the central character from a childhood with an overbearing father and a ruthlessly competitive older brother into a great journey to a human colony on a Saturnian moon, where he comes to lead them to revolt against an oppressive regime, while fighting off the ghosts of his past. I was able to write a long outline of the novel and some extensive characterizations of the principal players.

I carried this story inside my head for seven years. I made two abortive attempts at it, both abandoned after a dozen or so pages, and yet I carried on this self-concept of being a writer, actually deluding myself and others into thinking that I was actually making some real progress on the thing.

I wasn't. I was scared to write it, to turn this great vision in my head into text. Every time I sat down to write, I looked at the words my fingers spat out and I hated them. I threw them away and walked away from the challenge.

I was one lazy, cowardly bastard.

Writing a novel is hard.
Suck it up and get to work.

The event that finally woke me up from this passive state was the oncoming end of my college career. I had already interviewed for and accepted a job that was going to suck up a good deal of my free time, leaving me rather mentally tired many evenings, and I began to realize that in fact I didn't really have all of the time in the world to do this.

Thus, one late night near the start of my final semester in college, I sat down in front of my computer and began to write. I made some notes as I went along, simply to ensure some basic continuity, but I largely just wrote and wrote and wrote, without looking back on the thing at all.

I spent most every evening for a month and a half doing little else but writing, about six hours a day of almost constant wordsmithing, throwing down onto paper the scenes in my head, finally committing them to something besides my own synapses. I was actually averaging about eight thousand raw words a day, and so after forty six days of intense writing, I saved a file with a word count of about four hundred and fifty thousand words. Rings of Saturn was complete.

Then I started to read it, almost immediately.

And it sucked.

Writing a novel is hard.
Your first attempt sucks. Deal with it.

That first draft was terrible. An abomination against all that is good and right with language and literature. Grammar errors, atrocious spelling, plot events out of order, prose best described as simian; basically, it was an utter train wreck.

Naturally, it was pretty depressing. I considered deleting the entire thing, but I eventually just burnt it to a CD and put the CD in a drawer, fully expecting to never look at the thing again. A month and a half of work, gone, just like that.

It sat in that drawer for about a month and a half when a friend of mine began to bug me about it. "What happened to that novel you were working on?" she kept asking me. For a while I blew her off, but eventually I admitted the truth: I finished it, but it was very bad.

Of course, that meant that she wanted desperately to read it, and she was almost single-minded in her intensity on the subject. She asked about it on a daily basis, sometimes even more frequently than that, until I finally broke down and decided to print a copy for her to read. I went to Kinkos and carried out a mountain of white paper, planning on handing it to her.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum, though. I was sitting in my apartment with that mountain of paper beside me when I started to read it. I could see huge gaping problems in it, but there was something else there. It was almost as if I was reading someone else's writing, and underneath a bevy of grammatical and logical problems, there was a core of something beautiful.

I got out my pen and started scribbling little edits all over the first page, replacing a repeated word here, noting a potential homonym misuse there. Soon, I had several sheets with red ink notes all over them, and when she requested the novel again, I looked at her and truthfully stated that the novel was in the midst of deep editing and that she could read it afterwards.

Finally, progress again.

Writing a novel is hard.
Your second attempt sucks. Deal with it.

When I finished this terrible editing process, I took the ream of annotations and sat at the keyboard with them, entering them one by one. This allowed me a second read-through of sorts, enabling me to pick out several additional problems, including reordering several large chunks in the middle of the novel. By this time, I was feeling better about things and it all seemed to be finally coming together.

I printed off another draft at Kinkos and then ceremoniously laid it to rest in the bottom of my closet. And promptly forgot about it, for about two months. Other aspects of my life intervened: graduation, moving, starting a new job, and so on. And so the novel sat there, waiting for another season in the sun.

One night while still unpacking at my new apartment, I came across that Kinkos box. I knew instantly what was inside, and I carefully opened the box and began to read.

I read the whole thing once through over two evenings, and when I finally finished the document, I turned over the final page and looked out the window for a bit. It wasn't terrible anymore. It was simply mediocre.

Writing a novel is hard.
If you're afraid to show it to someone, you're not there yet.

I didn't want to show it to anyone, even at this point. Instead, I settled in for my third draft, you might say. The goal this time wasn't to fix simple mechanical errors; instead, the goal was to turn this lump of coal, already a solid piece, into a diamond.

I had the whole framework in place, now it was time to add the finer touches. I eliminated some of the bland wordiness and replaced it with much smoother prose while getting the point across. I added a few small brushstrokes to the characters here and there, taking them from being mere robots performing actions to living, breathing entities, moving through their lives with a vitality that wasn't there before. I juiced some adjectives and adverbs; I used a bit of alliteration and assonance here and there; I put in some shadow where it was needed to accentuate an underlying theme or two.

Under my fingers, I felt the novel as a whole becoming better and better. When I finally put it to rest a third time, I knew it was good, good enough that when I printed it off this time, I didn't take it to my closet. I carried that Kinkos box to my friend's house, rang her doorbell, and handed it to her.

She read it in three days and when she handed it back to me, she only had one thing to say: "Publish this. Now."

Of course, that was two years ago. Maybe I should author another writeup: Publishing a book is hard.

Writing a novel is hard.
Advice about novel writing sucks. Don't listen to it.

If you do only one thing, do something. All the rest of this advice is probably a waste of your time. In those years that I let Rings of Saturn ferment in my mind, I read a lot of advice about writing a novel. Every bit of it was basically worthless. A summary of the process I went through for Rings of Saturn and have repeated twice since is below, but don't follow it like a bible. Just suck it up and do something.

18thCandidate's Nine Steps of Novel Writing - From Beginning To End

Step Zero: Do your research. Unless you know something cold, it's usually worth your time to do some background research before you dig in. Are you writing about a sandwich shop? Visit a local one and see how it works, from top to bottom. Writing about a culture you're not fully immersed in? Find some people who are and interview them, even hang out with them. People made fun of Tom Wolfe going to frat parties while researching I Am Charlotte Simmons, but he was willing to immerse himself in the life he was writing about and it made the novel that much better. Step One: Write it, even if it's terrible. Don't worry about whether it's good or not. In fact, don't even re-read what you've written at all, except when you absolutely have to check for internal continuity. Why? You'll read over it and get frustrated with something. In fact, I usually just maintain a separate document for continuity purposes, outlining every fact and detail I've revealed about a character or event, just so I can use that as a reference without looking back through my own writing.

Step Two: Print it and put it away for a month. Set everything you've written in 12 point Times, double line spacing, and print out a hard copy of the finished draft. Put some rubber bands around it, put it in a box, and hide that puppy in your closet. Wait a month. Spend that month noding. Didn't you know that this place needs more actual content? Read a book. Live your life. Just don't worry at all about that novel sitting in your closet.

Step Three: Get it out and read it, red pen in hand. After that month is over, pull out the novel, go to a nice quiet place, and read it from beginning to end. Mark everything that bothers you with a red pen. What you'll find here is that it's almost like reading someone else's writing. You'll remember some parts, but others will just amaze you. The best moments are when you read something you don't recognize and think, "Hey, that's pretty good!"

Step Four: Edit the document. Now, take that marked up version and edit your saved draft using it. You are using a good word processing program, right? Generally, you're better off just doing whatever you marked up with your pen, but you might edit another thing or two while you're doing this.

Step Five: Print it and put it away for two months. Take this draft, print it out, and lock it away again, this time for two months. Start a hobby. Learn how to ride a unicycle. Take salsa lessons. Backpack your way from New York City to the Grand Canyon. Eat a sweet, delicious hamdog or two. Let that sleeping dog lie for a while.

Step Six: Get it out and read it slowly one more time, then start digging through it again with a pen. At this point, it's likely you'll feel the novel is getting... if not good, at least mediocre. You've reached a point where a real framework is in place, so now is the time to start polishing things a bit. So, while you're reading it this time, keep an eye out not so much for errors, but for ways that you can improve things using word choices and other minor literary devices.

Step Seven: Edit it again. Get back behind your keyboard and get a polished draft ready. Take the suggestions and weave them in, trusting in your notes that you made while reading it. When you finish now, the novel will be getting quite good. If you're not feeling confident yet, put it in the closet again for a while, then read it again.

Step Eight: Give it to a "constant reader." Let a friend read it, or a significant other. Tell them to be unafraid to trash it when things don't make sense or when it gets overly dry. Tell them to write on it in a red pen whenever they read something that strikes them wrong, and don't be hurt if the version they give you has a lot of red on it. They'll see things that you can't see because you're too close to the flame. You might have to go back to an earlier step at this point if you incorporate a lot of their changes.

If you've managed to complete all of these steps, congratulations! You now have a novel in good enough shape that you might be able to convince a publisher to bother with you!

Writing a novel is hard.
If it wasn't, it wouldn't be an accomplishment.

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