How to Dig Up the Bones of Your Unwritten Novel

How to Dig Up the Bones of Your Unwritten Novel

Graham and I go way back. We’ve known each other a few years and have exchanged many pleasantries as fellow writers and Canadians. He pitched me a guest post that wasn’t written yet, and here was my reply:

“You’re on 1) because you’re an old friend, 2) because I actually like you, 3) because you write well and 4) because you used the word bagel in this pitch. Bonus points if you can work it into your post.

Let’s see how well he did with those bagels, shall we?

Tell me if this sounds familiar: In the bottom right drawer of your desk, you have the beginnings of your novel. Maybe it’s in a box in your closet. Or tucked away somewhere on your hard drive.

Yeah. Novels are like old bones a dog buries in the backyard, dug up occasionally when no one’s looking and then reburied quickly.

My novels were buried too. I started my career imagining I would write the Great Canadian Novel and instead ended up writing marketing copy for the Great Canadian Bagel (figuratively speaking, at least. I’ve never actually worked with them.).

But recently – last September, to be exact – I decided I was going to write and finish a novel, no matter what. Today I have over 100,000 words of a first draft, and I’m on my way to writing the second draft as we speak. Here’s how I did it:

I Wrote an Hour Per Day, Every Day

Last summer a friend said to me, “You know, you could carve out an hour per day to work on your novel, couldn’t you?” I laughed. With work, a family, and everything else, I replied, “No way.”

But when I sat down to really think about it, I realized that truthfully I probably could find an hour a day. Maybe I’d miss a couple of Simpsons re-runs. Maybe I’d have to give up late-night reading for late-night writing.

But it was possible, theoretically.

The scariest thing was to commit to that schedule. I knew if I let it lapse one day, I’d be much more likely to let it lapse the next day. And the day after that. And then I’d be the proud owner of yet another failed novel.

I found that once I got going, though, once I got into the habit, it was much easier to write an hour a day than I would have thought. It helped that I really enjoyed the process, as I’m sure most writers would. That hour quickly turned into “me” time, and productive “me” time at that.

Here’s an important tip: Resist the urge to write more than one hour each day. In the beginning, I was anxious to get my ideas down on the page. But I knew that if I did too much at once, I would burn out quickly.

Pacing myself helped me push through the difficult times (there were some) and allowed the story to stew a bit longer as I went along.

I Blogged About My Novel

I came to realize the one reason I had several failed novel attempts was because of lack of accountability.

Now if you’re one of those people who happily skips to the writing desk every day, you might not understand this. But if you are, you also don’t have unfinished novels lying about and therefore stopped reading this post about five paragraphs ago…

Here’s the theory: Nobody is going to notice if you don’t show up to write your novel every day, so you can get away with missing a day or two.

But your blog readers will notice if you don’t post according to your set schedule. And by becoming accountable to my blog readers, I suddenly had someone – many people, in fact – to answer to.

It became a point of pride to write every day, or at least have a very, very good reason why I didn’t. And it worked.

There are advantages to blogging about your novel. My blog became a sounding board where I can bounce ideas around and it created a writing journal where I recorded process. It also made the novel-writing process a lot less lonely. I can share the day’s ups and downs, and I can get feedback and support along the way.

When people ask me how the novel is going, I send them to my blog!

In My First Draft, I Let the Muses Lead

I started by just getting my ideas down on paper. Wandering through the world of the story without direction was very important because it gave me a chance to let the story, characters and themes develop naturally.

For example, as James points out, if you want to write a great book, you need to create believable characters. And during the first draft stage, the easiest way for me to develop my characters was to just let them interact in the story.

I could have written character sketches with histories and physical appearance descriptions, but letting my characters play together on the page allowed their personalities to come through clearly to me. Sort of a “show, don’t tell” but in reverse (if that makes sense).

For the record, I do believe that you need to outline at some point, unless you’re a natural-born storyteller. There is a craft to storytelling, and if you ignore it, you’ll have a hard time finding a publisher – or readers. I’m outlining right now, between first and second drafts.

(Of course, if you’re an outliner at heart, I’m not suggesting you should stop. This is just what worked best for me. )

Bonus Tip: I’m Not Worried About Getting Published

… yet.

In fact, I realize how slim a chance I have of finding a publisher, selling the movie rights, becoming fabulously rich and famous, and moving next door to Uma Thurman’s beach house in Malibu.

You shouldn’t worry about getting published either. The purpose is to get the novel written and nothing else. If you start putting pressure on yourself, you’ll (a) get easily discouraged and (b) likely be writing to an imaginary audience full of critics who all hate your writing and can’t wait to reject it – or worse, ignore it. (See part (a).)

Writing a novel can be a long, gruelling process. But it’s also a fun, exciting process of creativity and discovery. The key is to balance those two extremes.

So right now, just write your novel. Get those words down. Polish it up to the point where you like it. Then you can think about where to go from there.

It’s the formula that kept my novel from being buried forever in the bottom right drawer of my desk.

Post by Graham Strong

Graham Strong is a freelance marketing writer and rejuvenated digger-upper of old novels. You can follow his daily adventure at his Novel Writing Blog.

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  1. This is such a great post. I often suggest to people (usually those who say they don’t have time to learn) that there is such a thing as “Fritter time” – that’s the time you spend on distractions, talking at the coffee cooler, and so on. If you plan your time well, finding an hour is quite easy – just take it from your fritter time, and it won’t affect your work or family time (I got the phrase from the Insurance industry who talk about fritter money – that amount of disposable income that you fritter away and could use to invest in insurance).
    Now, all I need to so is follow my own advice ……

  2. @James – Thanks for the kind words! Not the mention the opportunity to guest post. It’s true, the post wasn’t written when I contacted you, but I did have a strong sense that this is a common affliction among writers. Honestly, yours was the first blog I thought of when I considered the idea of contributing it somewhere else. Glad it worked out!

    @Moira – “Fritter Time” — I like that! And it’s so true, so much time can be frittered away. The toughest thing for me sometimes was taking away from the non-fritter time — declining drinks with friends in the evening or reorganizing family time to carve that hour out. Well worth the effort though.

    ~Graham

  3. Hi Graham,

    I love that you say to just write it and not worry about being published. Trying to sit down and write a novel that you want published puts a lot of pressure on writers. I doubt a lot of the classics were authored by folks who sat down and said, “I’ve got to get this published.” A lot of great art – writing, music, painting – only became published or valuable after the person died. Think of the great art not being produced because people feel pressured to do so. And you’re right that most everyone can find time each day to work on a book. Anytime you’re sitting on the couch hypnotized by TV is time that could be spent writing a novel, painting, creating, etc.

    Enjoyed this! Thx G.

    • Thanks Giulietta, glad you enjoyed it!

      You hit upon a great point: the pressure on writers trying to write a novel. That’s something that the one-hour-per-day rule helped with too — I didn’t have to think about writing a whole novel, I just had to focus on writing that one hour.

      Four months later — BOOM! — I had a first draft. It was a great feeling!

      ~Graham

  4. This is such a timely post for me. I wrote (mostly in my head) many, many unfinished novels when I was younger. I finally convinced myself that I’d never be more than a wannabe novelist and completely gave up writing for several years. Then I started writing for pay, and now that that is going well, I’m starting to get the novel-writing bug again. But given my history of novel failures, I’m just not sure I have it in me. But that “hour a day” thing? I can do that.

    Thanks for putting it in perspective.

    • Hi Cindy,

      That’s exactly how I felt — like I was giving up on my dream. I love writing for a living, don’t get me wrong. But the novel was always the thing for me. By following the hour-per-day rule, it only took four months to get a first draft done. Four months after a lifetime of waiting! It’s funny when I think about it that way.

      Of course it’s not finished yet. But I’m well on my way, and working on my second draft now.

      ~Graham

  5. In the back of my mind, there’s always been that, “I should write a novel,” feeling, and I’ve often been asked by others to write a novel they could read.

    But I’ve always considered writing fiction my “fun” time – something that gives me a break from work, a way to play with words and just have fun. If I ever write a novel (and I’m sure one day I will), it’ll be first written for me – with no pressure to publish.

  6. James, you’re right. Graham is easy to like. His kind, positive personality and practical advice encourages us to make the time to write, to find joy in the art of creation, and to not worry about being published.

    A support group is invaluable. Without the collaboration and support from others, my book would not exist.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the kind words!

      I’ve said it before, you’ve been an inspiration yourself. Not just because you’ve been there already (there is certainly that) but also because of the support you offer yourself. It’s been much appreciated!

      ~Graham

  7. Thanks for the challenge and encouragement. I have had a first draft novel lying around for six years and tried all kinds of ways to motivate myself to get back at it. I tried writing every morning for a while, but that is not an ideal time. Setting aside evening time would probably work better. I have also considered trying to write longhand, because it has helped with another project recently.

  8. Here, here!! Graham, this post should be a must-read for all would-be novelists. After my first novel published, nearly every person I spoke with said to me, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel” or “I’m sure I have a novel in me.” And I’d say, “Well, then why don’t you write one?” And then the excuses would roll. And “no time” was usually near the top of the list.

    Your hour a day story is great inspiration for all those “yeah but” people. I work with many writers, and I’m going to point them to this post when they try to tell me why they don’t have time to write.

    Congratulations on your novel!!!

    • Wow, thanks Ande!

      Yes, I was tired of being that person too — so I decided to find a way to start writing. The hour per day really worked for me because it took away all the other stresses. As long as I put my time in honestly (even if it was a “bad” writing session) then I felt I was moving forward.

      Time is tight sometimes, especially when you have a full-time job, family & kids, etc. That being said, you can usually find time somewhere — “fritter time” as Moira called it. You have to sacrifice some days, but you know what? Less than you might think. I quickly found it to be the enjoyable creative time in my day!

      Thanks again Ande — glad you enjoyed it!

      ~Graham

      • You make a good point that needs to be emphasized, Graham–that a bad writing session is better than no writing session because it keeps the momentum going. And I’ve found that some of those “bad” sessions end up producing some of the best stuff in the long run because there are potent seeds hidden in the muck. :)

        • So true. I always go back to Mordecai Richler, who said that if he waited for the muses to land upon his shoulder, he never would have written a thing.

          The other thing I notice is that when I realize things aren’t going well, I tend to loosen up. You can get some real gems that way…

          ~Graham

  9. It’s so helpful to be reminded of these kinds of things. Being accountable is huge. I’m such a horrible procrastinator sometimes. Telling people I’m working on something or that I’m going to do something helps because many of them follow up and ask how it’s going or how it went. And having that accountability prevents me from having to come up with the awkward excuse for not doing it. Getting in a good regular habit is a great idea too. That’s one I guess I need to work on. I just started blogging, but I’ve been posting every 3 days. It’s not on the same day each week or anything, but setting that deadline helps with the accountability thing again. If I didn’t set a deadline, my poor little blog would probably already be neglected. Thanks again for reminding us of some of these basic tips. They’re all good things to keep in mind as a writer.

  10. I wrote for years on the hour-a-day plan, getting up before going to work and writing in my pjs. It helped that the job was undemanding, not a career–I always harbored the hope that fiction writing was my real career, it just needed a few lucky breaks to manifest. That hope went doggedly on and on, although sometimes it had a hard time holding its head up, but eventually the third completed novel found a home at Peachtree Publishers (a chldren’s novel) and after another book or two writing became my job (low standards when it comes to pay helped make that possible).

    I wholeheartedly agree that thoughts about selling/fame/money should be ignored when writing. The odds are so long on that kind of outcome that the story has to be its own reward. Also, the ambitious self can wreck a piece of writing. The writer should lose all sense of self and inhabit the story, letting the story and characters lead.

  11. @Constant Writer – Being accountable is huge. But I don’t think the root of procrastination is laziness (though that might be part of it). For most writers, the root is actually discouragement, in my mind. You write in a vacuum, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes it’s hard to face that every day, when those feelings of self-doubt creep in.

    I found that blogging about the experience helped me gain accountability and encouragement, and alleviated at least some of the loneliness that comes with novel writing. At least I could share the experience with everyone, you know?

    @Adrian – “The writer should lose all sense of self and inhabit the story” — I like that! So true as well. It’s funny, because I think writers are some of the most self-aware people there are (which has obvious advantages when you’re a writer, but I think it’s also the reason why at parties we gravitate to the edges…) You’re right though — just letting yourself go in the story is crucial, I think.

    Congrats on getting published, too! Nothing like one under your belt to give you that boost of confidence for the next one…

    ~Graham

    • You are so right about writers gravitating to the edges. We tend to observe and experience what we observe by writing it down. I can’t say whether that is good or bad, but at least for me there is always a little distance between me and what is happening. I feel as if it is my duty to be a witness and to distill out of what is a passing moment some greater meaning.

      How grim that sounds! But it isn’t. A writer gets to live life twice (or as many drafts as it takes).

      Very nice blog. I’m glad I found it!

  12. Here’s one way to optimize the “One Hour A Day Challenge” that I learned from Jerry Seinfeld that I thought you might like…

    Jerry’s Secret Unveiled

    One time Jerry Seinfeld was asked by a fledgling comic, “What’s the one thing an up and coming comic could do to improve their chances of hittin’ it big like he did?”

    The rookie was looking for the secret he could apply once and hit a home run with but he wasn’t in for an answer most people, might not like.

    Jerry told the wanna-be to go to an office supply store and buy himself a calendar.

    One of the ones you can put on the wall and see every month, everyday of the year at a glance. And a red marker.

    Jerry Conquered The Sitcom Kingdom With A Piece of Paper And A Sharpie

    He told him “The answer to your question, is to write everyday. Not every other day. Not once a week. EVERY DAY.”

    “After you’ve logged your writing for the day, you can face your calendar, marker in hand and put a fat red X through that day.” He said

    “Don’t break the chain. Doing this got my routines razor sharp, kept my creativity flowing when I needed lots of it and this insured I was on when opportunity knocked at my door.”

    It was like a policy he had that guaranteed he’d be taken care of no matter how gruesome things looked at the time.

  13. A fabulous article Graham!

    You’ve laid out the process so well that it actually seems…. well… do-able. The idea of accountability, I think, is key…. whether it be writing, going to yoga class, sticking to a diet – whatever – the act of actually ‘giving your word’ is sometimes the extra bit of fuel that can light a waning fire.

    I’ll be passing on this link, along with A Few Strong Words, to a few friends who are teaching Writer’s Craft courses. I think it will have a positive effect on young writers who may be feeling overwhelmed.

    Congratulations Graham!
    ~Rhonda :)

    • Glad you like the article, Rhonda!

      Yes, accountability is a big thing. I hit upon the theory recently that accountability isn’t really due to laziness, but fear and discouragement. Writing in a vacuum makes it difficult to shake that fear; adding a blog to the mix, i.e. a way to connect with other people while you are writing, seems to alleviate that.

      Of course, I could be completely wrong…

      Thanks again Rhonda for the kind words!

      ~Graham

      P.S. – glad to find a fellow squiggly-signer. Love live the tilde!

  14. It sucks being a writer sometimes, as you just want to write when you feel like writing. But you have to be hard on yourself, drag yourself off Facebook, put the biscuits away, and just write the damn thing!

    This can happen more than once in a day, I’m ashamed to admit 😉

    • Hi Stuart,

      I think many writers feel the same way. What I find is that all I have to do is concentrate on starting. Once that happens, I get into the groove and start enjoying the process. It’s that initial inertia, I guess, that I need to get over.

      Focusing on just writing an hour per day helps you get over that inertia too. Because suddenly you’re not faced with writing a “work of literature”, you’re just trying to get some words down in the allotted time. Makes the task much easier to face.

      ~Graham

  15. I’m finding that writing my blog posts is like publishing a story each week. My novel has been stuck for years because I didn’t have a happy ending. With the blog, there is still no happy ending, but it documents the story of the journey. I’ve decided that’s enough for now. It has helped my “writer’s guilt.”

    I still go to my writer’s group meetings every month–mostly because I love the people. They inspire and educate me, so my craft improves and I stay motivated.

    Thanks Graham for the insight. Plus, I’m wondering what a Canadian Bagel would look like? Bet it would have a hint of maple.

    • Hi Mary,

      I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a maple bagel, but there should be. That would be awesome!

      Have you tried writing a not-so-happy ending to your novel? Maybe that’s what it needs. Or maybe you get to the end and dislike the ending so much that it triggers your mind to give you that happy ending your looking for.

      It might be enough to kick-start things for you again — I’ve found novels are tricky things in my (limited) experience. What I’ve been finding though is that the answer to almost any problem I’ve encountered so far is “write some more”. Even if, maybe, that means starting a fresh novel… nothing wrong with that.

      Glad you liked the post!

      ~Graham

  16. For many of us, there is a novel inside us but the beauty with this post that novel can see the light of the day, just get it out, writing the first line and most times the others would fall into place…

    • Hi Iroko,

      That’s exactly right. I had to find a way to actually sit down and write a novel despite my busy schedule. I started the one-hour per day approach as an experiment — and it worked.

      ~Graham

  17. Hi Graham:

    I agree with the 1 hour per day approach, or even less. Any word written is a word that may come in handy later. When I wrote The 29th Day, I was amazed how all those little bits and pieces added up to a novel. That said, it is also hard work. Anyone who writes a novel has completed a magnificent task.

    Evadne
    P.S. I’m also amazed what a lively discussion you have on your posts!

    • Hi Evadne,

      You’re right about the magnificent task — some might even say epic.

      As for the words that get “chopped out” eventually — yes, those too are important, especially in first draft writing. It’s almost like doing research. You collect all the information you can, and then you put it altogether in a coherent fashion. The things that don’t make the final cut still help shape how you write the piece.

      Great to see you here!

      ~Graham

  18. Graham:

    This is a post crammed full with good advice! I enjoyed it. :)

    Another thing to do when a novel is brewing, but committing to it is simply not possible, is to use that creative energy somehow…short stories, or poetry will do the trick. That way, the unstoppable urge to write gets satisfied. When living gets in the way of writing a novel, I simply change my writing goals for a short spec of time, and then I return to that novel ready to go. An hour a day is really doable whether it’s a novel or any kind of writing endeavor. :)

    • Hi Nora,

      Sorry I missed your comment the first time around — must have slipped through the cracks!

      I like that idea of redirecting creative energy. I do that too, and will even venture outside of writing to things like photography and Photoshopping. Helps keep the creative juices flowing without draining them doing any one particular thing.

      Glad you liked the post!

      ~Graham

  19. Only write if you write with passion, otherwise your writing will have no soul.

  20. Graham,

    Thank you for the bonus tip; after writing my first book and having to self publish I have beed hesitant to write a second in spite of many inquiries. Your tip on not worrying about publishing has inspired me to write anyway. Thanks so much,
    Kelly

    • Hi Kelly,

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Funny, I was just in a Facebook Q&A this morning with a veteran writer (Terry Fallis) who is currently writing his third novel to a very specific (publisher-imposed) deadline. I asked him whether or not that deadline put too much pressure on him to create. He said no — he likes deadlines. I think that says a lot about how experience comes into play.

      It certainly gives me hope that I’ll feel less pressure writing my future books. Right now I’m experiencing problems sorting out the storyline, and I’m so glad I have the time to work them out. A firm deadline like that would certainly impact my writing — and not in a good way. But I know from experience in my other writing outlets (marketing writing, journalism) that it gets easier for me the more I do it. So, I’m allowing myself the time now to get it right now, and will worry about publishers, deadlines, etc. later.

      Good luck with yours!

      ~Graham

Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by LaTosha Johnson, Tony Mack, Fleire Castro, Troy Manning, sillystoryideas and others. sillystoryideas said: How to Dig Up the Bones of Your Unwritten Novel: Graham and I go way back. We’ve known each other a few years an… http://bit.ly/hCxsxr […]

  2. […] a great post over at Men With Pens today on the subject of writing a novel, entitled “How to Dig Up the Bones of Your Unwritten Novel.” It’s by Graham Strong, who blogs on a daily (!) basis at A Few Strong Words (get it?) […]

  3. […] herein with a measure of salt.) I’m so glad you asked! As it happens, I was reading this article from Men With Pens this morning. One of the points the author made was that he not only committed to writing an hour a […]

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by bkmacdaddy designs, Kashish Kaushik. Kashish Kaushik said: How to Dig Up the Bones of Your Unwritten Novel http://bit.ly/fx7l9K (rt @bkmacdaddy) #Writing […]

  5. […] How to Dig Up the Bones of Your Unwritten Novel – Graham Strong, menwithpens.ca […]

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