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.