There is a myth that you need inspiration to strike before you can be creative. The truth is that you can use techniques to kickstart the muse and power through the process to complete a first novel – or similarly ambitious creative project – in one year.
Last year I wrote my first novel, Pentecost. Here are some of the lessons I learned about creativity and productivity along the way. I’m writing from my perspective as a novelist, but most of the principles are applicable to creative projects in any field.
1. Brainstorm your ideas and obsessions
A novel starts with an idea that inspires you but you don’t need to agonize about coming up with one. Write a list of everything you love or are obsessed with, both now and in the past. Your list might include diverse topics such as gaming, cherry Doc Martens and reading philosophy. We are all complicated people with many facets so your list will be unique.
Try to be as specific as possible, for example, South Otago Pinot Noir instead of red wine. Now go to your bookshelf, and write down the main categories of books you read which will narrow down the genre. Perhaps you now have mysteries, fitness, travel and true crime. I’m sure you’re already getting a picture of aspects this novel could incorporate and from the list, you can start to build your own story.
It’s important to remember that ideas are cheap and writing is the hard work, so brainstorm and then cull your list to what really sparks your imagination. I have always been obsessed with religion, mythology, psychology and travel so these aspects were incorporated into my plot.
2. Read. Then stop reading and write.
Learning the craft can be the work of a lifetime and there are thousands of brilliant books on writing that you can consume. I recommend Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ for novelists as a starter.
These books are absolutely worthwhile but you must also be productive in order to complete your novel in a decent time-frame. It’s also easier to learn from these books when you have some writing to apply the lessons to. For example, there’s no point reading a book about improving dialogue if you haven’t written any. This also applies to research which is an important aspect of writing in order to fill in original detail. So make sure you balance consumption and production.
3. Model success.
Go back to your bookshelf and pull out a few of your favorite novels in the genre you want to write. Pick a specific book to model and read it again with writer’s eyes. No analyze how the book is put together. For example, how long are the chapters? Whose perspective is the scene written from? How are the settings described? How much dialogue is used? What is the first chapter like? And how does it hook the reader?
You can use these notes to create a framework for your book. You’re not stealing ideas but understanding the expectations of the genre. This is modeling, not plagiarism. I used James Rollins’ Black Order to deconstruct the way fast-paced thrillers are written. This step was critical for me in understanding how scenes and point of view work together to form a coherent structure. It’s one thing to read around the topic and another to actually analyze a successful novel.
4. Outline, or don’t. There are no rules.
Some writers are outliners and others write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsers). You can do what you enjoy most. If you want to write an epic fantasy novel with four galactic tribes, different languages, body shapes and religions, then you will likely need an outline or you’ll write yourself into a corner. If you’re writing a legal drama based roughly on a case you read about and you’re a lawyer, perhaps you can just produce that first draft with no planning. Either way, there are no rules. You don’t have to write the same way others do.
I combined the two approaches by writing the scenes in my head first. The opening and climax scenes were always clear to me, but for the middle I needed an outline. I also refined the outline further to use as an editing tool later.
5. Write a really bad first draft as fast as possible.
This is the tip that changed my writing life, the realization that it’s ok to write badly on your first draft. In fact, it’s far more important to get this draft done than agonize about anything along the way. If you can’t remember what type of bird flies over the Arizona desert, just write ‘bird’. You can go back later and fix it. Just write the draft. Get it done. No excuses.
If you can wait until November, I recommend National Novel Writing Month where the goal is 50,000 words of a first draft in one month. That’s how I started the first draft of Pentecost. The deadline really spurs you on but you can do the same in any month if you are disciplined.
You can also try tools like Write Or Die which encourage you to keep writing and not stop for thinking time. Deadlines are important here and so is word count. For example, set a goal of 5000 words per week which you can spread out or write in one binge session. I used to get up at 5am and write 1000 words before going to the day job and have a longer writing session on Sunday to make up my word count.
6. “Writing is rewriting” – Michael Crichton
Everyone obsesses about the first draft but it’s just the initial phase. The next step is to start the rewrite which will turn your document into a manuscript.
Some people may only need a cursory rewrite, others may need ten more drafts until they are satisfied. The rewriting, adding complexity, detail and twists as well as tweaking your writing may take longer than the first draft. That’s ok. This is where you polish the rough diamond.
You may also require some professionals to help you at this stage. A professional copyeditor can tidy up your spelling, grammar, tenses, sentence structure and you can also employ people to help you with plot or character development. This step is the key to creating a professional product so don’t skip it!
7. Learn about the publishing process.
Writing is valuable for its own sake, but if you want to pursue publication, it’s important to learn about the process. Whether you want a book deal with Harper Collins or an Amazon Kindle top 10 hit, you need to know the options available to you. It will save you time, energy and heartache if you learn this as you write instead of waiting until its done. For example, whether you want a traditional publisher or go independent, you’ll need an author platform, a way to reach readers. But that’s another article!
Writing a novel is as much about organization and discipline as it is about creativity. You need to combine productivity with inspiration in order to hold your book in your hands, but the journey is definitely worth it. So what are you waiting for?
Over to You
Have you ever completed a novel – or similar-sized creative project – in a year or less? If so, how did you do it?
Which of these points resonated most strongly for you?
What would you add to the list?
About the Author: Joanna Penn is the author of Pentecost, a thriller novel, out now on Amazon.com.
Images: Flickr CC Bob AuBouchon and Joanna Penn.