I'm Going to Write a Novel

That's it, I've made a decision - I'm going to write a novel. I've talked about it off and on since I was a senior in college (holy crap that's a long time ago now...), so anyone who knows me probably will shrug and say, "And?"

So it's probably not a huge surprise I would make this statement, I get that. However, everyone is supposed to have goals, right? If you don't explicitly define your goals, the theories go, you will never reach them. My own corollary to the theories is that if you don't write it on the internet it can't possibly mean anything. Perhaps then that's my whole point in writing this post, so I can be held accountable.

If you read the blog, then you perhaps read the two old pieces of short fiction I wrote here and here. They are okay, but they were also written in college and looking at them now I can see a ton of ways I would have done them differently (and made them better). I've learned, over the years, from good writing and my own practice, here on this blog and in my other daily endeavour.

Why do I think I can succeed? People seem to enjoy my voice (of course, maybe they are lying to me, never know) and I do have extensive writing experience, though much of it is a little more newsy and analytical. Still, I'd like to think I brought a little bit of personality - flavor, if you will - to all of my previous writings that made them more entertaining.

Plus, I'm me - I'm different, unique. My voice is different, my point of view is different. We are all a product of our experiences and relationships. I'm pretty sure I'm the only person in the world with a University of Oregon degree in Japanese who studied in Italy and has spent time in a NBA locker room (hey, I could be wrong), so my experiences and interpretations of events are going to be slanted differently than anyone else's because of unique life experiences.

They also say goals should have parameters. Maybe if I say by the time I hit 35? That's an explicit parameter, but still gives me time.

See, now I have this goal, but how the hell do I go about accomplishing it? The smart ass among you will probably be thinking "Well, how about start writing?" Easy enough. Of course, with 60 hours a week of work and home life, there isn't a lot left to go around. (I could say that's the reason it's not done yet, but that's not necessarily true.)

After making this decision, I realized I don't exactly know what to do next. I have some ideas I think will be good novels. How do I pick which one to start with? Is it whichever one is foremost in my mind on the day I open a new Word document? How do I choose? If there is one I like a little more than the others, do I choose that one, or do I save it for after I inevitably become a famous author? (Yes, that was tongue in cheek.)

Perhaps I shouldn't be scared of this, but I am: What if I take my best idea, write it, and no one wants to publish it? How do I move on from that? Does it become a one shot deal? Do I spiral into depression? It's funny, just the other day on this blog I follow by Tawna Fenske she talked about the average number of manuscripts an author has to write before they get published. The average, she said, was seven, though it is of course different for everyone.

Seven? SEVEN?! I am having a hard time getting my mind around writing one novel, and if I'm average I will have to write six no one will ever see unless I email it to them?! Damn, want to talk about depressing. Out of this is where my question about saving an idea comes in. The flip side of the conversation is why save the best idea? Why not just write it, and if it's so damn good maybe I won't have to have six hidden manuscripts.

Of course, if my writing this blog had taught me anything, it's that if I continually write about Misaki I will have plenty of readers. Maybe I should just do that instead?

Thinking about average won't get me anywhere though. Besides, if I didn't think I could buck the trend would I be much of a writer? I mean, no one who tries to get into this whole writing thing thinks it will take them six books to hit the jackpot.

The upshot of all of this is it's time to get started. Another upshot is I have what I feel is a very good concept for an entertaining piece of fiction. Now, if only that were enough to send me on my way...

I have questions, so hopefully I'll be able to get this in front of an author or two and perhaps they can give an answer or two in the comments.

In no particular order - and I realize all of these are subjective and the real answer is I need to figure what works for me - these are the things I'm wondering:

1 - How does one work writing a novel around having a full-time job? Any tips you might have?

2 - Have you ever saved a novel idea? (Probably a better question for unpublished authors, or published authors looking back at a time before they were published.)

3 - If you have two or more good ideas, how do you choose one? Or do you feel multiple paths out?

4 - The use of outlining, timelines, character maps, and the like is going to be different for everyone - what do you do?

5 - How important are personal experiences to writing a novel? For example, if my character is going to be shooting a handgun, do I make it a point to go to a shooting range and feel the heft and kick of the weapon in my own hands? And more importantly, are these experiences tax deductible? (Honestly, I would think the answer is yes, but it may not be.)

6 - Do you ever worry about a character in your novel too closely resembling someone in your own life? Have you had to re-write because of that?

I've got more questions, but I think they will present themselves as this project goes along in more clarity. It's going to be a process, that's for sure. If you feel you have an answer or a suggestion to one or more of these questions, I'd love to see it in the comments!


  1. Congrats on your goal-setting!

    Since it sounds like you follow my blog, you already know the gist of my story (for those who don't...I started writing fiction 8 yrs ago, sold my 3rd book to Harlequin/Silhouette, had my contract canceled when the line folded before my book was published, wrote a new book & hooked an agent, cut ties with that agent after a year, got a new agent, spent 2 years shopping multiple new books I wrote and finally landed a three-book deal with Sourcebooks this past February).

    So to answer your questions...

    1) I forget the statistic, but I think it's something like 90% of published authors still hold day jobs. Very few authors get those fabled six-figure advances and movie deals. You learn to make smart use of your evenings and weekends.

    2) I remember having those same thoughts about not wanting to waste my best ideas on a book that might not sell. With 8 full manuscripts behind me now, I look back and think, "THAT was my good idea? Um, no. I can do much better now." Some authors are very into cannibalizing their old books to get the good stuff once they've honed their craft, but this isn't something I've ever felt like doing.

    3) Short answer: start one, and if it doesn't feel right, pick the other. Long answer: one of the toughest things about writing is that it's a constant string of decisions, both big and small. I can only imagine how indecisive writers must struggle with everything from which genre to pick to what color their protagonist's hair is. You'll spin your wheels forever if you don't just dive in and start moving :)

    4) I don't know if this link will work, but I participated in a six-author blogfest on process a couple months ago. The objective was to show that authors have wildly different methods, and you just have to do what feels right to you. I don't do much plotting or outlining, but my critique partner is neurotic about it. Here's the link:

    5) Opinions differ, but I'm neurotic about research. Blame it on my past life as a journalist, but I do tons of hands-on research for my books. I'm halfway through the third book in my contract, which is set at an Oregon vineyard. I think I've visited at least 50 vineyards/wineries now (no, not just drinking wine) and pestered the staff with questions about soil and bugs and eco-friendly building.

    6) The thought has crossed my mind once or twice, but honestly, it's pretty far down on the list of issues an author deals with. I did once name a character after a guy I supervised at work. I thought the character would be a minor one and it wouldn't matter, but when the character morphed into a love interest and began resembling the guy he was named for, I promptly switched the name and never quite looked at the real guy the same way again! :)

    At any rate, good luck with the writing, and let us know how it turns out!


  2. Great advice from Tawna! I'd also look into a novel writing boot camp - clark college has one that's taught by Carolyn J Rose - it did me a WORLD of good just getting my head around the whole NOVEL concept. The thing with it is you're pretty much driven to write for class. Honestly that's how I got the first bit of my WIP going was in that class. You might also find critique group partners there too.

    Also - Look into joining Willamete Writer's Association they're here in Portland and have good information and workshops.

    The Vancouver Writer's Mixer starts back up in October. If you go I'll go, and wait...I THINK Tawna is going to be a speaker so We HAVE TO GO!

    Trying to write while you work full-time is hard. I usually use part of my weekends to write, but it also all depends on what kind of week I've had at the office. If the brain is fried...writing usually is too

    The great thing about twitter is that there are so many helpful writers out there - like Tawna. Also, if you're not, follow some editors for publishing companies and take a gander at their blogs. Very very helpful there too.

    Best advice - take a deep breath, shut your eyes, and jump in the water's fine!

  3. Tawna, thank you for your comments! They will be helpful in this journey, I'm sure. I do follow your blog - found you on Twitter via @nwfoodie - so am somewhat familiar with your story. I appreciate your taking the time to offer tips to a newbie.


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  5. Ugh. Let's try this again, minus the typos.

    Assume the first five hundred thousand words you write are just practice, that no one but your closest friend and your spouse will ever read them. It takes all the pressure off and lets you find yourself as a writer. If knowing half a million words will probably never make it to publication makes you take a step back and say, "Well, if that's the case I don't want to waste my time"...then don't waste your time. If writing isn't something you have to do no matter what, the time is better spent with your family

  6. Kari Lynn - That's an excellent point. :) For me I don't think the issue is so much feeling like I'm wasting my time, but just understanding and accepting this is an epic process. I'm game for the challenge. And you make a good point - who am I writing for? Why put pressure on myself if I don't have to? I have no fans at this point other than the three people who regularly read my blog (my wife, my mom, and maybe Sharon). Why do that to myself? Good advice!

    Sharon - Excellent suggestion on a writer's group...I will look into that, I think, but I'm hoping to attempt starting this thing first. Vancouver huh? Maybe. :)

  7. 1. Nearly everyone, including published writers, have jobs. You fit in writing when you can. Diana Gabaldon got up at 3:00 every morning and wrote while her husband and three children were asleep. Then she went to her full time job later. She didn't tell anyone she was writing. She just wanted to prove to herself she could finish a novel. Thus was The Outlander series born.

    One thing you have to take into consideration is when your mind is working best. If that's in the morning, you just get up a little earlier and write when you have that time blocked out.

    2. I save all my writing ideas. I come up with a title that will trigger a memory and I write down the idea.

    3. I always have multiple ideas going on. I have one manuscript on submission. Three others are in various stages of completion. I like to focus on one, but if I get stuck, I go work on another one and let my subconscious sort out the tangle. Usually, the solution just pops up when I am doing other things.

    Go with the one you feel the strongest connection to.

    I had planned on doing a series of historicals about some women of the west. One of them I really didn't like, but her husband had an interesting story. While I was researching another one, H kept walking around in my mind. I finally decided to research her a bit. Whoa, Nellie. Fascinating story. Gone With The Wind goes west.

    4. You need to experiment and see what works best for you. Gabaldon and a good friend of mine who is a terrific writer can't outline. They have no idea what will happen until they write it.

    It works best for me if I have an idea where the story is going. I always know the endings and the beginning, but the middle is an adventure. Even if I wander off on a completely different path, at least I have a starting point.

    5. Personal experiences or heavy research are important to me. Describing the different senses make a scene come alive. Research expenses are deductible. IRS may look twice if you're taking several pleasure cruises for "research."

    6. I try not to use people in my own life for obvious characters, but we all use people we know.

    Everyone in the world's life is unique unless you are one of the Boys From Brazil. That isn't enough to make you a successful writer.

    Success is your definition. A very dear friend sold his books to a small press. It set all kinds of sale records. Simon and Schuster picked up the rights and were going to republish them. They also hired an actor to do the audio books. While I would have been thrilled with this, he was still depressed.

    Does success mean finishing a novel or does it mean selling a certain amount of books?

    A friend of mine has a saying, "Shut up and write." We have a strong writer's group, which is invaluable, but in the end, you just have to sit down and write.

  8. HI, Jason,
    Congrats on your decision! I hope you'll enjoy the journey. I'm not as far along in this journey as dear Tawna... I'm working on novel #5, all unpublished but I'm still optimistic.

    I have ideas for about 4 books swirling around in my mind right now. To answer which one I work on, it's he who screams loudest. I start with characters. They speak to me, badger me to tell their stories (and "Daniel" often wakes me up at night, tapping his foot).

    When I get a good handle on who they are and why they won't shut up, I find I've got the basis for a story. I am a dedicated outliner (you'll hear from people who prefer writing by the seat of their pants) and like using an extra large 2' x 3' newsprint pad. I divide it into segments for act 1, 2, mid point, climax and conclusion and then fill in those segments with post it notes.

    It works for me.

    I play 'what if' games with the characters... out of which, the back story takes shape, their goals and motivators crystallize, and finally, the conflicts I build into the story emerge.

    I also work full time as a software technical writer. I write non-fiction all day and then go home and write fiction instead of watching TV. I also carry notebooks everywhere I go - jotting down ideas for the times I cannot touch my manuscript. I bought a Kindle and email Word drafts to it, which makes editing easier than lugging around a stack of dead tree.

    As for experiences, I have none. I've lived a very sheltered life. I got married when I was 19 so the freedom to go, do as the mood hits just does not exist for me so I research diligently. In some cases, research like firing a weapon can be done first-hand but there are some things I can't simulate and have to rely on others' experiences. My work as a tech writer helps here; like a journalist, I've learned to ask good questions to get to the answers I need.

    There was only one time I patterned a character after a real person. It was a consultant with whom I was forced to work on a Sarbanes-Oxley (called SOX) project and greatly disliked. I turned him into the first dead body that fell in a novel I still haven't finished writing called "Sox & Violence". I was going to write the whole story in corporate double-talk (leverage the paradigm, and so on).

    And the best advice? Continue following Tawna's blog and tweets, as well as the other talented folks you'll find online. It's like a perpetual writer's conference for free.

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  10. Hey, I'm in a very similar boat! It's simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, and exhausting.

    1) For me, I have to write after I get home from work, since I'm not a morning person. I find it helps if I've set up a scene for myself the night before, so I've been anticipating working on it all day. It's much easier for me to get started if I've done so, though obviously I don't always do so b/c some nights are trickier than others. Also, household chores end up going on the back burner, dinner is super quick, and I become rather antisocial during the week.

    2) I've saved novel ideas for years, and here's what I've learned: they're not that interesting years later. I'd say work on whatever excites you the most right now. If you actually want to do it, it'll only be easier to commit your time to it.

    3) Again, I just pick the one that sounds the most fun at the moment. Or I consider a way that I might include both, depending on the depth of the idea concept.

    4) I have a very bizarre non-linear structure for working, where I jot down all the specific scenes that I'm excited about, what I need to happen in them, and then I write them. And then I look at what I have, arrange them in some semblance of order, and that usually leads to thinking about a number of other scenes that I need to include, and then I'll write those, organize them, etc. I also do character research as the characters present themselves to me. Later drafts are where everything is going to be smoothed out and polished, but the crazy first draft is where I MUST give myself free rein to not judge, just go with what's moving me and exciting me at the time. Or I end up with something that is organized to within an inch of its life -- and deadly dull on top of that.

    5) Since a lot of what's going on in my novel is completely made up, I do try to seriously ground everything else in research/experience as much as possible. If it's something that you could go check out on your own fairly easily, I say go for it. It's certainly not going to hurt your writing to have firsthand experience. As far as taxes go, I'd imagine you could use it, but I'd check with your accountant before banking on it.

    6) Yes, I worry about this fairly often, as well as the opposite, that people will assume something that has nothing to do with them is about them. Other people's response to your work is out of your hands. I'd say just do your best to avoid making any connections super obvious. Like giving the person the same name, description, character traits, and history as a person you know. You know, for legal reasons.

  11. Julie - "Shut up and write" - I like it. :)

    Patty - The "what if" game is how my story idea came to me - I love it. My favorite novels aren't necessarily the best executed (though that obviously make a huge impact) but the ones who spin me around by taking a completely new take on a something we generally accept as a given. This may sound extremely silly for a 30-something male to say, but I really enjoyed the Twilight series for that reason.

    Elizabeth - Love the idea of setting yourself up the day before, so you want to come home and attack the scene. If I think about it all day I'm much less likely to beg off writing (well, to myself, since that's really the only one I am answering to) because I'm tired, and being excited about it may even kill the tired part. Well, that and a couple cups of Stumptown's Hair Bender.

    This is all fantastic - much more than I could have reasonably expected at my little corner of the internets. By all means keep it coming because when it comes to this kind of advice/perpsective I don't think one can ever be too full. Thank you!

  12. Hi Jason,

    First of all, congratulations on deciding to take the leap. Some might downplay the mental effect of actually deciding to take on such a project, but those of us how have done it, or are doing it, know well the commitment that you have just made.

    Also, I totally understand your reaction to the 'seven novels'. Remember that's an average. I started writing for fun, then picked up a partner and together we wrote four novels before we felt that we were ready to start showing our work to anyone professional. But an average of seven means that some have written fifteen and some have written one before they get to that point. Where will you fall on that sliding scale? Who knows, but if you've been writing for a while, I'll bet that it will be very much towards the low end of the scale. You are probably much better equipped to hit the ground running than we were.

    I'm writing a novel here (BTW, nice to meet you! I came here when Tawna tweeted about this post...), but I'd be happy to tackle your questions. Just remember, I'm not published myself yet, I'm only in the query stage, so I certainly don't have all the answers. I can only speak from my own perspective.

    1. I work full time as a research scientist and have a husband and two daughters. I shoehorn writing in in the morning before work, on every lunch hour, after work, in the evenings and on the week-ends. I'm lucky that my girls are teenagers and they understand (most of the time) that mom is working and also that my husband knows how much my writing drives me. I couldn't do it if I didn't have them behind me.

    2. Yes, I have ideas all the time. I have a file of potential ideas and news stories that catch my eye. Who knows when it might come in handy? I also keep a pad of paper and pen with me at all times to jot down ideas that come to me because I know I'll never remember them later.

    3. I have the good fortune to write with a partner who fully shares in the story planning with me, so we usually kick around ideas and possibilities until one really leaps out at us and then we are off and running. We play really well off each other, so, together, we are able to pump up the storyline until it's where we want it to be. Then, I write, she edits and tweaks, I re-write, she edits again... we do a good 3 or 4 versions of each chapter before we move onto the next.

    4. Both myself and my partner are scientists, so organization and research is key. It's also just what we do. We outline extensively, use maps, tables, timelines, character sketches etc. etc. I am NOT a discovery writer. I need to have at least a partial road map so that I know where I'm going. On our last novel, we did an experiment, purposefully not having everything sketched out to the nth degree to allow ourselves some creative freedom as we progressed. I really had my doubts, but I have to say, it worked out really well.

    5. I think personal experiences are crucial. If our novel gets accepted, I actually want to go back and try out a few things (funny that you mention the shooting range, because that's one of the things on my list). But while we were still in the story planning stage, I traveled to the site of our story to do on-site research and to do interviews (I personally met with the District Attorney and the top homicide cop to make sure that our details were all in line). But being 'boots on the ground' gave us photos to write from and it actually gave us new possibilities that changed our story line, right from the start. It was invaluable.

    6. I've based one of my characters on one of my own graduate students and in the critique group reading of the novel, this was the minor character that everyone said really flew off the page. So doing this is not a bad thing in my mind.

    Wow... I've totally written too much here. Sorry for rambling, but I hope some of it it useful for you. Good luck!

  13. Tawna "sent me" so you can blame or thank her for my answers as appropriate :). I've been working as a writing mentor through Forward Motion (fmwriters.com) for more years than I want to count at this point, so I have some experience with helping other writers as well as managing my own process, which is as unique as Tawna's. I've sold non-fiction and short stories, but have yet to sell a book and I'm well past the 7th, though just about at 7 with the ones I polished and submitted, so maybe I should be typing with my fingers crossed ;).

    Anyway, on to your questions:

    1 - How does one work writing a novel around having a full-time job? Any tips you might have?
    A lot of people have found this article I wrote a while back useful, not the least because of the chart in the middle where I show how few words you have to write in a day to get to a novel in a year: http://www.fmwriters.com/Visionback/Vision20/themefootsteps.htm

    2 - Have you ever saved a novel idea?
    Yes, more than once, and I lived to regret it because I'm a slow learner. Novel ideas don't come out of thin air. They're part of who you are and what you are thinking about at any given moment. As you change, both your take on a concept and its immediacy can change. I started a novel about the question of having kids that was grand (in my opinion of course ;)) but I decided I wasn't good enough so stopped. Now that I'm good enough, I have two boys...questions been answered and the punch is gone. It's still a good plot, but lacks the same intensity.

    3 - If you have two or more good ideas, how do you choose one? Or do you feel multiple paths out?
    Honestly? I'm an outliner. I first write a synopsis of each to see if I have a whole story or just a fragment. Then I start to outline, sometimes multiples at a time. Usually, I decide to do one, but as I'm outlining, I end up doing the other first. Go with your gut. You're going to be in close quarters with this story for a LONG while (including edit passes and submission cycles). Whichever draws you the most is the one you won't hate in the morning...umm, most mornings that is.

    4 - The use of outlining, timelines, character maps, and the like is going to be different for everyone - what do you do?
    Already answered this one. If you're curious, I have an Excel template for free download on my website: margaretfisk.mmfcf.com.

    5 - How important are personal experiences to writing a novel?
    It depends. I write mostly speculative fiction, so a lot is stuff I can't experience personally, but I do try to find corollaries where possible and research where I can't to make it as plausible as possible. You don't want your reader to be thrown out of the story. However, the same is true about being too tied to accuracy. If there's a cultural norm and your research shows it to be false, be careful in deciding whether to contradict what "everyone knows" because it will pull them out of the story.

    6 - Do you ever worry about a character in your novel too closely resembling someone in your own life? Have you had to re-write because of that?
    This one is not something I've experienced so far, even in my contemporary novels. Characters come to me fully formed, and though they might have aspects of known people, the combinations are unique to the story.

  14. Apparently I owe Tawna a bunch of thank yous. :)

    Jen- No way you wrote too much, I'm soaking this stuff up like a sponge! I honestly have never though about writing with another person, might be not wanting to share.

    Margaret - That's good info! That link is helpful and I think I might try out that outlining approach. It's funny you talk about word count and how something as little as 1,000 words a day can get you to the end goal pretty quick, because I routinely write well over 2,000 words a day for one of my jobs. That word count doesn't faze me in the least. Now, the real problem could be adding 1,000, 1,500 or even another 2,000 words a day to the ones I already produce. My eyeballs might explode staring at the screen that much. Of course, that's all part of the fun, right?