So, you’ve just read Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” and said to yourself, “I can do that.”
I like your confidence. Chances are, you can write a novel. I’m not saying as many people will read it or that you’ll make as much money as he did, but you can continuously write until stacks of paper rise above your dirty dishes. Anyone can. You don’t need a degree in literary criticism to pound out 100,000 words, but what you do need are a few simple guidelines which I, graciously, will provide.
I learned the following while participating in National Novel Writing Month, known as nanowrimo to the pretentious, of which you aspire to become. The project, held in November, challenges participants to write 50,000 words in one month.
Rule No. 1: Nanowrimo teaches that your first draft is just that, a draft. Don’t expect to channel Shakespeare as you pile up the word count. The point is to get the thing onto paper, then revise. It’s much easier to shape your words into perfect prose when they’re already on paper. Expecting magic to come out of your pen the first time will only discourage you.
Rule No. 2: Set a schedule and stick to it. No excuses. I found that forcing myself to write 12,500 words each week worked well. You want to have a complete body of work before Gabriel finds his trumpet, or at least before the Mayan calendar kills us all. Some say that 50,000 words is a novel. That’s a month’s worth of writing.
Rule No. 3: Have some sort of outline. Staring at a blank computer screen for hours will make you curse the novel writing gods and start playing solitaire. Take a day or more to make some rough sketches about what you’ll be writing about.
The snowflake method is one way to do it. You start with a one-sentence summary of your novel, such as “The prince of Denmark thinks something smells bad, and he’s looking for some air freshener.” Then, you expand on the sentence, writing a full paragraph. Then you write paragraphs for your main characters. Then you expand on those paragraphs, and on and on.
This will make writing your first draft a lot more palpable.
Rule No. 4: Have fun. What, you think I’m above using this trite trick of sticking “have fun” at the end of a list to bump up my word count? Of course I’m not, and neither should you. As stated in Rule No. 1, you’re writing a draft. At times, you will run against what feels like steel walls stopping you from writing. Remember, this whole experience shouldn’t feel like work. When you get stuck, improvise.
You’ve got a main character with nothing to do? Give him something to fight, or love, or steal. If things aren’t going anywhere, come up with another character and just toss him in the mix. If you’re really stretched for ideas, throw all your characters into Mortok’s Arena and see who makes it out alive. Conflict drives stories. Make sure yours has plenty.
This whole experience isn’t really about beating Dan Brown’s frightening level of sales. It’s about writing a novel. Remember that when the attractive stranger at the party asks if you’ve ever written a book.
And remember to stick your pinky finger out as you drink your rum and Coke when you answer, “yes.”