Myths About Writing a Novel I Dispelled While Writing A Novel

We’ve all heard them, those little myths we get from the internet or someone who knows someone who heard that it’s the proper way to do things and you couldn’t possibly get it right or become a better writer if you don’t follow the rules. But what rules? And who set them? Here’s some I have heard or once believed before I, you know, actually started writing and realised they were all stupid.

Write in a Linear Fashion to Avoid Confusing Yourself

Do we heck! Whether working on my completed novel Dieu Et Mon Droit, my Romans vs Aliens novel or DNF, none of my work was written as it was meant to be read – with the exception of The Cold Man serial appearing on this blog, as I have largely improvised that on each given Sunday (please go and read it!). The first chapter I wrote for Dieu et Mon Droit was Chapter 2. Actually, the first thing I wrote for it was an unused prologue that I never had any intention of using in the finished book. Romans Vs Aliens (I really need to come up with a title soon) has been more like a jigsaw puzzle. True, I did write chapters 1 and 2 first, because that was building these characters and the first idea I had wasn’t the plot, but the characters. Once I had established them in chapters 1, 2 and 3 I jumped way ahead to what will approximately be half way through the book. Then I compiled a handful of flashbacks that I will work into the text as I piece the novel together.

You Should Write Every Day

If this was true then I have already failed miserably at being a writer. I won’t claim I don’t have time, because I do. Sometimes – especially when I may have churned out 3000 words of writing for clients, the last thing I want to do is get to work on my novel because I sometimes feel too burnt out to work on it. Even if I had the time, the muse doesn’t always take me. I can sometimes go weeks without writing anything and then bang out a solid 5000 words in two evenings. As I am in a long distance relationship at the moment, I usually find and make time to write during my 4-6 hour train journeys down to Cornwall and back. Last week, I wrote 1500 words of DNF left my zombie runners at a critical moment, promising myself to come straight back. I haven’t touched it since.

Writing Should Never Be Discarded

This goes down a rather over-romanticised route that what is created is somehow sacred. Anyone who has ever tried to create anything knows that this is not true. I have discarded novels that were 50,000 words strong in the past because I felt – on reflection – they were a load of crap or that I simply lost the desire to ever again work on it. Call me a philistine, call me the literary equivalent of an iconoclast but we can’t enshrine everything we create. On the contrary, we should always be prepared to “murder our darlings”. Our darlings can include characters – and this doesn’t just mean killing them off, it also means erasing them from ever having existed. It means whole chapters, large sections that lead to dead ends and anything else that doesn’t work.

The First Draft is Always Shit

Ernest Hemingway said this and far be it from me to challenge it, it’s not always true. Don’t get me wrong, you are going to need to make a lot of changes and you are going to make those changes. You’ll find bits that seemed like a good idea at the time but no longer work. There will be characters who don’t work, plot points that don’t go anywhere, developments that don’t develop, Chekhov’s Guns that don’t get fired and so on. You’ll remove characters as though they never existed, you’ll move the sense of place, gender switch your characters, condense some and shoehorn in new ones. Yet in amongst that you will find perfect moments where stuff just works and it is around this that you should build your story. If it works, there’s no reason you should change it – and that includes tone and content. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – even if it does appear in the first draft.

Don’t Revise or Edit as You Go

This once again pushes the linear format that doesn’t work for most writers. The fun, apparently, exists entirely in the writing whereas editing is the chore that nobody likes – writing is the pork and crackling, and editing is the mountain of sprouts – you don’t want to, but you know you have to so save it for the end when you’ve finished off the good stuff. Poppycock! You will get new ideas and what once might have seemed a great idea will be superseded by a better idea; you won’t feel satisfied until you have gone back and changed that something or removed it. Editing as you go in line with new ideas keeps the text tight and consistent. You have the added bonus too that simply reading through your older text is a good idea for the sake of refreshing in your own mind of what happens and when.

24 responses to “Myths About Writing a Novel I Dispelled While Writing A Novel”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with every word. I don’t write (my fiction) every day as I’m often writing for clients as you are. I write and edit side-by-side when I see something I know I can improve. I’ve tried to write in a linear fashion but when I’m ready to write that particularly gritty scene, or that tricksy piece of dialogue, wherever it is in the story, I’ll go to it. You need that flexibility to avoid log-jamming yourself. There are no rules… There are NO rules, just people getting precious about ‘their’ way of doing things.

  2. Yup, pretty much agree.
    I’ve always considered that writing linearly is what people have to do when they don’t have a clear plan.
    That’s also why I rarely have to remove a character, or scene, solid planning. If it doesn’t work after I’ve written it, and I didn’t catch that in the planning, I will edit, and revise the plan at that point rather than junk a draft.

    1. I’ve tried novel planning before, but it never really worked for me so I soon gave it up. It does tend to develop as I go though, so I keep a plan after the fact to remind myself what happened in any given chapter.

      1. I learned planning running Roleplaying games. I find my own characters tend to be a lot more respectful of my plots than players ever are… That simplifies things.

  3. I always edit/revise as I go along. Partially that’s for function–I don’t usually have time to set it aside and go back after–but I also like modifying the beginning to make the end work as I’m writing rather than as a separate event.

    1. That seems to be a common theme too, going back to change earlier chapters as the plot develops – particularly as you get to the end and want to bring them into line.

  4. I agree with most of these but I have to write linearly. It’s not because I confuse myself, it’s because by the time I get up to the big exciting scene that I couldn’t wait to write the whole thing is wrong and the characters are saying and doing things that they would never say/do or the character progression throughout the rest of the novel has mucked everything up.
    I’ve found it’s easier to keep the big scene in mind and let it adapt to the characters, the outcome and motivations don’t change much and the story stays the same but the characters are never quite who I expected them to be.

    1. Thanks for your comments selysin! You certainly raise a good point about why we write linearly at times. The key is to do what best suits your style or adapt it to each story as it develops.

  5. I love this post. As you know, I wrote a similar post recently taking a swing at some of the sacred cows of writing, but before hand I wrote about some of the tips I’ve found most helpful, including write every day, don’t edit as you go and the first draft of anything is shit.
    I can’t argue with your comments as they are what work for you. I think what we can both agree on is that there are no intangible rules on how to write.

    1. The only rule is that there are no rules πŸ™‚

  6. This post has given me renewed hope. I find following the “rules” very difficult. For me linear writing is impossible. I do a lot of editing as I go and I find it very helpful. I think it is best to write whichever way works best for you.

    1. Exactly. I’m pleased with the responses so far, everybody has a different outlook and way of working and that only proves that it’s futile to insist that there are rules that we all should follow.

  7. I always edit as I go… I reread just about every paragraph I write before moving on. If I didn’t, I’d go crazy trying to reread the entire thing afterwards. Usually when I’m done, I’m done and do not want to go backwards and start at the beginning…

    1. That’s a good tactic. Though I don’t re-read each one as I go, I do tend to go over it quite a lot… a bit like three steps forward and one step back.

  8. Great ! Very well put!πŸ˜€πŸ˜€

  9. Everyone has their own process. The only advice I ever give writers is to read what they’ve written out loud at least once to make sure it sounds like normal speech. But, how you get it written doesn’t matter. Whatever works for you.

  10. Thanks for sharing your ideas born of experience. In fact I plan to start work on my first novel come January, so need all the advice. I would also appreciate if you could shed some light on making writing a full time career, so as to be able to earn something from one’s writing! I have done some SEO work earlier and written for newspapers but would like to learn more.

    1. Hi riturang. I’ve really only got going myself in the last year so I am still learning and feel I have a lot to learn. I’ve never sold any of my fiction either, well I did about 15 years ago when a couple of stories were published in a very small press.

      I get my freelance work entirely through elance and odesk as the moment. Have you tried them?

      You might also want to take a look through all of the posts in my Freelancing category here:

      1. Thank you for your prompt reply. I’ll definitely check these sights and the link you have provided. Thanks once again.

  11. Thanks for the pointers. Hope to write a book some day till then I can keep up dreaming. Sheen.

  12. Excellent anti-advice and I will be sure to not follow it. Anyone who never throws any of their work away is not paying attention. Or doesn’t write much. I too have thrown away almost finished books because they were trash-worthy. And I use adverbs and every other part of speech.

    It’s rough writing for a living then coming home and writing fiction. I didn’t produce much fiction until I stopped being a professional commercial writer. There were apparently only so many words in my brain. By the time I got back from work, I’d used up my day’s allocation.

    1. I too have discarded entire books that I felt were unsalvageable. We need to be brutal and as the mantra goes “murder your darlings”. There’s no greater sacrificing of one’s “darling” than realising a book is never going anywhere and few would ever want to read it.

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