Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel

Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel by Meredith Sue Willis

Celebrated novelist and story-writer Meredith Sue Willis has also published three widely praised books about the writing process: Personal Fiction Writing, Deep Revision, and Blazing Pencils. In Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, Willis now turns her attention to the specific delights and challenges of working with a big fictional canvas. This clear, eminently practical guide offers both general approaches and targeted suggestions for working through the complex tasks of writing a novel. Willis describes multiple entryways into this formidable genre, offers vivid illustrations from classic and contemporary novels, and provides dozens of creative exercises to jump-start the writing process. Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel is destined to become a classic guide for newcomers and veterans alike.

  • ISBN: 1-932727-10-8
  • Price: $16.95 (paper)

Read an Excerpt

Strategy 1

Separate Process and Product

To write a novel you must read novels, and you must sit down and write. Nothing is that simple, of course, but you do need a sense of what a novel is, and you also need space in your life for writing. While you learn to write a novel by doing it, there are exercises and techniques in this book that can clarify the process, give you direction, and stimulate you to keep turning out pages.

Novels come out of many materials—stories we’ve heard, our sense impressions, our memories, thematic ideas, conflicts that have engaged us, situations that caught our attention, other books we’ve read. Moreover, these sources of material are the same whether you are a beginning writer or a Nobel Prize winner. Whether you write autobiographically or work from meticulous research, you are always imaginatively experiencing and re-experiencing the world you are writing.

Each chapter in this book has ways to help you in that process of experiencing and imagining. You will find material to read and think about and exercises to put those ideas into practice. The exercises are based on my own experience of writing more than sixteen novels and other books as well as decades of teaching writing classes like “Beginning Your Novel,” “Advanced Novel Writing,” and “Jump-start Your Novel” at New York University and other institutions.

One important strategy to keep in mind is that anything you write as you use this handbook can be part of the novel you are writing. All the writing exercises here are meant to be rough drafts or fragments or sketches of actual pages of your novel. Some people will dip into this book for insight into a specific topic or problem, and others will go through it in order, reading the discussions and doing the exercises. If such a person were diligently to complete the exercises, she or he would end with fifty pages or more drafted. It would be my hope that the writer would also have the momentum to keep going and complete a solid first draft.

Novels do not have to be written in a linear progression. These exercises are meant to move you around in the world of your novel, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes voyaging deep out into the final chapters. You may do the exercises out of order and skip things that don’t appeal to you, but keep in mind that trying something a little uncomfortable or making something fit that doesn’t at first seem perfect for your novel may open doors, suggest new paths, or give you new material. Part of the discipline of novel writing is to be open to new ideas—to new characters or newly important characters or perhaps even to a new ending. On the other hand, if one of the exercises stimulates you to write for two hours—if it gives you an idea for a new chapter or the second half or even a second novel—write on! Go where your energy takes you. Come back to Ten Strategies when you get stuck and need a restart.

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I want to say a word about the samples of literature that appear here. Many are from nineteenth century novels, which are among my favorites, and also represent a happy time when literary and popular novels were frequently one and the same. I also use examples from students and friends who have given me permission, and I have written some examples specifically for this book. I also use selections from my own published work, which allows me to talk about the process of writing them.

This book is above all about the process of writing—how to get the novel out, how to get it as deep as you can, and how to begin the work of seeing it again and making it be the best it can be. It is very important to distinguish between the process of writing and the product you eventually show to other people. The word “product” is most often used to mean commodity—a thing sold and bought. It is something available in the marketplace. Process, on the other hand, is how the thing is made or developed. Process is about the journey, not the destination. It is essential in creative work to separate the process and the product. The process of getting ideas down is qualitatively different from polishing up the finished product to show to other people. If you are writing a letter-to-the-editor, you may have a single strong idea that you can write in a single sitting. You sit down at your computer, dash off your thoughts, run spell check, change a word here and there, and you send it off—perhaps instantly, via email.

Novel writing, however, is a slower and less straightforward process. The writing itself often directs where you go and what you say, and many novelists say they work out the story and characters as they go. This varies enormously from person to person, of course. Some writers mull over their story for a long time and then write rapidly with few drafts. Others tinker for months on a beautiful first sentence, letting their subconscious work while they tinker, and once they are satisfied with that first sentence, write more rapidly. Others are like me, blasting out twenty or sixty pages sloppily and quickly over a week or two, entertaining myself as I go, running out of energy and laying the book aside until I come back with a new burst of energy that may or may not start where I left off. It can take me many years to come up with a draft ready to polish.

Running out of momentum is one of the most common problems novelists face. Whatever your approach to writing, your engine is likely to run out of gas at some point. Some people feel a lot of angst about this and say they are blocked. I tend to think it’s part of the process: you write the beginning—you open some doors, knot up problems—and then, a month or maybe even a year later, you use up the first supply of energy and ideas. I believe that there will be more energy and more ideas, and that an important part of the process of writing a novel is to figure out how to restart and refine. How do you keep the process going? How do you come back after a hiatus?

For some people, polishing what they’ve already written works to get them restarted. Working with the material itself primes the pump. Some writers take classes or join writing peer groups for the assigned deadlines and the camaraderie of other writers. Some people just lay the book aside and work on something else. I laid aside a young adult novel, for example, to draft this nonfiction book you are reading.

A novel is so large, so open-ended, so lacking in clearly defined guideposts, that it is almost guaranteed that you will need strategies for getting back to work. People write poems on a napkin in a bar; you could draft a short story on a Sunday afternoon, but a novel—you will only write a novel with a lot of time and regularity.  It is the famous room of one’s own that Virginia Woolf insisted all writers need.

One important part of the process of writing a novel, then, is regular sessions at your computer or yellow pad. You need to know that you are going to work every Friday from nine to noon, or six weeks every summer, or every morning for at hour at 6 a.m., or week-ends at midnight—when doesn’t matter, but regularity does. Some people need a place dedicated to writing. I knew a man who used to take a subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan to his job, and he drafted much of his novel in a notebook during those forty-five minute rides. I met someone else who did it on lunch hours at work, and I know a college professor who had a summer cottage and only wrote there, on weekends and during the summer when she wasn’t teaching. One way or other, it is important to find a point in the space-time continuum that is conducive to your writing.

Once you’ve found it, the next step is to separate polishing and editing—the preparation of what you will submit to an editor or share with a friend—from getting the story out. The final stage uses your cool, critical, rational brain. You look for holes in the story, for excessive adjectives, for gaps in continuity. The drafting part, however, the process part, demands an open, loose, playful state of mind.  Your unconscious and your dream life need to be available to you. You may have a sense of not knowing where this stuff is coming from. Where it’s coming from, of course, is your less-than-rational self, your right brain, your imagination, your muse!—however you want to say it—but it is not the part of your brain that balances the check-book.

Let me be clear here: both modes are essential to writing your novel. You must learn to self-critique and edit, to polish and finish your book. The last several chapters of this book have a lot of strategies for revision. But you must also learn to sink into the process of creating. The important thing to remember is that drafting and polishing need to be done with different mind-sets. The process of drafting is not about correcting or even about making sure that the character’s little brother’s eyes stay blue for two hundred pages. Drafting is about finding your story, exploring your characters, discovering themes you may not have known were there. You may start with a terrific idea for a plot, but knowing your beginning and middle and end is not sufficient to fill two hundred manuscript pages.

As an example, consider the beginning. People often talk about how you need a good beginning, a “hook” to catch the reader. It’s good advice, but it’s advice for finishing your novel, not starting it. For many writers (although certainly not all) the first words you read are not the first words they wrote. I sometimes write pages of place description and character back story to help me get started. I may or may not keep this material: I’m likely to use it somewhere, but rarely at the beginning of the novel. In fact, frequently the very last thing I polish and evaluate is the opening passage of the book. The beginning you read in one of my novels may well be the last thing I wrote. There are writers, on the other hand, for whom that first sentence starts the book rolling. Part of your process as a writer is to figure out what works for you. For me, the first line of the finished work is the point at which I am addressing an audience. My process of beginning to write is not about attracting or performing for an audience or an editor. I like to edit and revise, and I certainly enjoy being published, but the heart of writing a novel for me is the experience of being in a different place, a world of created people and events.

Here are some exercises to get you rolling or re-rolling on that experience.

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Exercise #1-1: Try a Directed Free Write. This is a loosening up exercise that you can use in many circumstances, not just novel writing. Begin by sitting in front of your computer or at your legal pad—however you typically work. Set a kitchen timer for ten minutes. Think of the novel you are trying to write or restart. Focus in on a particular character, scene, situation, setting—any element of the novel, even its title. Write that down. Now turn on the timer, and for ten minutes, write whatever comes to mind starting from that initial phrase, character, scene, situation, setting, title, and so forth. If you drift away from the subject, that’s fine. If something new comes to you, welcome it. The only rule is to write steadily, even if you have to repeat words, for the full ten minutes. Stop when the ten-minute period is up.

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Exercise # 1-2: Try another Directed Free Write. This time, look over what you wrote in the first directed free write. Underline or cut-and-paste the most interesting phrase, word, sentence, or idea from what you wrote. It doesn’t have to be the best written, just the thing that catches your attention. Copy that over; reset the timer, and do the same exercise, but starting from that line or phrase or sentence. This time, when the ten minutes is up, if you are engaged in writing, keep going.

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Exercise # 1-3: Now think of the novel you are working on, or want to work on. Think of some part you have not written yet, but are looking forward to—or, alternatively, some part of it that you have been putting off, perhaps dreading, or that you wrote a year ago and weren’t satisfied with. A love scene? The big battle? A confrontation between parent and child? If you’ve written it once already, don’t reread it, just think of it for a minute or two. Then set the timer again for ten minutes and draft as rapidly as possible a very rough draft of that part. Don’t worry if it is toward the end of the story. Don’t worry if the writing is abominable. Just don’t worry. Get the passage out there.

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The point of these exercises is twofold: (1) to develop and improve your ability to draft rapidly when the circumstance call for it, and (2) to get some pages written and some pieces sketched out to come back to later.

Praise for Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel

Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel is a state-of-the-art text on how to approach writing that novel and how to stay with it until you get it done....

Norman Julian — "About getting that novel started—and finished" — The Writing Life, Dominion-Post of Morgantown, West Virginia

Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel...is a "must have" for any beginning or seasoned writer.

Laura Bentley — author of The Silver Tattoo

A great resource for both beginners that seek a solid foundation, and those like me, who are writing their second or third novel.

Tricia Idrobo — ”Writing and Illustrating: Sharing Information about Writing and Illustrating for Children" — Dominion-Post of Morgantown, West Virginia

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