Just write it! The 90-day novel

90dnovel_newcoverThe other day I wrote a post about self-confidence, or how I came to accept myself as an author.

This post is about how I came to write my first novel, which oddly enough, was years before I saw myself as a writer.

I’ve always wanted to write. Scribbling words, playing with ideas for a book, picturing the world of my novel, have been part of my everyday life for as long as I can remember. But finding the courage to write down a whole novel seemed simply impossible.

Then a few years ago, I met a friend of my husband, a screenwriter from Los Angeles traveling to Paris. We had dinner with him and his wife, and got talking about writing. I told him my latest book idea. Here’s how the conversation went in a nutshell.

Him: “Sounds nice. Have you sent it to agents?”

Me: “No. I haven’t written it yet.”

Him: “Why not?”

Me, surprised by his question: “Writing is hard.”

Him: “So?”

Me: “So what if I fail? What if I spend hours, days, months writing a novel that’s not good enough?”

Him: “How will you know it’s not good enough if you don’t write it?”

Me, whining: “It’s too hard!”

Him: “Just write it.”

Me: “But…”

Him: “Just write it.”

After about a hundred just write it hammered into my brain, that command was the only idea consuming my thoughts at the end of the evening.

He was right of course – How would I ever find out the answers to my question if I kept my novels locked tight in the deepest recesses of my mind? I had to just write it.

And so I did – 100,000 words, twenty-three chapters, countless characters were born in the following months.

To tell the truth, the book was a disaster. No structure, no consistency, one-dimensional characters. No redeeming quality except that the idea was original and that it was a finished product. Beginning, middle and end. End being the key word here. I had finished a book.

This blatant fail, instead of killing my budding confidence, nurtured it. My book wasn’t good by any standard but I had written it. I was the proud mother of an ugly duckling of a book. One that I loved all the same because I’d brought it to life.
Later on, I realized I needed structure if I wanted my hard work not to go to waste. This was when I discovered the 90-day novel, a book that changed my life as a writer. It filled the bridge between my love for writing and my lack of knowledge of writing rules. I think it’s greatest strength, compared to other writing how-to books, is that it gives you a lot of room for creative thinking. It lacks the rigidity other methods advertise.

Here’s what I loved about this book.

The 90-day novel in 5 points:

1) One month to dig into the world of your story: My first book’s failure depended chiefly on me rushing into writing my novel. In his book, Alan Watt advises you to use stream of consciousness exercises to really get to the core of your story. By writing scenes at random, following only your imagination’s cues, you get to experience the world of your novel first hand, meet your characters in a genuine manner, and let the story drive you. After one month, when I began writing my novel, I had already done most of the work. Paraphrasing Faulkner, all was left for me to do was trotting after my characters and write down what I witnessed.

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2) A dilemma at the heart of your story: Perhaps when you started imagining your hero, you thought he struggled with solitude. But then as you dug deeper, you realized that what he really struggled with was the fear of falling into oblivion when he died. That would be your hero’s dilemma.

To identify his dilemma correctly, you need to know him well, to see him interact with your other characters, to watch him react to obstacles thrown his way. Sometimes you’ll only understand his dilemma after you’re done with your first draft. But Alan Watt’s advice is to keep the dilemma in mind and keep trying to identify it. By doing so, every action taken by your character will ring true and authentic.

Even in fiction, the hero’s dilemma is often similar to your own.

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3) Holding it loosely: After a month spent imagining the world of your story, like in life, you won’t know everything. Contrary to general belief, the author isn’t omniscient. Your characters have the power to surprise you. So does your subconscious. By being willing to hold your idea of the story loosely, light will seep through the cracks. Most of my favorite scenes took me by surprise. You must be willing to let your story lead you to unexpected places and follow it.

4) Write an outline: But not one set in stone. You need to be prepared to make alterations to your outline as the story soars to life.

Many writers skip the outline. I can’t. My first novel illustrates that. Without an outline, my ideas floated aimlessly on the page, lacking a driving force binding them together. Not knowing your hero dilemma can have the same result.

Rules are meant to be broken yet having a general sense of story structure will keep you from drowning. If you’re like me, draft an outline using structure questions. It will allow you to sift through the vast knowledge of the world of your story you now possess and choose what information to write down, and what to keep for yourself. It will also allow you to keep tabs on your story, and make sure it doesn’t veer too far off tracks.

5) Write the first draft: Do it quickly and with minimum editing. There is a sense of urgency in the first draft, an aliveness you don’t want to lose. Revisions are there to correct anything that went amiss later on.

Use the first draft to discover your story and fall in love with it. Critical thinking always gets in the way of a budding romance, but it can turn that romance into a great love story later on. That will be the rewrite.

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The 90-day novel helped getting me through my first serious draft. With daily letters, it became my writing coach and a kind presence in my author’s solitude. The tattered state of the book testifies to my affection for it.

To be honest I rely less and less on this method, my outlines aren’t as structured as I would wish them to be and with every novel, the time allotted to imagining the world of my story shortens.

But I do keep these principles in mind and my first drafts are stronger for them.

Remain curious, inquire into the world of your story, allow yourself to be surprised and write as fast as you can without questioning yourself. After all, as my screenwriter friend told me years ago, the important thing at first is to just write.

Although now I know that a little forethought and structuring help 🙂

What about you? What are your methods or secret weapons to get through that first draft?

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  • I enjoyed this post and I hope it serves to encourage others to just get on and do it. I have been saying for years that being a writer is defined by one thing and one thing only: writing. There are just two kinds of people in the world, those who write and those who don’t. Those that do are writers. “To write” is a verb. It is something that you have to do. If you don’t do it, you’re not a writer.

    It is a common enough story that it can take years before a person learns to finish work. But as you discovered, that is only the first step. After that comes all the hard work!

    I’ve never read the book you refer to here. There are gazillions of “how to write” books out there. This one looks good. Anything that clearly explains structure and process in fiction is helpful.

    To answer your question, I am a planner. For a short story or a longer work of fiction, I apply exactly the same principle. I start with a person, a character, and define early on who they are, what they want, what barriers stand between them and the objective, and in what ways the struggle to overcome will change that person. That’s the beating heart of any story for me: transformation through struggle. I then write the whole story in a single sentence.

    From that, I build out a three act structure, with the key dramatic moments, or disasters in place and work in ever more detail until I finish up with a blow by blow account of each individual scene. So, a very detailed outline. Once I’ve played with that to such an extent that I’m confident I’ve solved most likely problems with the plot, character arcs and story before I even hit them, I start to write.

    When I write, I always write up the final chapter or scene first so I know exactly where I’m heading. Then I go to the beginning and write chronologically and fast without pausing for breath and without back reading, critiquing or editing. I just power on until I have the thing finished.

    Then the real work starts. But that’s another story – and I think I may write a post about it on my own blog at some point!

    • Looking forward to read that post!
      I love that you start with your last chapter. This is what I do to some extent. I don’t write it down, but I usually envision the last chapter before beginning.
      As you said, a story is all about the hero’s transformation and if you know how he will be transformed, then you know how he’s starting out to be.
      Thank you for sharing your process! 🙂

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