Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

4 Surprises of Writing a Novel

with 17 comments

So, I wrote a novel.

OK … I’m writing a novel since I’m going through yet another round of edits. Still, through the first, second, and third drafts, there were a number of things that surprised me about the process. Here are four:

1. Imaginary people surprise you.

To a lot of non-writers, it sounds like mumbo-jumbo when authors talk about how their characters surprise them. How can your own fictional creations surprise you? You control them. They wonder.

For most people, this idea makes as much sense as my old roommate’s suggestion of “Just bend your knees when you least expect it. It’s fun!”

But he may have been on to something because yes, my characters did do things that I hadn’t expected; my brain tricked itself.

No, my hands don’t suddenly type away while I watched in horror. It was more like I was just working on a scene and suddenly, everything I planned just felt wrong. And it was. Because in a flash, I knew my characters wanted to do something different. Something I never thought of before. The revelation surprised me, and I usually let them do what they wanted.

2. Writing 4,000 words a day isn’t as scary as you think.

Stephen King mentions in On Writing that he aims to write 2,000 words per day (that’s about 7-9 pages of double-spaced type). And the consensus from most other writers is that he’s a nut. Certainly not in a bad way; more in a holy-crap-he’s-a-machine-of-production-and-I-wish-I-could-do-it kind of way. Most aim for 500 to 1,000 words per day.

But when you have a day job, even 500 words is tough sometimes. So to make up for those goose-egg days I had a bit too often, I plunked my butt in front of the keyboard a few Saturdays a month and tried to push my wordcount up by 4,000 in one sitting.

I couldn’t do it every day. It was hard and time-consuming and I felt like my brain just gone through basic training, but a few Saturdays of it worked to get me to “The End.” And if you’re wondering how those forced-march days compared to the days when I felt inspired …

3. Inspired and forced writing ends up the same.

This one shouldn’t have been a surprise. Professional writers will tell you something along the lines of:

I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every day at 9 a.m.

That’s usually attributed to William Faulkner or Peter De Vries.

Or, maybe J.G. Ballard speaks more to you:

All through my career I’ve written 1,000 words a day—even if I’ve got a hangover.

Either way, the message is clear: quit whining about needing inspiration and write.

We all have those days where writing seems too hard. When the inspiration isn’t there, when you’d rather watch reruns on the tube because your day job was exhausting and you just want to let your brain decompose for an evening.

So we make up some excuse about not being inspired enough that day. That the magic isn’t crackling and the writing won’t be any good anyway. Well, I’m here say that I can’t tell which pages were written on my mopey days and which weren’t.

That’s not to say I didn’t have my share of crack-a-beer and surf-the-channels days. I just think we should be honest and admit that it has nothing to do with the quality of “uninspired” writing. I just wanted to watch back-to-back Family Guy episodes.

4. Your character’s emotions become your own.

Another writerly quote, this one from Robert Frost:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

What’s really surprising is how long your character’s emotion stays with you. After writing a heart-wrenching scene where my main character was angry and bitter, I stalked around the house with a scowl and clenched fists for hours. Finally, I realized why: I had been so involved in my point-of-view character’s emotions that they’d clung to me.

If actors need to actually feel the emotions of their characters, then so do writers. I think it’s a good sign when I walk away from writing a scene and feel like I could fly into a rage. I’m just surprised how real it feels, how long it lasts, and that no one buys it when I tell them I’m angry because my family was murdered by an evil sorcerer.

Written by Nathanael Green

November 22, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Posted in Writing Fiction

17 Responses

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  1. Hey, congratulations, Nate. It’s good to see your blog again, although now I understand why I haven’t been seeing your blog so much lately.

    Oddly enough, I was checking in here in the middle of doing the annual Nanowrimo ‘write a novel in a month’ challenge–at 50,000 words, it’s really more of a novella and a very rough draft of a novella at that. Anyway, just mentioned this to say that all of your four points ring true.

    I look forward to seeing the “final draft”, if there ever really is such a thing…


    November 23, 2010 at 2:23 am

  2. I just stumbled over your blog, and I find this entry extremely relevant and very well-written! Thank you.
    My characters constantly surprise me. Perhaps I write as much to hear a story as to write it.

    M. Howalt

    November 23, 2010 at 6:48 am

  3. All good points. The last one is very true. I’ve always thought that good authors must employ a version of method acting when writing to bring their characters to life.

    Brian O'Rourke

    November 23, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    • That’s a good way to look at it, but it’s still surprising to me how much of a hold some of the scenes had on me. It also brings up an interesting question about the stereotypical angst-ridden, alcoholic, borderline suicidal writer. I wonder whether purposefully plunging themselves into emotional conflicts for the purposes of the story only fed a longer-term anxiety.

      Hm, maybe I should write something lighter. A novelization of Garfield the Cat or something.

      Nathanael Green

      November 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm

  4. Thanks, Seana. I didn’t know you were working on a novel, too. How’s that coming for you?

    M, welcome to 500 words! I see from your blog that you’re participating in NaNoWriMo as well. I’ve never done that officially myself, but I’ve always been intrigued by it. How is the demanding schedule working for you?

    Have either of you found any surprises of your own while you’re writing?

    Nathanael Green

    November 23, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    • It’s going pretty well. I’ve actually done it several times before, so am not too worried about being a bit behind at this point. The whole thing for me is almost all big surprise. This time is no exception.

      There are many great things about Nanowrimo, but one of the consistently best is that you always realize that you have a lot more time to write than you think you have–all you have to do is look for it.

      Also, today we got a email pep talk from Lemony Snicket that was absolutely brilliant.


      November 23, 2010 at 10:19 pm

      • Glad to hear it’s going well. Care to share what you’re working on, or are you keeping the work-in-progress under wraps?

        Nathanael Green

        November 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    • Sorry for the late response!
      Last year, I just made the 50K mark. I had a lot of other obligations in November. This year I had more time (I had to take a week off work for other reasons and could spend most of that time just writing), so it’s not a problem, and I hope to get to 65K at least. The trick is to just write and know that you will have to revise and edit a whole lot afterwards, but I find that it is worth it because you write so much that there will be some good stuff in there. And characters surprising you, like you mentioned, that really happens a lot in November. The story just unfolds, and it’s wonderful.

      M. Howalt

      November 26, 2010 at 5:31 am

      • Right. There are some people who take the tack of outlining pretty completely first, but personally, I really like that process of just seeing what happens.It’s odd that the pressure cooker aspect would sort of force you into a leap of faith, but it does.

        I’m only at 35K now, which means that that pressure cooker is really starting to rattle. Congratulations, M. Howalt.

        Nate, do you want to tell us a little about your novel?


        November 26, 2010 at 11:21 am

        • Thank you, Seana! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you. Hopefully you will have time to write this weekend.

          M. Howalt

          November 27, 2010 at 4:42 am

        • Way to go on the 35K! I hope it’s still coming along well.

          And if I had to do a quick pitch for my novel, I’d say it’s an epic fantasy based on Native American traditions and mythology. Thanks for asking! I’m working on a query letter now, so maybe I’ll have something a little more polished soon. ;-)

          Nathanael Green

          November 29, 2010 at 7:47 pm

      • Congrats on making the 50K, M! And keeping going is always good news.

        It’s interesting to hear how different people attack their work. I do a half-and-half approach with a fair amount of rough outlining before I begin, but with lots of empty space, especially in the middle. Then, I’ll figure things out as I go along. For this novel, which topped out at about 206,000 words for the first draft, there seemed to be a lot of me trying to tell myself the story.

        OK, I’ll call a spade a spade: it was a fair amount of rambling and navel-gazing. So now I’ve cut it down to 180K.

        I think my next project will start with much more extensive outlining that might help keep me a little more on-track with less side-trips in the narrative.

        Nathanael Green

        November 29, 2010 at 7:46 pm

  5. Sure, as far as I can actually describe it. It’s the third in a series I’ve done every couple of years now, which is a kind of fantasy thing involving crows, humans, a starling and now, apparently, ravens. I had the first up as a book through Lulu for awhile, and am probably going to put it back up as well as the second one sometime early next year.


    November 24, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    • That’s great, Seana. I’m really curious to know more about the novels, and definitely let us know if you put it back up on Lulu – I’d like to get a copy of that!

      Nathanael Green

      November 29, 2010 at 7:33 pm

      • Thanks, Nate. I will let you know when the first book is up on Lulu again. I’d like to take another pass at it before that happens.

        I finished the 50K tonight, though I have yet to ‘validate and win’. It’s a bit anticlimactic, as a friend of mine is undergoing surgery tonight, which puts things in a different perspective.

        Your book sounds very interesting, so please keep updating us on its progress.

        Query letters=challenging. Good luck.


        November 30, 2010 at 1:40 am

  6. Good blog, Nate! I have found characters do the darnest things, especially when they have the room in a scene to mix it up. For example, one of my characters only appeared in exposition and when I radically changed my novel so that he was actively involved in the present action I realized how little I knew him before.

    As for the write-each-day idea, sometimes yes, sometimes no. When I have something in mind, I write as much as possible, usually every day. However, when I don’t have time, I’ve found it easier to take notes, envision the next scene, and keep my subconscious imagination involved with the story. That way, I’m primed to go as soon as a handful of free minutes appear.

    Let me know if you need another pair of eyes for your novel. I’m currently working on draft 3.0, a couple short stories, and actively maintaining my writer’s web site. Best wishes on much success!

    Shawn Proctor

    February 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    • Shawn, great to hear you’re keeping on with the novel!

      And I’m agreed with keeping the story in your head and progressing, even if you don’t get the chance to put any of it on paper. Some days it just doesn’t happen, but staying with it mentally is important. I’ve found that writing, like a lot of things, is inertial: the more you write, the easier it is to keep going.

      Nathanael Green

      February 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm

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