4 Surprises of Writing a Novel
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.