Ten steps to getting that novel written – Sara Ackerman

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By Sara Ackerman

Writing is a journey that is not always easy, but is always rewarding.  If you love books as much as I do, and see them as the “uniquely portable magic” that they are, then you will know what an honor it is to complete one, but we all need some help to get there, so here are my ten steps to getting that novel written.♥

1. Be Smitten.

Have a book idea that you are in love with. Your idea is the spark that sets everything in motion so it has to be near and dear to your heart. Remember, writing a novel is a long term project, one that will take months or years to complete and you need to be fully invested.  For me, the idea has usually been germinating for some time – in some cases a whole lifetime – and I’ve been daydreaming about it and looking at it from various angles and seeing how this idea would best be told in story form. I call this my Big Idea phase, when I walk around in a daze and stare out the window for extended periods of time.  Daydreaming is an author’s best friend. This is where I ponder what I want to say and who I want to say it about.  I also keep a notebook handy and write down all kinds of random thoughts. These notes come in handy later when I am developing my characters or trying to figure out where to go next.

2. Research Loves You.

A little research goes a long way. Before I begin writing, and even before I begin plotting (though I am more of a Pantster because I love surprises) I begin to pore through books, Google strange subjects, visit places that relate to my Big Idea and talk story with people in the know. One thing I find fascinating at this phase is how once you put it out there, new information often comes to light that falls right in line with your Big Idea. Not only that, but I often find entire story threads come about through following research down a rabbit hole.  You never know what juicy morsels you might end up with. Story research is not the only thing I do. I often re-read my favorite books on writing before I begin a new novel, especially Wired For Story by Lisa Cron.  This way, I avoid pitfalls and create enough conflict (my biggest struggle) and keep the story tight.

3. Plot Points.

This is where I sit down and write out (in kindergarten language) what my main character wants, how she will go about trying to get it, and what stands in her way. I keep this to four or five sentences and do the same for each subplot. For a story to work for me and be meaty enough to keep people interested (myself included), I usually have no fewer than three subplots. I have found that one usually involves animals because I love animals and can’t imagine writing books that don’t include animals. Here is an example of one of my WIPs: Motivation. Amelia wants to get rid of hives and find true love (even though she has convinced herself it isn’t necessary).  She also wants to gain confidence and become a chef, she likes to cook (the witch in her blood).  Quite the masterpiece isn’t it?  I will also write a list of events/situations that I want to happen along the way.  A note on plotting: plots, stories, and characters often change, but it’s always good to have a jumping off point.

4. Making New Friends.

During my Big Idea phase, I know who the main characters are but not that much about them yet. Now, I flesh out each one and write a short bio including physical description and background info, and go so far as pinning photos on my bulletin board. For my most recent WIP I found old photos of a movie star who embodied my main character.  This makes it impossible to forget that her eyes are green or the texture of her hair. However, I don’t go overboard and write five million odd facts about my characters and interview them with questions like do you prefer Pepsi or Coke?  I learn most about my characters while I am writing the novel and see how they interact with other characters and how they sound while speaking.  Which brings me to a fun fact: new characters walk into the story on their own sometimes. A few of my favorite characters along the way were ones I had no idea about until the very point in the story where they showed up.

5. Chair Work.

Sitting down and beginning your novel might be the hardest part of all. Blank pages are scary to me and I have to remind myself that I am going to come back and change the first chapter anyway, so just START AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT!  This is easier said than done, but trust me, you will love the feeling of suddenly having words on the page. Begin your story just before something big is about to happen, when life as your characters  know it is about to unravel. Don’t start with backstory, and write in scenes as much as possible. The magical sense of entering a novel adventure deserves a celebration and I say reward yourself with something nice.  I like to splurge on a brand new scented candle that I will light every morning when I write. Coconut and vanilla are some of my favorite smells, which is why I had Book Scents make a Hawaiian Coconut Pie candle inspired by my novel Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers.

6. Writerly Habits.

By no means am I an obsessive person, but I have found that when it comes to writing and other things that I love (yoga and being outside in nature to name a few), I possess a certain amount of discipline to make stuff happen. Discipline is essential in slogging through a novel, and this is why being in love with your Big Idea is so urgent.  When I am in the midst of writing a novel, I often have that Christmas morning feeling where I can’t wait to get typing and see what’s going to happen next.  That is what keeps me at it. My weekly goal is 5000 words and I usually take off one or two days a week because I have a life that sometimes gets in the way.  Given the choice, I would write seven days a week until the novel is done. This is not to say that writing is easy, because let me tell you, some days I know I am writing crap, but I keep at it because I have learned to trust the process.  I write without much editing (that can wait until the next draft) and when I am stuck, I keep at it.

7. Saving Grace. 

My favorite piece of writerly advice came early on, which I am thankful for.  I have no idea where I originally heard these words, but I’ve seen them in various iterations over the years.  The gist is this: when you leave off writing for the day, stop mid-scene or begin another scene so that you have a smooth entry point the following day.  You won’t have to sit there staring at a blank page thinking, hmm, what the #$%& am I going to write?  Instead, you sit down and begin typing or scribbling away.  I believe this little tidbit has single-handedly saved me from getting writer’s block.

8. The Hardest Part.

Did I say that starting was the hardest part? I meant that. I also meant to say that the middle and the ending are the hardest parts, too!  Sad, but true. There is always that middle section that feels like it’s sagging. I think to myself, yikes how I am I going to keep this story going for another forty thousand words?  The trick is, ignore that voice and keep on plugging away.  You can always add or delete later. In my case it tends to be adding, because I always worry about boring people with too many details and end up needing to deepen parts during my revisions.  And then you approach the ending and you wonder how on earth you are going to wrap up all these loose ends and give the reader that big reveal and the soul-satisfying ending. In my experience, it helps to reexamine how other brilliant authors ended their books and learn from them. Will your ending be happy, hopeful, unresolved, or downright heartbreaking?  The choice is yours, and that is the beauty of being the author.

9. In the Closet.

There is a good reason everyone recommends putting your manuscript away for at least a month and more if you can bear it. All that time – the more the better – helps you to see it with fresh eyes when you read it again. I have waited as few as two weeks and as long as six months, and I can tell you, the longer the better.  This is also the point in your process when you discover that the book you pulled out of the closet is not the best book ever written, but is flawed and imperfect and in need of a ridiculous amount of editing.  That is okay, it is part of the process. Accept it and persevere. Aside from this, not only do you have a new perspective on your draft, but your unconscious mind has also had a chance to work behind the scenes and when it comes to revision time, new ideas and solutions often seem to pop up miraculously.  In this business, your unconscious mind is your best friend. Feed it and give it space and it will serve you well in both the writing and editing processes. I do believe there is a magical quality to writing and that stories write themselves if we get out of the way and let them. It is my favorite part of writing!

10. Revise, revise, repeat.

Many of us have to be our own editors. This is okay to a point, but I can’t say enough about the value of a great editor.  Friends and critique partners are less expensive and also wonderful, but nothing can replace an editor who knows her (or his) stuff.  In the meantime, I find the book Stein on Writing to be a valuable aid.  Also, I read aloud as I go.  Writing in novels is far more conversational than more formal writing and the words should have a comfortable rhythm and flow when spoken.  This may feel weird at first, but it is an essential component to revising. Another brilliant piece of advice that I picked up from author Mark Childress goes something like this:  1st Draft, let it rip, write from the heart. 1st revision, up the stakes in each chapter and whole book. 2nd revision, read through for character arcs (a whole read-through for each main character). 3d revision, make sure the setting speaks to the reader and portrays the theme.  4th revision, go through again and make the language shine. We learn by doing, so don’t be afraid to jump in, get that book written, and hunker down for many rounds of editing. The more you write, the better you will get, as long as you keep an open mind and look at feedback from others as a chance to improve and not a dagger through your heart.

Lastly, keep in mind that this is what works for me and as you continue along your way, you will find what works for best you. Happy writing!

Sara Ackerman is the author of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and earned graduate degrees in psychology and Oriental Medicine. When she’s not writing or practicing acupuncture, you’ll find her in the mountains or in the ocean.


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