Writing a novel... from the Ground Up

I recently talked to GGW Team member Vasily Andreev who just finished his first novel earlier this year.

Writing a novel is something that is really appealing to me, but I can't imagine myself doing it. It seems to be an incredible amount of work, endless complexity, just overwhelming. I don't even know where to start. And I'm pretty sure that I won't like the final outcome and will go through considerable lengths to hide it from the public.

I think a lot of people feel like that. Writing a novel - even if it is just one, even it is bad - is something a lot of us have on our bucket lists.

Vasily and I talked about these things and he explained to me how he overcame these blocks.

A few days later he followed up with the following email.

Writing any form of novel seemed like an impossible task when I was younger. For some novels, it still is. I can’t fathom how to create something as interwoven and brilliant as The Count of Monte Cristo. But I believe there’s an easy approach towards understanding how to write a novel.

If you’re really, really new to writing, never written a short-story in your spare time of any length,  then I’d suggest looking up various creative writing exercises. A good list of these is found at the end of The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, which is a great book to introduce you to various elements of writing. I’ll spare you the trip and give you a few examples.

Try and write ~500 words on each of these:
Describe a building from the perspective of a recently married girl or boy without mentioning the marriage.
Describe a building from the perspective of an elderly woman who just lost her husband. Don’t mention the death.
Describe an environment from the perspective of a bird, without saying you’re a bird.

As you do these, I bet you’ll start to develop some kind of story. A story, on really simple terms, can just be described as plot tension. A character wants something, but can’t get it because of xyz. That’s plot tension. Maybe the character is yourself, an aspiring writer who can’t seem to understand how the words come  to being on the page. Write about it, by all means. At this stage, it’s most important to write. Nobody’s expecting your short story to be a masterpiece. If you write the most horrid things in the English language, that’s okay. Nobody has to see it and you’ve hopefully gotten better. It’s a process.

Once you can easily do the above exercises (or others you found) take your favorite one and turn it into a story. No more than 1000 words. If you like your Elderly Woman story, add the part about her husband dying and her struggling to accept it. Hell, she doesn’t even have to say anything. If you just say “The funeral had ended, and Joanne walked home alone. Her spirit waned as the pain in her thighs and calves grew, until it felt that each step came close to ripping a muscle. She sat down on a park bench and looked at...” Then your description. That’s plot tension. You’ve told a story! Pat yourself on the back.

Now, do the same thing but make it 1500 words. You might struggle with this, that’s okay. If you get stuck, have your character walk or drive somewhere. That’ll give you a chance to describe their thoughts, surroundings, and hopefully, add to the tension. In high level writing, you don’t quite want to make something happen that is a result of your lack of words. But, you’re learning about plot tension, so that doesn’t concern you yet.

Keep ramping up the word count. I promise you you’ll reach a point where you begin to understand how stories are structured. An epiphany will strike you and you’ll realize: “Wait, a novel is just a really long story. I can do that!” 

And hopefully you will.

It changed my whole perception of writing fiction and I hope it will change yours.

Also, if you're into writing, go to the main page and check out Vasily's writing workshop.

The next deal will go up soon and will focus more on entrepreneurial skills again.

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