How to Cheat When Writing Your Novel

Dear New Novelists:

Don’t worry if things aren’t going as well as you want with your first novel. I am a published author and I hereby give you permission to cheat.

Trust me, we all do it. Some of you just haven’t realized you can yet. You don’t think you can do these things because they feel like cheating … because when you started reading books, you never thought writers stooped so low. But believe me when I tell you: we all cheat.

Follow these tips and you, too, can cheat when writing your novel and no one will be the wiser.

Don’t write the story in order. Many starting novelists think they need to begin on page one and go in a straight line until they hit “the end.” Screw that. If you have a really exciting scene that you just can’t wait to get to, write it now while you’re all enthusiastic about it. Your desire for that scene will show in the writing and the scene will be much stronger because of it.

Or maybe you’re not quite sure how exactly you want to end it. Why not write the ending first? Then you have something to aim for, and can make sure your characters are always heading in the right direction.

If you get to a difficult part, feel free to type “and then some stuff happens” in big letters to remind yourself to get back to it later. Fight scenes are always hard for me because I know how important they are and that adds pressure, so I often write “fight scene goes here” and then come back to it later when I can take the time to choreograph the whole thing out.

Don’t feel constrained by time. Just because people read the book in order doesn’t mean you have to write it in order.

Write a crappy first draft. Seriously, I see this all the time: Writers who have the first fifty pages or so written and then they edit those pages and rewrite them and keep working on them until the fifty pages are perfect, but nothing else ever gets done on the book. They feel like they have to do this because the first draft is so crappy.

That’s okay. First drafts are supposed to be crappy — you’re just getting all the ideas down at this point. Don’t worry too much about your word choices, just get that story out. No one has to see it. Believe it or not, the majority of time you spend writing should actually be in the rewriting and editing part.

And then comes the hard part: killing your darlings. You have to be willing to cut huge sections of your work if they slow the story down or are unnecessary. My first draft of BLOODSUCKERS was around 96,000 words and the final published version ended up at 75,000 — but the pacing improved tremendously between those two versions.

Add foreshadowing afterwards. You know those cool twists and turns you love in books, where a big climactic scene ties back into something someone had said or done earlier in the books? Foreshadowing is fun and can make a great story even better, but you don’t have to plan it out. Write your story first and then figure out how to plant the foreshadowing in the earlier chapters. If you’re writing a mystery (and, as I’ve pointed out before, almost every story has some mystery within it), then you can also go back in time and plant the clues later. It’s okay. No one will fault you for this because no one will ever know.

Add character development later. Similarly, while you should have a good idea of your characters long before you start writing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going back later and expanding on that by providing hints and clues about the character’s background. One thing starting writers tend to do too much of is create a huge backstory for a character and then think that all that has to be in the book, preferably all in a big chunk right when the character is introduced. This may help avoid that.

The bottom line to all this advice is this: Stop feeling constrained by the manuscript. Break the rules that exist in your head. The only thing that matters is the final version people read.

You can cheat all you want to get to that point.

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