How To Write a Novel

Writing a first draft? Don’t be afraid to jump

Last week I did a consult with a writer whose main issue, self-described, was that she got bogged down writing all those little interstitial scenes — the moments that get a character to the car, to the party, to the cliff face, or wherever. If she didn’t write them, how would the reader know what was happening?

Cheer up! You never have to write an alarm clock scene again. // Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Lucky for her, the fix is easy: Don’t write that stuff.

If it’s boring, leave it on the flooring.

Beginning fiction writers (and even experienced ones) forget: You don’t have to prove anything happening in the world of your story. You can show the protagonist at a party without any explanation and the reader will trot right along with you. I promise.

Think of it — have you ever stopped in your tracks, mid-scene, and said, “Hey, wait! How did she get to this party? Did she levitate? Did she take the bullet train? Why wasn’t I informed?!”

Of course not.

That’s because fiction exists within a history of narrative contracts which allow us to assume some information without needing to be told. We understand that a story is necessarily a compressed version of the world. And for that reason, we will assume that consensus-based reality is in effect unless we’re given cues to suspect otherwise (via worldbuilding).

Sometimes, important stuff happens in the margins of a story … but if it’s important, it’s not really in the margins, is it?

As the writer, you don’t have to hold the reader’s hand. In fact, it’s actually pretty annoying (and boring) to read a book that doesn’t trust your capacity to figure out what’s going on. Gaps are what make for mystery, and mystery is what turns the pages. Be bold, and experiment with leaving out whatever feels like dead weight.

How to know you’re hand-holding? Ask yourself why the scene is necessary. If the answer is “I need to get [character] to [place] so that [interesting, important event] can happen,” that’s a sign that you can just skip to the interesting, important event.

Readers aren’t afraid to jump. Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash

Now, there is one exception to this rule:

If you’re writing a first draft in a compressed timeline with a steep daily word count (like, say, for NaNoWriMo), I heartily encourage you to pad, bloviate, stretch, and slam-type your way through no matter what.

Why? Well, there are going to be some days when you just hate your book, yourself, the heavens, and the curséd discipline of storytelling. Days when it seems like trying to write a novel is the single most ridiculous thing you could do with your time, when it seems like the dignified thing to do would be to stop cold and hook your face up to the TV for good.

On those days, the sin of quitting is far graver than the sin of writing some boring connective scene that you’ll just have to cut eventually.

On those days, you write the words no matter what. Even if the words are “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuckface. Fucko. Fucky.”

Yes, I’m serious. For a first draft, quality control doesn’t matter. Staying in the game matters.

Yeah, I know that’s radical. It’s not the only way, or the best, but if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me, it might be the only way you can stay in the game long enough to finish a (messy, rambunctious) first draft. That’s what I teach in Here Be Monsters, a 90-day first draft generator, and it’s also how I wrote my first two novels, Marilou Is Everywhere and Kerosene. Someday, I aspire to be one of those one-draft wonders, but everybody has to start somewhere, and I had to start in the mud.

Takeaways

If it’s boring, leave it on the flooring.

If you catch yourself saying, “I need to write a scene to get [character] to [place] so that [interesting, important event] can happen,” you’re holding the reader’s hand too tight.

However, it’s a first draft, go ahead and give yourself 100% permission to write stuff you’ll cut later. It’s more important to keep your head in the game.

Novelist. Tarotist, poet, lazy Virgo. Nothing is real; magic is real. Writing is a way to see in the dark. sarahelainesmith.com, @braindoggies