Beginning a Novel: The Secret Is, There Is No Secret

Dec 22, 2021 | Novels

I saw a quote the other day, attributed to Kabir, which said: “Wherever you are, that’s the entry point.”

I love the simplicity of that, and it feels particularly relevant to the Beginning Your Novel workshop I’ll be leading with Erin Dionne and editor Linda Camacho in January.

It also reminds me of one of the first and most important lessons I learned about writing novels.

When I first tried my hand at writing for kids, I thought I wanted to create picture books, not novels. I couldn’t even imagine writing something as long a whole novel. How did people even do that?

Flash forward a few years, and my picture book manuscripts were going exactly nowhere. Meanwhile, at a summer workshop, I met a guy who told me about his work on the Sweet Valley High series for a book packager in New York. When he suggested that I contact his editor to see if she was looking for additional writers, I felt conflicted.

Part of me thought, what’s the point? I have no idea how to write a novel.

And part of me thought, So what? Just email the editor and see what happens.

A few weeks, several emails, and two sample chapters later, I had an offer from the packager, not to work on Sweet Valley High, but to write a new four-book fantasy-adventure series they were developing, called THE VIKING.

Just like that, I had six weeks to write the first draft of the first book, and eleven months in which to complete an entire four-book series.

Talk about trial by fire! From day one, the pressure was high, which was arguably a good thing. I always need some kind of pressure to get the work done. Mostly, though, it felt a whole lot like: AUUUUGHHHHHH! WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?

And then…

I just started writing. There was no choice but to get my fingers on the keyboard and start developing some good habits, ASAP.

That’s when I learned first-hand about the benefits of working every day, whether I felt like it or not. It’s also when I learned to ignore the abject awfulness of my first drafts and just keep going.

Maybe most of all, it’s when I discovered that there’s actually no big secret to writing a novel. Just the opposite. Working on that first series really demystified the process and showed me that a 600-word picture book manuscript was written in the same way as a 40,000-word middle grade novel. One word at a time. One paragraph. One chapter.

Over and over, and over, and over again.
Step by Step
Step by step…by step…by step.

To be clear: I’d never say that writing a novel is easy. It’s about far more than just putting words on a page, and it always—I mean always—takes me longer than I want it to. But in terms of actually getting it done, at its most basic level, there is something very simple about the process.

Showing up is everything. Butt in chair. Fingers on the keyboard. Filling pages today and worrying about making them better tomorrow. There’s no magic in that, but realizing the truth of it was, for me, a revelation.

To this day, I still feel a sense of overwhelm when I start writing a new novel. How did I ever do this before? What if I can’t get it done this time? The difference now, though, is that I know what to do if I want to start getting some answers.


Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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