New Year’s Resolution: Write a Novel

chicago daily law bulUnlike so many well-intentioned but ill-fated New Year’s resolutions, if yours is to finally write that novel you’ve been dreaming about for years, you’ve chosen one that’s easy to keep.

 The “write my novel in 2014” resolution is ambitious but doable, and comfortably so. Unlike the marathon of National Novel Writing Month, the novel-in-a-year plan is simple, with plenty of room for slips.

 Breaking it down, the resolution is as simple as planning your writing time, writing one page a day and quickly forgiving yourself when you skip or slip-up.

 In October, I was pushing NaNoWriMo, that insane month in which participants attempt to write 50,000 words for no particular reason other than to get out the guts of a first draft of a novel. I “finished” the challenge (largely because I told you and others I would) with 51,705 words of a novel creatively titled “Untitled.”

 It’s too short, in my opinion, to be a novel — if you do one page a day in 2014 you’ll have 365 pages, not 150 — but it does have a beginning (which I think has to change), a middle (which needs to be expanded in some parts) and an ending (which is more or less the right place, although the text itself most certainly will change).

 In other words, I have a bad first draft. (I also have a banner for my Facebook page and a widget which I can’t figure out how to put on my website.)

 But considering when I sat down to write on Nov. 1 that my only thought was “maybe I can write a legal thriller,” that’s quite a bit of progress. Plus, I learned that, for me, the page-a-day method is the easiest way to go.

 However, under the self-imposed stress of NaNoWriMo, I did learn a few things which may apply to your 2014 resolution.

 First and foremost, I reaffirmed for myself that nothing happens until you are in your seat, committed to writing — either a certain number of words or for a certain amount of time.

 Goals matter. Routines help. Pick a time or times, log them in your calendar and keep your writing date with yourself. One page a day — 250 to 300 words — should be a piece of cake.

 Second, do not expect the words you write today to be perfect, beautiful or even usable. They are clay, and only clay. Even NaNoWriMo counts “xxxx” as a placeholder! The right word(s) will come in due course, when you are editing.

 Third, you absolutely do not need to know the whole story to begin. Begin with an image that is emblazoned in your memory, or a character or character type who fascinates you. Begin with a question that you’ve always wondered about — many novels are premised on a simple “What if …” Just begin.

 Fourth, trust the process. Having begun, you will eventually write your way into something that begins to truly interest you. There will be a lot of “throat clearing” in the beginning which may not make its way into your published novel, but you wouldn’t get to the published version without it.

 You don’t need to think too far ahead; you only need to follow your own leads. When you don’t know what happens next, stalling sometimes helps you discover something you didn’t expect. In writing, stalling might mean you write way too much description or way too much dialogue, or you go down some blind alleys that just pop into your head as you’re writing. In other words, just get the one page done for the day — you can make sense of it later.

 One other thing I did to make my quota during NaNoWriMo was to add at least two paragraphs at the end of every scene, even after I thought it was “done.” More often than not, something “deeper” was discovered, a new angle that required further exploration — more words!

 Don’t be afraid that you find yourself writing something totally different than what you thought you were going to write. I didn’t write the legal thriller I intended to during NaNoWriMo, but I may have written a “Christian legal psychodrama.” (Is there such a genre?)

 At one point, desperate to get my words for the day, “Untitled” drifted off into some current issues facing the Catholic Church and one of my characters actually went on a spiritual retreat.

 Thinking like a reader, you ask, “Really? How interesting can that be?”

 Thinking as a writer desperate to fill my daily goal, I asked myself, “What if he hallucinates on the retreat? Does he have a guilty conscience about something? Does he really believe?”

 See? That’s how the writing process is supposed to work. That’s how story is “discovered” by the writer. That’s how you get your one page a day.

 It goes without saying that it is highly unlikely that you will be able to practice law and write absolutely every day, but when you must skip, try to make it a planned skip and quickly get back to your writing schedule. It’s just like the gym — the longer you’re away, the harder it is to come back.

 Writing one page a day may also help you keep your other New Year’s resolutions. While you’re typing, it’s hard(er) to smoke, drink, eat, chew your fingernails, twirl your hair, gossip or spend money. Like any habit-forming or breaking, it’s one day, one hour, one page or one word at a time.

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