Pep Talk from Roxane Gay
Before I wrote my first novel, An Untamed State, I wondered if writing a novel was something I could do. The sheer scope of the task overwhelmed me. I started reading various books and visiting writing forums online trying to find advice about writing a novel. I learned about storyboarding methods and special software and how some writers create extensively detailed profiles for each character. I downloaded Scrivener and tried to navigate the software but failed. All I could see was an unfamiliar screen with lots of buttons and options that made no sense. For months, I opened the same Word file and stared at the screen blankly hoping I would magically figure out where to start. Nothing came. I could never get past the 4,000-word mark.
My agent regularly asked how my novel was coming along and I assured her, “I’m working on it.” That was true. I was working on it––or, at least, I was trying to work on it. I knew the story I wanted to tell but I did not know how to approach the beginning, middle, or end.
There were also a lot of logistical questions. How long should a novel be? (There are a million different answers to this question, by the way.) I prefer to write in single-spaced, un-indented paragraphs. Would that be an acceptable way to submit a manuscript? How long should a chapter be? How many chapters is too many chapters? How do you number chapters during the drafting process when certain sections might be moved around? Is it acceptable to use multiple points of view (i.e. both first and third person)? What if certain chapters adopt an experimental format but are interspersed with more traditional prose? Is it really true that every chapter should be self-contained and readable as its own thing? Do you have to write from beginning to end or is it acceptable to jump around the story and pull it all together at the end? How do you pace a novel? How explicit is too explicit? Is it okay to leave gaps in the narrative? There is lots of advice on novel writing out there but I struggled to find satisfying answers for my specific set of questions.
Finally, there came a time when I decided to ignore all the advice I had read and do the only thing I know how to do, which is write. I wrote what I felt like writing, when I felt like writing, how I felt like writing. I jumped all over the place. None of my chapters had numbers. I didn’t take notes, or create a timeline, or plot anything out.
I did write every single day on the novel, for hours at a time, and made that the one rule I would stick to. I regularly read what I wrote and revised. After more than six months of staring at a page, I finally started making progress and the word count crawled into the five figures. I learned that when you break 100,000 words you can no longer see the word count in the toolbar at the bottom of the Word window, and then I learned just how often I stare at that word count because when it wasn’t there I thought I might lose my mind. I needed that visual reminder that progress was being made. After four months, I finished a draft of a very long story you might call a novel. It was an imperfect draft but it was a draft.
Like most writers, I was able to write a novel without explicit instruction, and that’s probably for the best. There are some things we should figure out for ourselves. As you embark on NaNoWriMo this year, know that even though it is a challenge to write a novel in a month, you can do this. You will figure this out for yourself and the choices you make will be the right choices. This is your novel and only you know how to write it.
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