You can doom your debut from the start with these 7 (tongue-in-cheek) strategies for flailing, and failing—or, you can do just the opposite.
There are a lot of ways not to do something. Like the new boat owner a few years ago who was filling up his pleasure craft with fuel for that first time out. Only he mistook the tube meant to hold fishing poles for the gas tank. After completing his work he started up the engine.
The gas fumes ignited and blew the boat owner into the sky. He came down in the drink and was rescued, but the boat was a goner.
You can be just as creative in finding ways not to write your novel. With a little thought and not much effort, you can easily devise methods to prevent yourself from actually finishing a book—or finishing a book that has a chance to sell.
So if not finishing or not selling are your goals, I’m here to help you with the following seven tips.
This guest post is by James Scott Bell. Bell is the #1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, and award-winning thrillers like Final Witness. He served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three additional craft books for Writer’s Digest Books including Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Follow him on Twitter @jamesscottbell.
1. Wait for inspiration.
Go to your favorite writing spot with your laptop or pad. Perhaps your location of choice is a Starbucks. Sit down with a cup of coffee and hold it with both hands. Sip it slowly. Do not put your fingers anywhere near the keyboard. Glance out a window if one is available. Wait for a skein of geese flying in V formation. If no window is available, simply observe the other patrons and make sure they can see your expression of other-worldly concentration.
You are waiting for inspiration. It must come from on high and fill you like fire.
Until then, do not write a word. If you’re tempted to start working without it, open up Spider Solitaire immediately. Tell yourself this will relax your mind so inspiration can pour in.
Of course, those who think it wise to finish their novels do things backwards. They don’t wait for inspiration. They go after it, as Jack London said he did, “with a club.” They follow the advice of Peter De Vries, who said, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”
These poor souls think the secret to writing a novel is to write, and work through minor problems quickly, and major ones after the first draft is done.
They do things like this:
- Establish a writing quota. The quota is based not on how much time they spend thinking about writing, but on how many words they get down. Some do a daily quota, others do it by the week. But they figure out what they can comfortably get done and set a quota about 10 percent above that as a goal.
- Review the previous day’s writing and move on. By looking at what they wrote the day before, they get back into the flow of their story. They fix little things, spelling and style mostly, but then get on with the day’s work.
And one day they look up and see a finished manuscript. They have lost sight of how not to write a novel.
2. Look over your shoulder.
The great pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”
It’s good life advice, but in order to not write your novel, you must ignore it.
To not write your novel, constantly worry about how bad your book might turn out to be. Pause every thousand words or so and think, This is about the worst piece of crud known to man. Where did I put the bourbon?
This is sometimes known as the “inner critic,” and he’s your best friend.
If you think about those doubts long enough, you can even develop them into fears. Jack Bickham, a novelist who was even better known for his books on the craft, put it this way:
“All of us are scared: of looking dumb, of running out of ideas, of never selling our copy, of not getting noticed.
We fiction writers make a business of being scared, and not just of looking dumb. Some of these fears may never go away, and we may just have to learn to live with them.”
Of course, some writers learn not only to live with doubt and fear, but to defeat them. How do they do that? I shouldn’t tell you, because it’s counterproductive to not writing your novel. But mostly they simply pound away at the keyboard.
They concentrate on the words in front of them and kick that inner critic to the curb.
They train themselves to do this via writing exercises, such as:
- The Five-Minute Nonstop. Write for five minutes, first thing in the morning if possible, without stopping to think about what you’re writing. No correcting. Just write.
- The Page-Long Sentence. Choose something to describe (a room or a character) and write a page-long sentence about it, not pausing to edit and instead going on whatever tangents present themselves.
- The List Maker. Whenever you’re stuck for an idea to pursue, make a list. Brainstorm ideas without assessing them. Turn off your filter. Get lots of ideas, then pick the best one.
Writers who have dulled the inner critic don’t worry about getting the words right. The only thing they worry about is getting the words written.
They really have not got this not writing a novel thing down at all.
3. Ignore the craft.
This piece of advice on how to not write a novel applies whether you finish your first draft or not. It’s the cry of the artistic rebel who will go to the grave denouncing rules and techniques and anything that gets within a hundred yards of structure.
This does create a very good feeling, like you’re the king of the world. You can completely ignore all of the storytellers who came before you (be sure to call them hacks or sellouts). The fact that you’ll most likely not place your book anywhere shouldn’t hinder you from your intractable writing course.
The misdirected scribes who actually sell their books and build readerships take the craft of writing seriously. They study it without apology. They have people give them feedback—editors, critique groups, trusted and objective friends—and they read countless novels and examine what’s going on. They’ll do the following:
Analyze successful stories. They ask questions when reading and use their findings to help strengthen their work. For example:
- How does the writer make me want to turn the page?
- Why am I drawn to the lead character?
- When are the stakes raised?
- How does the writer integrate minor characters?
- What makes a scene work?
- What’s the key to conflict?
- How does the writer handle dialogue?
These studious writers will be spotted reading Writer’s Digest and books on writing. What they learn they apply and practice, and through the wonder of trial and error find themselves growing as writers.
But this is an article on how not to write a novel, so follow their example at your peril.
4. Keep a chip on your shoulder.
Here’s a surefire way not only to create a novel not worth reading, but scuttle your career as well. Decide that arrogance and defiance are your two weapons of choice to bulldog your way to publication.
When you have a manuscript rejected, treat it as a personal insult. Think of editors and agents as nasty creatures who love saying no, who sit at their computers laughing Bwahahahahaha as they fire off their favorite thing: the impersonal form letter.
You can carry all this to your social media sites and publicly rebuke such shortsightedness. By name.
Those who do break through and obtain a career have the crazy idea that they can recover—even learn—from rejection and use it as motivation to write better.
They foolishly remember the admonition of writer Ron Goulart: “Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.”
Yes, they recognize that rejection hurts. But they believe it’s part of the process and always will be. Writers like this do the following:
- Wallow, then write. They let the rejection hurt for half an hour or so, then get back to the keyboard.
- Learn from the critique. They go through the letter and their manuscript and attempt to draw out any lesson the rejection brings. They understand that people in the publishing industry actually want to find new authors.
Of course, these are terrible tips for not writing a novel!
5. Write for the market only.
Now let’s talk about one of the biggest keys to a novel that really has no chance. Start by chasing the market. Study the bestseller lists and try to identify a trend and jump on it.
There’s a saying in publishing that the moment you spot a trend, it’s too late to join it. By the time you finish writing something you think will be popular because it’s popular now, that ship will have largely sailed.
Ignore that saying, or you may end up with something agents and editors look for: a fresh voice.
Such writers are market conscious. They know that publishers are in this business to make money, a return on their investment in a new writer.
But they still manage to bring something new to the table, namely their own heart and passion filtered through a craft that enables readers to share their vision.
Yes, vision. Any genre needs it. As super agent Donald Maass says in The Fire in Fiction: “What the hell are you trying to say to me?”
Writers with fresh voices:
- Explore all facets of a story. They concentrate on feeling the story as well as writing it.
- Read a wide variety of material. These writers read outside their genre—even poetry!—not to find out what’s hot, but to expand their stylistic range.
But just beware that if you do find your voice, that means you’re not not writing your novel.
6. Take as many shortcuts as possible.
With the boom in e-books and the ease with which anything can be “published,” writers have a new way not to write a novel that might be worth reading. It’s by holding the thought firmly in mind that whatever they write is worth putting out as a self-released e-book, and they will do it no matter what!
This relieves a lot of the pressure of trying to grow as a writer. One can combine this with the chip-on-your-shoulder attitude for a terrific double whammy.
Of course, other writers—those who are laying a strong foundation in the nontraditional realm of digital and independent publishing—foolishly continue to find surefire ways to vet their work:
- They will use test readers. They don’t trust themselves in all ways. They know they need objective readers, so they cultivate people they trust to tell them specifically what’s not working. Then they’ll figure out a way to fix it.
- They will hire a good freelance editor. They know that the big benefit of a traditional publisher is professional editing, so it’s worth it to them to find a reputable freelance editor to go over their work. Note the word reputable. There are less-than-savory services out there that will gladly take a writer’s money for very little quality work. (And if you’re trying to not write a novel that’s publishable, you should probably use them!)
If all else succeeds and you’re still intent on not finishing your novel, you have a surefire fallback: Stop writing.
Forget the examples of those who persevered and eventually found an agent or got published. Like Kathryn Stockett. She wrote and edited The Help over a five-year period, then got three-and-a-half years’ worth of rejections from agents—60 in all. It was agent 61 who took her on, and the rest you know well.
Published authors will tell you it’s all about perseverance, the one characteristic all successful writers share. They’ll tell you as long as you’ve got a computer and keyboard, or pen and paper, you can write. And as long as you write you have a chance to get published.
Author David Eddings said, “Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, writing isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead.”