Thomas Edison once said, “I never failed in creating the lightbulb, I just found a thousand ways not to create a lightbulb.”
This is the kind of thinking that creatives like writers often lack. We feel that if we are somehow unable to craft something perfect (as if such a thing actually exists) then we’ve failed. If we are unable to achieve the ultimate end goal that we originally set out to we assume that we’ve failed. This particular moment in our careers is what separates the wannabes from those who could actually be successful. It is only when we have tried and failed, but continue to try that we can truly be successful.
Over the last decade I’ve read (or rather skimmed) about a dozen how-to manuals when it comes to novel writing. The premise is always the same, which sucks because not everyone’s way of working is quite the same. A lot of how-to-write novels seem to work on the premise that you write in a linear fashion, or that you must must must outline! That your expected to write a shitty first draft no matter what and that you’ll probably write a thousand drafts before you’re complete (whatever that means). The problem is, as I’ve come to learn, there are many different types of writers. For some, outlining is a four letter word, and completing a novel is this unattainable phenomenon. Sure you can have a novel that is ready for publication, but complete is sort of an oxymoron because there is always things you can do to it. As Picasso explained it, “Art is never finished, merely abandoned.” And don’t get me started on the term ‘first draft’. I’ve always had an uncomfortable memory of the term papers of my youth in which we were forced to write a rough draft, first, second then final draft in that order. You were expected to write certain paragraphs in a specific format, often even using specific phrasing no matter how little sense any of it made. I never quite got the whole idea of explaining your entire essay in the first paragraph and then actually expanding upon that in later paragraphs. This would be like me writing a novel and in the first page I explain everything that’s going to happen, then do so throughout the novel. The idea of shitty first drafts also completely ignore the (however small) subset of writers who edit chapters as they write them. Such writers do exist and so they could have a pretty good “first draft” by which one presumably means a completed manuscript from start to finish.
Every writer is different, and a formula that works for one writer, would drive another writer mad. We can argue about the basic plot structure of every novel, and whether or not there’s any truth to the idea that every story can be summarized as either comedy or tragedy depending on a series of varying questions, but the bottom line is how an author gets to their story is as complex a question as what their story itself is about. The easier question to define is actually, how not to write a novel. Rules for novel writing are as numerous as they are contradictory, but rules for not writing a novel? Now that’s what you should really look out for.