How to write a mediocre novel

Starting novels is easy. Finishing them is hard. Consequently, perhaps a lot of writers advise setting yourself daily word count target. You see that Word Count Is All advice all over the place.

And I get that, sort of.

Without some sense of forward momentum, it’s easy to lose faith. You need a manuscript that grows. Characters who do things. Battles that happen, romances that do or don’t find their happy endings. And in the end, you can always revise the hell out of your manuscript.

The basic philosophy of NaNoWriMo is to write a (possibly very bad) first draft, then (at your leisure) revise it into a good one.

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier

Whilst NaNoWriMo can be a good thing for other writers, I’ll admit it’s not something I can be involved in.

Forward momentum is a tricky thing to ascertain. Writing my fourth Fiona Griffiths novel, I was about 25,000 words into the book. I’d essentially completed the set-up phase of my plotting and I knew the story arc of the book (around the investigation of a crime, so for me the thing that matters is (i) figuring out what the crime is and (ii) why it looks one way to ordinary coppers and quite another way to my own super-sleuth). Alongside that arc, I also needed to figure out the dramas that will unfold in my character’s personal life.

But as our own Gary Gibson has noted, there are a point in the novel where it’s common to hit a wall. In fact, that’s not really a helpful image. It’s not a wall, it’s a decision point. There’s just a whole new set of choices at this point where the set-up phase emerges into the development, crisis, resolution ones. I may have my broad strategy all set out, but there’s a host of tactical choices which will make a huge difference to the feel and overall success of the book.

And I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know what the next chapter needs to be, or the one after that, or the one after that. I’m at a point where the ready forward flow of the first 20-something thousand words has pretty much dried up.

Now, I suppose that one route out of my current predicament could simply be to blast through it. Write those words. A thousand every day. In three months, and I’d have a usable first draft. And it’s possible.

For myself, I still won’t go near those word targets. If I set them, and met them, I would feel confident of having a mediocre novel written on schedule – a disastrous outcome. I have on side something that most NaNoWriMoers don’t have, which is the benefit of a book contract and even if my publisher accepted a mediocre novel, their faith in me would be abruptly diminished. I’d have to work to regain it. And even if I really attacked that mediocre draft with my full array of self-editing skills, I’d still need to figure out the issues that are currently bamboozling me. Only I’d be doing so with the weight of all those words round my neck. Every time I had a radical thought about a possible direction for the story, an inner voice would be murmuring, ‘Yes, but that would require a lot of rewriting …’

So what do I do?

Well, I don’t have any word count targets. And I don’t do what Gary does and write a long synopsis of my whole manuscript, since that’s just not a way of working that suits my style. (Again, something else altogether may suit you.)

Instead, I just sit in my work room and puzzle out my plot issues. I often tinker with the stuff I’ve already written as a way of getting myself into the right mindset. I play music. I distract myself, then come back to the problems at hand. I don’t take many notes (I’m not a notey kind of guy) but I will if I need to. I play with radical ideas, and keep the ones that seem interesting.

Having taken more time to ponder things, though, I’ve got a much better grasp on where I need to go next. I’d say that if I write nothing for another week, I’ll be where I need to be when I come back to it. Not progress in the NaNoWriMo sense, but progress in the writing-a-good-book-in-an-efficient-way sense.

So if you’re a NaNoWriMo sceptic, too, then please don’t worry. You’re not alone.

If you’re an aspiring NaNoWriMoer, and maybe you need a plot fast, read up on Christopher Booker’s seven basic plot structures to boost your ideas.

Happy writing!