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This mini episode offers 10 tips for writers working on their first novels. Host Laura Maylene Walter draws on her experience as a novelist to discuss idea generation, outlines, structure, word-count goals, persistence, the constant battle against self-doubt, and more.
The advice Walter shares in this episode was originally recorded during a workshop she led at the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This episode may be especially helpful for writers participating in NaNoWriMo, the annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November.
The cold open is an outtake from our recent episode “Escaping the Drawer with Sammy and Annisha.” And for another episode related to the novel-writing process, listen to “Novel Revision with Matt Bell.”
Sammy the Hoosier Toucan: I don't love the Thanksgiving holiday. I normally am in a drawer for most of it, so, you know, and the bird eating...it's just not great. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, it's dark. I'm vegetarian, so I do not eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Annisha, what about you? Annisha Jeffries: I am not a vegetarian. I do like eating turkey on Thanksgiving, so my apologies, Sammy. Sammy the Hoosier Toucan: Great. Annisha Jeffries: It's so delicious. Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, book sellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Laura Maylene Walter: At the top of this episode, you heard an outtake from escaping the drawer with Sammy and Anisha, where we interviewed Sammy, your favorite, Hoosier Toucan, and Annisha Jeffries, the Manager of the Youth Services department at Cleveland Public Library. That episode aired on October 11, and I encourage you to go back and give it a listen if you haven't already. Laura Maylene Walter: Since this is the week of Thanksgiving, we're going to do something a little bit different and present a mini episode offering my top 10 novel drafting tips. November is National novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where writers around the world attempt to write 50,000 words in the month of November. I presented a novel writing workshop at the Ohio Center for the Book recently, and the bits of advice you're about to hear were recorded during that session. So please enjoy the following tips surrounding the process of drafting your first novel. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #1: Write the idea that you're most drawn to. No matter what kind of fictional project you're working on, you need to start with an idea. It might be a premise, it might be a character, it might be a problem. It's okay if it's a little murky or if you don't have a definite concrete idea at the beginning. What I like to say is I write to explore, and so if I knew every single detail about my idea in the beginning and how it was going to pan out, I wouldn't actually be interested in it. Write the idea that excites you. Write what you're most drawn to. Don't try to write to a trend or what you think will get published or whatever. I think just write about what is really exciting to you. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #2: Outlines are optional. The big question that is sometimes debated among writers is whether or not to have an outline in advance. And so this is completely up to the writer. I don't use an outline because again, I write to explore. Of course, I have an idea in my mind of where the plot might go or how it might work, work, but I don't have a beginning-to-end outline at all. Some writers do, though, and they really need it. The bottom line is, and I'm going to stress this again and again, is you're not doing it wrong. No matter how you do it, there's really no right or wrong way, which is what makes the process so fun and creative. And it can also make it really frustrating because there's no right or wrong way, so it's hard, and what works for me might not work for you. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #3: Allow your book structure to reveal itself over time. You don't have to have the structure set in stone either when you begin. Sometimes it reveals itself to you as you're working on it. So sometimes you need to write a bunch of your book before you know what the structure will really look like, or at least I do. I don't know. Maybe you'll have it more together than me. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #4: Get the first draft done. Ideally, try to write the full draft of your book no matter what kind of book you're writing, if it's, you know, fiction, get from beginning to end because until you get to the end of that first draft, you kind of don't have a full piece of clay to work with. So it's really helpful just to get the draft out. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #5: Every book is different and every novelist has a different process. Every book is actually different. So you'll hear this from like famous published writers who talk about, you know, maybe they wrote one book and had huge success with it, and then they sat down to write their next novel, and they're like, This is totally a different, They're still just as lost in the weeds as the rest of us are. So I think that's normal, and just accept it. I always just try to remember this is a creative process. It's not--again, it's not paint-by-number. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #6: A novel requires consistent work over time. I always like to say, you're never going to accidentally sit down and write 85,000 words. It is going to take commitment and time to keep coming back to it. And one of my suggestions is, again, you don't have to write every day. I don't think that's always realistic. No one's a superhero here, and we all have lives. But if you can work on it as often as possible, consistently as possible, that's so important because it stays alive in your mind and you start thinking about it at other times. Even if you're only doing 20 minutes three days a week, that's still 20 minutes, three days a week. That's better than zero minutes a week. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #7: Try setting a daily word count goal. I always set a goal when I'm working on a new, fresh novel draft, I will write 1,000 words a day. That might be a bit ambitious, and it just depends on what works. You know, you might start out with 200 words a day or 500 words a day, and I have found it's really helpful. Every day I would sit down and think, I can't possibly make my word count, like this is never going to happen. And then before I know it, it does happen, once I actually put in the butt to chair, you're actually thinking about it, it really does work. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #8: Accept that your first draft will not be perfect. This one is really important, which is that your first draft is probably going to be terrible. I think that is natural. I think all published writers' first drafts [are terrible]. I mean, maybe I sound like I'm being harsh by saying terrible, but "terrible" meaning it's not the vision that you probably had in mind when you sat down to write it. And that is normal because it usually takes many drafts. And the more you can release yourself from the pressure of being perfect on that first draft, I think the better [off] you'll be. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #9: Don't let self-doubt sabotage you. I really think the psychological aspect of writing any book is kind of the biggest part of it, because your brain is going to try to talk you out of it or tell you your idea is stupid or that it's never going to get published or that you'll never be good enough. Or look at these other writers writing a better book, and I've written multiple books now and that still doesn't fully go away, and so I've found that is just something I have to continually get over. Laura Maylene Walter: Tip #10: Enjoy the writing journey. At the end of the day, it's really about the writing, and it's about the creative process. You know, I have published books, and of course I want to publish again. That's always my goal; I'm very ambitious. But I can tell you from this side that the best part of it is the writing part of it and the creation part. And if you're only doing this for publication or awards or accolades, I think you're going to be pretty destroyed because the publishing industry is famously brutal and all those things are wonderful and really nice, but it doesn't quite compare to the writing of it. So I think that's really important. Laura Maylene Walter: That's it for our advice today. Remember, November is also National Native American Heritage Month, so check our show notes for more information. We'll be back with a full episode in two weeks. In the meantime, happy writing. Laura Maylene Walter: Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, learn more about Cleveland Public Library at cpl.org, and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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