Return to site

Bad habits we bring to novel writing from the civilian world


Multitasking and prepackaging is the bane of most new novelist's efforts to write a novel. This is because too many of us jump in with both feet prematurely. Even before we get our sequence of work organized and scheduled, we start fretting about point of view, distance, tense, omniscience, access, subplot details, etc. And we do all this before we have a story worked out, before we know who our story is about, before we know what problem he will be dealing with throughout his journey or quest. In short, we are picking a suit off the rack before we even know who is supposed to fit into it. Then we are stuck with creating a character and a story that fits all these premature decisions we have made.

This bad habit of jumping the gun is one of the quickest ways to overwhelm ourselves, begin to feel unsteady on our feet, start to doubt the wisdom of our enterprise and we often throw our hands up and quit. We have to ask ourselves why successful bestselling novelists like John Irving (World According to Garp, Widow for One Year, Cider House Rules) spend as much as eighteen months outlining before drafting the first word.

If and when we start writing, we bring bad habits to our writing. We were praised and rewarded for doing many things at once in school and in the workplace, but it is counter-productive at the novelist's desk. We get no extra credit, enjoy no rapid progress, and experience no advantage in story crafting if we try to invent, write and edit all at the same time. Multitasking is not our friend. If we stick with it, we eventually find that trying to do as few things at a time in each of our drafts slowly and effectively moves our seed of an idea to a finished and polished final draft.

Creating draft sentences and trying to fix (edit) while we go creates a battle between our left and right brains. Inventing story and image and fixing our prose happen in two different places of our brain. In time, we all learn that if we let one part of our brain dominate our efforts at a time, we get the best out of each half.

Too often, new novelists will make left-brain (organizational, logical, structural) decisions before we even have a story worked out or while working it out, rather than waiting until we have hammered out the story's beginning, middle, and end. Waiting until this point in the writing process to make these choices allows us to select those options and enable storytelling with ease instead of becoming constraints on the story.

Wait, wait, wait, until you have worked out all of your plots in your novel before you go shopping for decisions/options that will enhance the storytelling. For most of you, this will happen best if you will outline each plot, either individually, or in a comprehensive multi-plot outline that interweaves all the plots you intend to include.

Doing this will organize the flow of your work in a manner that turns out the best results and sequence the differing efforts so that they are appropriate for the level of progress you are making.