Five Things I Wish I had Known before I Started Writing Novels

by Greg Barth
One – Building a story is a separate process from writing a story.

I used to think that you built a story as you wrote it. This was wrong. I’ve since learned that building a story is a thing in itself that has little to do with writing. Stories have defined components, certain ingredients that are required, big scenes that happen in certain places. It wasn’t until I knew the fundamentals of building a story that I was successful at writing a novel.
These days I spend a lot of time turning scenes over in my head while driving, listening to music. In the evening, I jot down some notes about the scenes I dreamt up earlier in the day on a notecard and pin it to my corkboard. I move the scenes around, making sure the big scenes hit at the right points in the story. I note out the sequences that connect the scenes. It’s not until I have the story built that I begin writing it.
Two – A strong story will work no matter who tells it.
I don’t consider myself a talented writer. There, I’ve said it. And it’s true – I don’t. I do, however, consider myself a better-than-average story builder. Here’s the thing – a good story will overcome mediocre writing. Stories can be written as songs, novels, poems, you name it, and we all love the stories that work.
Some of my favorite movies won’t be found in the Criterion Collection. Why? Because they don’t break ground cinematically. But they are my favorites because I love the stories they tell. Have you ever read the latest release from a best-selling novelist, one you’ve looked forward to, maybe pre-ordered, only to find that you were a little let down by the story? Maybe the writing was as excellent as you’d come to expect from this author, but the book didn’t end well, or the pacing was off. My theory is this: It takes a tremendous talent to tell a mediocre story in a captivating way. On the other hand, if the story is great, it almost doesn’t matter who tells it.
This is why I spend time getting the story right up front because I know my writing skills are pretty basic. But basic skills are good enough for an exceptional story, especially if you don’t want your flowery prose getting in the way of what’s going on.

Three – Listen to the screenwriters.
I’ve read a good many books on how to write novels. You name the title, and I’ve probably read it. But here’s the hard news, they weren’t very effective for me. I can’t think of a single one that helped me learn what it takes to sit down and actually write a novel. In fact, it wasn’t until I began reading the screenwriters that I learned how to write a novel. What was the difference? The screenwriters know what a story is. They are disciplined in that area. They know what piece goes where. Once you have the concept of a story down pat, you can apply it to any medium, not just screenplays.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat was the book that helped me get my first novel across the finish line. And the second. And so forth. Check him out.
Four – You don’t have to write every day.
It’s true. You don’t. I’m old enough now to know better than to take on unnecessary guilt these days. The last thing I want to worry about is having to write every single day. I’ve turned out four fairly good-sized novels in the last 18 months, and I have a fifth written and waiting to be released. So, how do I do that if I don’t write every day? Simple. I redefine writing.
While I don’t write every day in the sense that I am sitting at my desk, pecking away on a keyboard; I do write every day in my head. When I am driving, when I lay down for the night, whatever I am doing, I am turning scenes over in my head, trying to build an exciting story. I jot down notes, reassemble my cards.
I don’t sit down at the keyboard to write until I have a story formed that excites me. I figure if it doesn’t keep me up at night writing it, then it won’t keep the reader up at night reading it. When I do get to the point to where I am ready to write, it takes me about 12 to 14 days to get the first draft down. I do it in a manic, sleepless blur. I do it that way because I already have the story in my head – the whole thing – and I just have to get it out.
Five – Don’t fear the first draft.
First drafts are always rough. Sometimes they are so dreadful, it’s easy to fall into despair over them. But here’s the thing – having a horrific first draft is actually a pretty good thing. Think of it this way. You had this idea, but it was all up there in your head. Now you have taken it from your mind and turned it into an actual thing. Something you can print out and hold in your hands. Something you can show people. Sure you didn’t get it all. Sure it’s imperfect. Sure you wouldn’t show it to anyone yet. But there it is! You did this! You made this thing from nothing, and now you can get to work on polishing it up. You can turn this bad boy into something you’ll be proud of. But don’t get too carried away with the polish. Writing is a lonely, highly-personal craft. Publishing is a team sport. Get this sucker submitted, accepted, edited, and published. Draw a line under it and move on to the next thing. Because you could spend your life polishing this one manuscript, and you’d never make it perfect. That’s the blessing and the curse of being a writer. Publishing is a way to say, this one is done; now we’ll move on to the next thing.
And don’t look back! Keep moving forward. Try to be a better writer today than you were yesterday. Don’t despair how horrible your first novel looks to you now. It’s really not that bad.

© 2017, Greg Barth. All rights reserved.

Greg Barth

Greg Barth is the author of Selena, Diesel Therapy, Suicide Lounge, Road Carnage, and the forthcoming Everglade. He is also the host of Noir on the Radio, an affiliate of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. He lives and writes from Bowling Green, KY.

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2 Responses to Five Things I Wish I had Known before I Started Writing Novels

  1. Greg Barth says:

    Thanks Peg! I’m with you on the first drafts. It feels a little overwhelming trying to get your arms around it, but I enjoy the polishing quite a bit once the structure is sound. By the time the thing is published, I’ve looked at it so much I can’t even tell if it’s any good or not. I’m just too close to it by that point. Fortunately I have a couple of great editors.

    Best wishes to you and your writing!

  2. Peg Cheng says:

    Fantastic article, Greg! It’s rare that I agree with every point in a writing tips article, but I did with yours.

    Like you, I can’t figure out a story while writing it. I have to know the story before I write.

    Like you, I consider myself a mediocre writer but a better than average story builder. Story is king. Without it, I’m toast.

    I learned how to write screenplays before I learned to write novels. Helped me more than anything else.

    Like you, I don’t write every day, but I think and percolate on my story every day.

    I’m still learning to not have too much despair over the first draft. It’s a work in progress.

    Thank you again for this article! I’m going to share it with all my writing friends.

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