Writing Your First Novel? Be Messy and Be Radical
GrubStreet Instructor Elizabeth Santiago shares how craft books can help you without writing your novel for you. You can learn more in the Novel Generator, taught by Liz, taking place at our location in Boston's Seaport. Applications for the Spring 2024 Novel Generator are due Monday, December 4th.
Hello, my name is Liz, and I have a confession to make. I’m obsessed with craft books. I have everything from Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words, to Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction, to Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel, to Lisa Cron’s The Story Genius, and most recently, Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as A Vocation. Murakami wrote, "What I want to say is that in a certain sense, while the novelist is creating a novel, he is simultaneously being created by the novel as well."
These words remind me of my favorite Toni Morrison quote in which she said, "Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created."
This is why we write – to discover parts of ourselves and the intricacies of the world around us that we might not have been able to explore or express using any other method.
This is why we write – to discover parts of ourselves and the intricacies of the world around us that we might not have been able to explore or express using any other method. And, of course, to tell the stories we see play out in our heads.
Craft books help us with structure and approach. Reading books like the few I’ve mentioned help me personally feel like I’m in the game. See I’m really a writer! Look at me reading these craft books! They make me feel like I am less alone in the novel writing process, but they can’t write my books for me. At best they validate an approach and help me focus. At worst, they distract and derail.
With craft books there is definitely a coordinated dance that needs to be learned. I wrote the first draft of my first book purely on instinct and, while I finished it, I had to revise it more times than I care to admit to make it readable, logical, and descriptive. Let’s just say it needed a lot of work and, maybe, following craft books more closely would have helped. Although, I do think my experience is normal for a first novel and for a first draft.
Not only are you telling yourself your story, but also you are learning your style. What’s the most productive way for you to write a novel? It may be outlining every plot point and beat in advance, sitting down and writing what comes to you and worrying about the plot points later, or some combination of the two. Whatever it is, it’s hard to know what’s going to keep you motivated when you are writing a first novel, so the best advice I have is to write anyway.
Quite honestly, the only thing that got me to the finish line of my novel was not a craft book, but me. Me writing, revising, obsessing, dreaming, procrastinating, surfing the internet, researching historical information that I never used, and writing some more. I spent many years avoiding finishing a project because I thought I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought if I had the right framework then I would finally feel like I was legit. Like anything in life, you can’t really know what you are doing unless you practice, experiment, and ignore the desire to question everything including your abilities.
If you are writing your first novel, refer to craft books, sure, but then put them away and write. Write for yourself. Be messy and be radical. Learn your own process and tell the story you want to tell.
Now that I am working on a second novel, I am taking bits and pieces from the craft books I enjoy, creating outlines that make sense, and allowing myself to be messy. Writing for me has become that sense of discovery and creation that Hurakami and Morrison described, but it took time to build my confidence. If you are writing your first novel, refer to craft books, sure, but then put them away and write. Write for yourself. Be messy and be radical. Learn your own process and tell the story you want to tell.
Are you working on or dreaming of a novel? Sign up for Liz’s upcoming Novel Generator. She is committed to helping you tell the story you want to tell in the way that makes sense for you. We will focus on craft, but, mostly, we will write. Applications are due Monday, December 4th!
I have been a storyteller for almost as long as I have been alive! I read voraciously as a child, but had always been struck by the stories that weren't being told. Stories about my ancestors, my community and my neighborhood. I set out early to tell those stories. I earned a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College then a Masters in Education. I taught writing and literacy courses for many years before I decided to take my passion for storytelling to the next level. I completed a PhD program at Lesley University focused on creative writing for literacy acquisition and liberation. As a result of that work, two projects emerged. One is a contemporary young adult novel titled, The Moonlit Vine, featuring 14-year-old Taína, descended from a long line of Taíno women who must rise within her own strength to bring peace and justice to her family and her community. The novel was published by Lee and Low in May of 2023. The second project is a website called The Untold Narratives to support all writers, emerging and experienced, in finding and sharing stories that are not typically told due to marginalization. Please visit the site and learn more about the novel here: https://www.theuntoldnarratives.com/the-moonlit-vineSee other articles by Elizabeth Santiago