How to write a novel in 23 steps and 7 years
1. Quit your job in book publishing and travel to Africa on a one-way ticket. Take lots of buses. Meet lots of people. Get dysentery in Uganda. Opt to stay. Spend six months as a volunteer aid worker in Uganda and South Sudan. Return again and again to Kitgum, a town in northern Uganda recovering from 20 years of civil war. Listen to people’s stories. Feel your heart break open.
2. Decide to write a novel.
3. Sign up for NaNoWriMo. Fret about how long the laptop battery will last while you’re in a hut in South Sudan rushing to hit your 2,000 words a day. “Win.” Congratulations: You now have 50,000 words of crap.
4. Forget the novel. Leave Uganda. Keep backpacking. Write travel stories.
5. When you return to the US, read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and decide that your Kitgum novel should actually be a collection of linked stories. But don’t actually start writing those stories. Instead, use the Kitgum pitch to get an eight-month fellowship for emerging writers in New York. Spend those eight months applying to MFA programs, where you will definitely, certainly, absolutely write about Kitgum.
6. In the MFA program, write about everything except Kitgum. Write about bears. Write about dreams. Write more about bears. If you do write about Africa, do it in the form of a comic, so no one can tell that you don’t know how to write about Africa.
7. Read constantly. Write. Experiment. Fail spectacularly. Experiment better.
8. Court other novel ideas. Be seduced. Start a novel set on an abandoned cruise ship. Quit. Start another novel set in post-apocalyptic California. Quit. Write a novel in three days. “Win.” Congratulations: You now have 30,000 words that may be well-written, even honorable-mention-worthy, but are still going nowhere.
9. Return to Uganda for a friend’s wedding. Plan to spend an extra two weeks in Kitgum to do research. Get caught up in the World Cup bombings in Kampala. Continue to Kitgum the day after the attacks. Spend your two weeks in Kitgum confused and shaken. Write nothing.
10. Complete your MFA. Move to Germany. Read books about Uganda. Recognize there’s such a thing as too much research. Decide the collection of linked stories about Kitgum should actually be an historical epic. Decide the historical epic should actually be a graphic novel. Decide the graphic novel should be told from four different POVs. Decide the four POVs should actually be 12. Give up the graphic novel. Slink shyly back to stories.
11. What you need, your boyfriend tells you, is to focus. Choose one thing and see it all the way through. But he’s an engineer. He studied biotechnology and something about enzymes. What does he know about writing?
12. Sign up for NaNoWriMo. Fail.
13. It’s December, now, six full years since you went to Uganda the first time, and seven months since you graduated from the MFA. Germany is cold. You keep a candle on your desk next to your keyboard to warm your fingers as you type. You’ve started and stopped so many times that your computer is full of files labeled “Kitgum.” Some are 50 pages. Some are 12. One has just a single sentence. In a sudden act of frenzied desperation, dump the entire folder in the Trash.
14. Thirty seconds later, move the folder resignedly back to the Desktop.
15. Decide to heed your boyfriend’s advice. Make New Year’s resolutions for the first time in a decade. Give yourself one year to: (1) learn German; (2) run a marathon; and (3) write a novel.
16. The first week of January, sign up on a whim for an online novel writing class, because you recognize that you work better with deadlines. Feel guilty about investing more money in your writing education. Get over it. Note that your second assignment is to write an outline for the entire novel. Mock this assignment loudly to your boyfriend. What are you, some kind of formulaic hack writer? Repeat oft-heard writing quotations about how you can’t expect to surprise the reader if you don’t surprise yourself, and writing should be like driving a winding road in the dark, with your headlights only illuminating the place just ahead of where you are.
17. Realize these quotations have gotten you nowhere. Admit, finally, that you have no plot. Panic. Breathe. Dedicate one long day to crafting an outline. Make things happen. Infuse the story with conflict. Force characters into impossible moral choices. Kill off a central character in the opening scene. Work backwards from the end. Emerge from this experience more energized and inspired than ever.
18. Begin with page one. Take your time. Move on to page two. Sit with the story, but keep moving it forward. Write every day. Write nothing else. Write nothing else.
19. Allow for crises. Allow for breakthroughs. Revisit the outline; revise certain plot points based on how the characters are coming alive on the page and in your mind. Start training for the marathon. When you talk about writing your novel, make ample usage of running metaphors. Pace yourself. Slow and steady. Every week, your lungs burn less. Every week, the manuscript grows.
20. Spring comes and goes. Then summer. Miracles happen. You find an agent. You run ten miles and do not die. You get a dog and go for long walks in the forest every day. You’re still writing. Page upon page upon page. At some point, when you think about starting a book club in your town, the first person you think of to ask to join is a woman who lives in the same city — in your novel. This concerns your boyfriend. But you know it’s the sign that a threshold has been crossed. Something is being born.
21. Don’t forget to walk the dog.
22. In early autumn, when the leaves in the forest have begun to turn, write the sentence that will become the novel’s last. Sit with this feeling for a while. Maybe 20 minutes. Then send your finished manuscript to your agent. Three days later, run the marathon. Pace yourself. Go slow. Realize that you actually enjoy running. You like the effort. You like the ache. As you near the finish line, feel the weight of the past nine months — and the past seven years — begin to lift. Know that your work is not done. There will be revisions. There will be more trips to Uganda. There will be new drafts. There will be agonizing weeks and months of waiting while editors in post-Sandy New York glance over the words you’ve set down with such care. That’s okay. In these moments, gravity loosens, and your legs are weightless. You are lighter than all of it. Lighter than words.
23. Learning German — maybe next year.