By J.D. Huffman
A reaction I commonly get when I tell people I have written novels is, “I could never do that. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” It may not come in those exact words, but the sentiment is a recurring theme. There’s an implied assumption that writing a book–or undertaking any serious creative endeavor–is something a person is born knowing how to do. But that’s just not the case.
I’ve told this story plenty of times elsewhere so I’ll offer the short version here, in the interest of getting to the larger point. I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to pick up a pencil. My early efforts were about what you would expect from a 7 or 8 year old. I mimicked what I saw and read, so it was mostly Star Trek ripoffs and fantasy tales. When I got into comic books as a teenager, those influenced me, too, especially in terms of developing interconnected stories with lots of characters. I spent years in an online community, writing fanfiction with dozens of others in a shared story universe. This was an extremely messy and sometimes contentious endeavor, and it’s hard to say if the results were any good, but it was very useful practice in terms of both long form writing and collaboration with others.
My earliest stories were aimless, even nonsensical. Characters appeared and disappeared almost at will. Story threads were introduced, then quickly dropped. Both heroes and villains were hilariously overpowered. Themes? Motifs? Character arcs? What are those?? Of course, I learned about all of those things in time, at first from my schooling, and later through practice. In a lot of ways, reading other books is good practice. It’s said that reading is the most important part of writing, and it’s true. It’s necessary to know what others have done, to learn what to do, and decide what you don’t want to do. It is fair to say that I have been just as influenced by works I don’t want to emulate as those I do. Given the genres I tend to write in, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I like to read science fiction and fantasy, though I will read almost anything.
The question still goes unanswered, though: how did I figure out how to write a novel? Writing short stories is one thing. Unfocused collections of vaguely related passages don’t constitute a novel, either, unless you are a particularly brilliant writer (which I am not). A novel, regardless of its genre or style or the intentions of the author, needs structure. Like building a house, if you go into it without a blueprint, your end result won’t hold up.
When I went to college, my focus was not on writing but on computer science. I didn’t take any creative writing courses or anything of that nature. My trajectory might have been very different if I had. But software is what pays the bills, and I opted to keep writing as a side effort. It was in 2008 that I made my first real attempt to write a novel. The first iteration of Totality had been (mostly) written a few years prior, but this was done more as a lengthy collection of quasi-episodic stories, instead of an intentional novel. So, I was ready to try something different–to write a novel in the traditional sense. Despite my previous advice, I didn’t go into it with a solid plan. I had a premise. I had characters. I knew the initial crisis they would be thrown into. Beyond that, I had no idea where things would go. Luckily, the first act of a novel is a perfectly fine place to flail around for a while and figure out where you’re really going. If the characters are confused, it’s OK for the reader to be confused along with them. That was my reasoning, at least. Over time, a real story took shape, with the requisite rising action, climax, and denouement. Most importantly, I finished it. I had a beginning, middle, and an ending. I had written a manuscript.
I felt accomplished! Regardless of whether the final product was any good, I had written a novel, which I had not done before. I had made attempts. I had written long-form stories, and stories meant to be read as a series, but not an actual novel. In retrospect, it was completing this that gave me the confidence and morale to do it again–and again, and again.
Is that it, then? Is that the secret? For me, it was. Just sticking with a novel long enough to complete a first draft told me I was capable of it. Still, that sounds vague, doesn’t it? What did writing a novel actually entail, on a day-to-day basis?
As I mentioned, I started with a premise and characters. The characters were based on people I knew. I had their permission to drop them into this story, and they all had fun reading it, I think. A premise can be anything, too–just something to get the ball rolling, even if it’s not the main crisis or focus of the story. I tried to write a little bit every day. If not a full chapter, I would try to complete an entire scene, at a minimum. As these characters went off in different directions, I had to think about where they were going and how it might all lead back toward a central climax and conclusion. This was the fun part! It’s like solving a puzzle. I had characters in various situations, with varying motives and personalities, all facing their own dilemmas. How could all of those come together in a unifying manner to give a satisfying climax and conclusion to the story? Solving this puzzle obviously varies a lot from one story to the next. In my case, I started outlining the rest of the story, one chapter at a time. This let me figure out where each story threat would progress, always keeping an eye toward converging them. In the end, it worked out pretty well, and I didn’t deviate very much from the outline I put together about a quarter of the way through writing.
That entire experience laid the groundwork for the novels I have written since. I wrote another in 2009, then 2011, then 2012, and then I embarked on the Totality rewrite in 2013. Each time, I took a similar approach, refining the processes of developing characters, building outlines, and designing stories. I also made a concerted effort to read more books, many of which offered inspiration and insight into my own efforts. It’s fascinating to watch yourself pick up turns of phrase, ways of structuring chapters, and different ways to develop and humanize your characters. I think all writers have things they can learn from one another, and it’s an excellent way of pursuing your own growth.
What’s most important to realize is that there is no end goal. There is no finish line. A completed novel might be a sprint, but it’s just one leg in an endless marathon. It’s really about persisting, and committing to improvement. Nobody wakes up one day with a finished novel, or even the knowledge of how to write one. What you can wake up with is the determination to get started, to continue, to see it through–and to remember throughout that what you create doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthy. What’s important is to keep creating.