How Not to Write a Novel


I’ve been working on my book for one year.

It seems a little surreal to think I’ve been writing the same piece for that long, and haven’t become bored in it. I do write a lot, but I don’t finish many pieces. I either lose interest or confidence in the subject matter, and continuing it feels forced and unenjoyable.

When I started doing writing challenges in 2020, my goal had been to make short stories and build up a catalogue of pieces that I could post online to get feedback. To enter contests, and see if I could drum up a small following. I did start three short stories, and finished one. I’ve amassed a huge list of ideas for other short stories that I’ve since neglected in favour of working on my current project.

Then I read Scythe by Neal Shusterman.

I have been inspired by authors and artists in the past. I think that’s the creative’s burden. To be compelled to create things out of impulse, but often urged into action by influences of the world around us. When I’m inspired by something, I want to explore another angle of the concept. Make things darker, or lighter, or more detailed. This is also why I read fanfiction.

There is a side character in Scythe named Tyger Salazar, who “splats.” He commits suicide regularly, and spends time recovering in the hospital a couple times in the book. Rowan, one of the main characters, attempts this at one point, but is not as apathetic about it as Tyger, and does not try again.

I love how casual Tyger is about the entire thing, and I found myself wondering a lot about his mentality and motivations as the story went on. What was included was not enough for me, and I could not get this character’s approach to life, as well as the actions he had taken, out of my mind.

I re-read Scythe a couple of times. I started the second one, but got distracted by a story premise of my own…

Perhaps it’s my ongoing suicidal ideation, or the call of the void disrupting my thought process, but I became obsessed with the concept of a character who regularly dies throughout the story, and subsequently comes back to life. Be it murder, suicide, accident… I wanted to write something that had a main character that filled that purpose.

In the beginning, I referred to him as Sir Dies-a-Lot.

I had no other ideas for this project. No characters. No setting. No genre! Absolutely nothing. With the rough concept of a single character, I dove into writing.

This was entirely unlike my typical approach to writing.

I am a meticulous plotter. I usually start with a genre, a setting, and a goal. For example: thriller, isolated haunted house, woman alone documenting details of a haunting is murdered by a living person. From there, I develop the character, the reasons for their circumstance, and finally, I plot out all of the details before beginning to write so I have a roadmap of where to take things.

Very different from how I have approached my current work in progress.

I jumped into narrative writing with this character. Testing his conversational mannerisms, dialect, and personality. I loved him from the get-go.

It took time to explore why he was returning from death, and how he would handle this information. Scythe is futuristic, and the characters are all aware of the harm that’s coming to them, and those that survive are guarded from the depth of pain involved with the traumatic experience by nanites within their body.

I like consuming futuristic media, but I do not feel that I’m capable of writing it. I made an attempt on a dystopian robotic future story in high school, but it felt far too derivative. After books and movies like I, Robot, A.I., and every entry in the Terminator franchise… I felt I had nothing of substance to contribute, because I didn’t have fresh perspectives to offer that sub-genre.

That left me with fantasy, and I am a sucker for magical shit.

I don’t care how repetitious, or one-note fantasy pieces are. If the characters are real (human, fallible, self-actualizing), I’m there. That’s why I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Magicians. Comics, books, and televisions series. I cycle through them on repeat constantly.

Genre, and main character figured out. Everything after that was torrential chaos…

Again, I do not approach writing this way. Ever! This was entirely unlike me.

I decided how I wanted magic to function in the story. I created different magical groups / types. And I made a school to give a reason to bring relevant individuals from the different sectors into the same setting on an ongoing basis.

It wasn’t enough to have magic practiced or approached differently in different regions. I wanted there to be an origin source for their magic. I wanted religious and non-religious approaches. I wanted powerful magic users, and weak ones. Ones with broad ability, and some with narrowly focussed gifts.

And I needed a villain (but suffice it to say, one year later, having characters with physics defying abilities leads to a lot of self-aggrandisement, therefore the villain has changed a few times…).

Genre and setting accomplished. Characters and storyline began to sort themselves out. Sort of.

I had pages of notes on magical classes, history, and rough character outlines. Most of what I had written (that wasn’t a memo to myself) was strictly colloquial interactions between characters with no other information provided. No backdrop scenery, no summary of the occurrence that lead to the conversation, no descriptions of their physical actions throughout the dialogue. Only talking. Nothing else.

I didn’t have clear themes I wanted to express in the story, or anything that was fully developed. I was spurred on for a need to have this one character die (several times), be unaware of it, have his acquaintances become aware of it, have them each respond to this in their own way, and then have him become aware of what was happening to him.

I didn’t care that I had nothing else to work from. I had Sir Dies-a-Lot, and I was going to tell his story!

I tested a lot of the ideas I had on my husband by asking him questions about things I was struggling with. What’s the most evil act a person can commit and get away with? Would you forgive someone if you found out they had murdered you? Would you be able to trust them again? How paranoid would losing large chunks of time on an ongoing basis make you? If cruelty was all you had experienced during your life, how would you interact around new people? If you saw someone die, and then they got up and acted as though nothing had happened, what would you think? How would you break the news to them?

I talked about scenes and scenarios I was considering, and he listened and provided his honest opinion. He didn’t think any of it was going to work. “A corpse can’t be a main character,” was my most favourite piece of advice from him. When prompted as to whether or not it sounded like something he would read, his response was, “No, that’s horrifying.”

I do typically write horror and thriller, so mission accomplished?

Magical fantasy was still a new genre for me to explore as a writer. To help me get perspective I sought out other fantasy books and movies to see if I was anywhere near the generic expectations for that section of the library.

I wasn’t.

Rational, reasonable, and responsible me would have taken that as a sign that this was doomed to failure unless I made adjustments. I did take a step back, to compare subject matter to the standard audience. I included more people in my questions about what I was including in the story.

Aside from the ongoing death and murder of my favourite character, the storyline included pagan sacrifices, transformational magic, time travel, and questionable erotica.

Nearly everyone I discussed the details with has told me writing this was not a good idea. They would not be willing to read it. They did not know anyone who would read it. They didn’t know of books or movies that came close to including the level of fuckery I was planning to include.

The advice I received was simply:

  • Cut out the explicit sex
  • Reduce the planned gore
  • Consider a different character for the main

I had 74,000 words before I evaluated the story and began plotting.

Now I have an outline that grants me leave to include everything I want to!

I did cut back on some of the more visceral content. What remains is more detailed as a result. I have a entire clan of magic users who are violent, and rather than reducing their intensity I found a formula that explains their functions.

Sir Dies-a-Lot is still a main character, but I’m exploring the arcs of other characters as well.

It’s been fun working like this, but also very hectic. I will write something, and then immediately doubt myself and question its purpose in the overall narrative. Whereas when I’ve plotted first, I know steps 1 and 2 are necessary to get me to step 3.

One year into writing, I now have a fully formed outline to follow. I’m ready for Camp NaNo next month!

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