How to Write a Novel—Where to Start?

For beginning writers feeling overwhelmed at the thought of writing a novel, here’s some advice I once gave to my sons when they faced the dreaded SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT.

My two sons were nothing like that teen prodigy who invented a revolutionary pancreatic cancer detection tool, but they grew into clever, creative men. There were times though, when I wondered if they’d ever make it past the sixth grade. This was driven home like a sledgehammer to the kneecap when we were faced with the one school assignment every parent has come to dread. I’m referring to a fiendish exercise that stretched parental emotional stability to the breaking point. You know it as the Science Fair Project, a rite of passage in which science teachers encourage their students to expand their minds and test the limits of endurance for their parents.

I’m not sure how it worked in your house, but our oldest son waited until Friday evening to tell us his project was due on Monday. Which meant the weekend was lost in a frenzy of poster boards, Magic Markers, clipping and pasting, and creative plagiarism.

After enduring this painful process with Number One Son, I was determined not to repeat it with his younger brother when he entered the sixth grade. So when he told us his project was on the fungi and mosses of NE Florida, I asked him how much research he’d done.

“Research?” he repeated, looking at me as though I was quacking like a duck.

“Yes, research,” I answered. “We have a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a very good library in the neighborhood.”

He continued to stare at me until I thought maybe I was quacking like a duck.

“Also,” I added, “if you walk outside and look at all the trees, you’ll find dozens of examples of fungi and mosses in your own backyard.”

His eyes began to mist as his gaze shifted from me to the bookcase where the encyclopedias were gathering dust on the bottom shelf, and finally out the window where a huge water oak festooned with Spanish moss shaded the backyard so thoroughly no grass would ever grow beneath its mighty branches.

“But … but,” he stammered. “Where do I start?”

I looked down at my son, the child we’d loved and nurtured for over twelve years, and said simply, “Take it one moss at a time.”

This little snippet of  family history came back to me when I recently picked up my well-worn copy of bird by bird, Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing. I believe this was the very first writing book I ever purchased. The pages are yellowing and brittle, but as I reread her deeply personal and humorous insights into the writing life, all the reasons why I wanted to be a writer came flooding back. It’s not about becoming famous and rich. Well, maybe it starts that way until we realize few writers attain such heights. Yet, we keep at it mainly because we don’t have a choice, and the writing becomes a goal in itself.

The title of Lamott’s book comes from a story she tells about her brother’s school assignment on birds. Like our son’s fungi and moss project, her brother was overwhelmed about how to tackle such an all-encompassing task as cataloguing the avian world. Her father stepped in, putting an arm around his son’s shoulder, and told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Lamott tells the story to illustrate how writers, particularly beginning writers, panic when they think about writing a 300-page book. The task does appear to be overwhelming, akin to building a skyscraper, a seemingly magical feat to the rubberneckers watching through the fence.

E. L. Doctorow once said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make it the whole trip that way.” My guess is Mr. Doctorow is a seat-of-the-pants writer who doesn’t need to know the route his story is taking or his final destination. That’s one way of writing. The other method is outlining, which I’d recommend for beginning writers who can use a roadmap to help guide them from the beginning to the end of their writing journey.

But let’s go back to the bird by bird anecdote, and my advice to my son about his mossy science fair project. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, break it into bite-size chunks. Lamott writes that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her to write only as much as she can see through the frame. “Short assignments,” she calls them. That way, even if you’re writing a historical saga spanning three generations, you can build up to it by giving yourself a short assignment: a single page. Maybe even a paragraph. Write just those few feet you can see with the headlights: a description of the charter fishing boat your protagonist owns; the swell of the ocean during a storm; how your character feels when she walks into the room and sees the family dog and her child curled up together on the couch.

Starting with short assignments provides confidence and a springboard to longer assignments. The words will surely flow, and pages will grow into chapters. Before you know it you will have completed the first draft of your Magnus opus. Of course, you know what they say about first drafts. Lamott even has a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts,” acknowledging that all good writers spin out first drafts of poor quality. “This is how they end up with good second drafts, and terrific third drafts,” she says.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we. For now, let’s concentrate on the short assignment. Take it one moss at a time.