The Writers Circle

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101 Ways to Write a Novel

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forever, there’s no right way to write a book. I had it comfirmed for me many years ago with my oft’ repeated story of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell (whose new novel, Claude and Camille about Claude Monet, is coming out in April 2010). Years ago before either of us was published, I sat amazed listening to her tell how she put together her first novel by laying all the scenes on her bed and putting them in order!

Mark Twain worked in bed!

Mark Twain worked in bed!


I could never, ever do anything like that. I’m a chronological writer. I start at the beginning and I write to the end. I’ve tried it other ways, but there are always so many threads that I’m trying to hold on to that the moment I turn in another direction, I lose half of them and everything gets tangled. It’s frustrating, but I’ve always been a plodding, meticulous person. I suppose this is part of my curse – or my blessing.

In this terrific article from the Wall Street Journal (thanks, Stuart), How to Write a Great Novel, my personal observations are played out on a grand scale with the many different methods of some of today’s greatest writers.

Aside from the grandiose title (If anyone can really explain how to write a great novel, or even a mediocre one, please let me know!), it is a terrific collection of the true randomness and idiosyncrasy of this strange thing called writing that we do. Each author has his or her own process that does the trick. It’s up to each of us to figure out what works for us, too.

As I read this piece, I found myself thinking of many of the writers in our circle. Birgit, you’ve got to try Dan Chaon’s color-coded index cards. It’s a brilliant way to keep track of all your characters and story-lines. Stephanie, you take a drive; Hilary Mantel takes a shower (me, too!). Pam, I love how Dan Chaon (again) starts by simply jotting down imagery. Maybe you will find your plot in the same random way.

Some of us are morning writers; some are 2:00 in the morning writers. Some use voice-recognition software; some write by hand. I particularly appreciate how many of these successful authors admit to throwing out hundreds of pages or sometimes whole books. It happens. Take my word for it. We all shed a pool of tears and move on. But it’s part of the process, as unavoidable as the blank page.

So, if you haven’t found your method yet, here are a bunch of new approaches to try. Meanwhile, I’m sitting pretty this evening having finished a large section of revision (more like a complete overhaul, but one never knows what one must do until one reads one’s own work from beginning to end.)

Now, I’m off to the shower for some Hilary Mantel-style inspiration!

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

One comment on “101 Ways to Write a Novel

  1. Christi Craig
    November 16, 2009

    Thanks for the links. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole article yet, but I love Margaret Atwood’s quote:
    “Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot.”

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2009 by in Creative Writing, Great Writers, inspiration, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .
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