Some Thoughts On Writing A Novel

January 24, 2017 | By | 4 Replies More

I could tell you it took me a quick six months to write my first novel. It’s true — but also a lie. Sure, that’s how long it took from the first typed word to the last revised one. But the truth of the matter is, it took thirty years.

It’s sort of like that anecdote about Picasso, the one where he’s in a café, and some lady comes over and asks him to please draw her a little quick sketch on a napkin. So he does, and then he says, “that will be a million francs,” or some huge sum. The lady is horrified. “But that took you no more than a minute!” she says.

“Ah, no, madame,” Picasso replies. “That took me forty years.”

Picasso was a cocky dude, but he had a point. If you want to perfect your art, it is going to take a lot of time, and a lot of practice.

So I guess that’s rule number one, at least for me, of learning to write a novel, start to finish.

Time, and practice.

There is this popular idea of ten thousand hours — that it takes about that long to achieve mastery in any given field. Malcolm Gladwell coined the concept in his book, Outliers.  Some say that ten thousand hours is an arbitrary number. That it’s the quality of the practicing, the intensity of it – and not the quantity of hours clocked — that truly counts.

And I agree. Ten thousand hours of free-writing or poetry isn’t going to help you hone plot, pacing, and dialog skills. You need a more targeted learning for that. I found what helped me most at the beginning, was taking a stack of novels for young people that I loved and I admired, and analyzing why. I mapped the books. I made charts, with sticky notes, outlining what exactly each chapter accomplished, traced the paths of the characters, jotted down what I thought was the purpose of each scene. I looked for patterns.

I also read a lot of how-to books. And I read and analyzed screenplays, figuring the 120 or so pages of the average screenplay is about one-third the length of a book – a condensed, simplified novel form, thus easier to study.

But ultimately, what helped me most – after I finished all that over-analyzing — was just wading out into the deep water alone, and moving my arms and legs until I could swim.  I’m not sure if I spent ten thousand hours there, but I sure wrote thousands of mediocre words.  I learned a lot.

There’s also the art of reading.  It’s wonderful to read deeply in the genre or type of novel you’re aspiring to. But reading widely is also key. In fact the wider your literary net, the better. It’s amazing to me, the weird and fascinating coincidences and connections that come from reading widely. A superman comic, say, next to Nietzsche.  Or a list of terms in an acoustical engineering text, with a description of a mentally ill man in an Oliver Sacks story. Both sets of strange combinations have gotten my synapses firing.

I write coming-of-age novels for young people that usually feature neuro-diverse or autistic main characters, outsider kids who use different lenses through which to view the world. I find that reading diversely gives me a lens, through which to see my characters and my story worlds in unexpected ways.

Right now I am reading Benoit Mandelbrot’s The Fractalist, and marveling at the descriptions of what fractals are – infinitely repeating, complex systems, manifested in nature in things like snowflakes, or coastlines.  Can the whole world be described by theoretical math?

Anyhow, the point is: a varied, diverse reading is surely an excellent thing for the mind, an intellectual nourishment that will help you get to the end of that novel. Even if your goal is to write a picture book for a four year old. You just never know where the cool ideas will come from.

And so:  Time, and practice.  A wide reading. . .

There are perhaps just a few more things to mention.

Many of us writers find the same themes keep sneaking into our work. Something elemental, that comes from our life-experience, that is struggling to be expressed. It’s not a conscious decision: No matter what I start writing, it’ll end up being about a few related themes.

I’ve written for long enough now to realize that, for me, everything circles around an unorthodox and often absent family, a painful coming-of-age, and ultimate self-acceptance. No matter how hard I try to veer away, everything I write comes back to those themes.

Most of us have our own individual core truths, or heart-stories, like this. It is important to honor them. And to be honest with them, to own them. For they’re going to come out. They will not be ignored.

And then, for novel-writing, there is one last, very important, ingredient.

When my novel The Someday Birds was in progress, I was accepted into a women’s writing residency at Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle. They gave me my own little cabin, in the middle of a cedar forest, in which to write.

No one, before Hedgebrook, had ever supported my view of myself as a fiction writer. I had hidden my fiction-writing away for most of thirty years (shall we call it my lengthy “Picasso Period?”).  I felt guilty, as if my fiction-writing was wasted time that I should spend more productively, say, by cleaning out the pantry.

The Hedgebrook cabin had a sleeping loft, a hob for a teakettle, and a small cast-iron woodstove that scared me to look at. I’d never used something like that! How could they possibly think I was capable of this?

My guide arranged four thin logs and two twists of paper into a crosshatch pattern, and lit a match. Then she said, “Every writer – especially every woman writer — needs to know how to build and maintain their own fire. You’re on your own.”

At first I just froze. Temperature-wise, I mean. It was cold out, but I was too frightened to even try lighting that contraption! But eventually I grew braver. After a few weeks, I knew just how to angle the logs, where to catch the updraft.

And I wrote. I finished my first, real, true, heart-story of a novel in that little cabin, and when, on the next-to-last day,  I wrote the last sentence, and closed my laptop, I cried.

What I burned away, in my tidy cabin fire, was that horrible little inner critic who’d perched on my shoulder all my life, whispering, “Who do you think you are?” I knew the answer was “a writer.” I was ready to rise out of the ashes of my miserable self-doubt.

So, I think the crucial ingredient to writing a novel – besides decades of practice, and wide reading, and knowing your core truth – is your own rock-steady faith you can do it.

If you have the passion, you have the permission.

And maybe that’s the most important rule of of all.

Sally J. Pla is the author of The Someday Birds (HarperCollins), a Junior Library Guild Selection for 2017, and starred review in Publishers Weekly. Kirkus called it “hopeful, authentic, and oddly endearing.” Booklist called it “a delight from beginning to end.”

A second novel and a picture book are due out in 2018.

Follow her on Twitter @sallyjpla

Find out more about her on her website



About The Someday Birds

The Someday Birds is a debut middle grade novel perfect for fans of Counting by 7s and Fish in a Tree, filled with humor, heart, and chicken nuggets.

Charlie’s perfectly ordinary life has been unraveling ever since his war journalist father was injured in Afghanistan.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly brothers, and a mysterious new family friend. He decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father were hoping to see someday along the way, then everything might just turn out okay.

Debut author Sally J. Pla has written a tale that is equal parts madcap road trip, coming-of-age story for an autistic boy who feels he doesn’t understand the world, and an uplifting portrait of a family overcoming a crisis.






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Comments (4)

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  1. Heather says:

    So many truths in this! I especially love what you said about writing on familiar themes:

    “Most of us have our own individual core truths, or heart-stories, like this. It is important to honor them. And to be honest with them, to own them. For they’re going to come out. They will not be ignored.”

    This is something I have actively (and fruitlessly) struggled against. What a wonderful and freeing idea, to honor them and own them instead of running from them. Because you’re right; they will not be ignored.

    Thank you for sharing your insights. I can’t wait to read The Someday Birds and find the truth inside it!

    • Sally says:

      Thank you so much, Heather. It’s definitely all a process. But basically, I’ve observed in myself and in writer friends that the thing we’re most scared of writing about, is the thing we should be writing about. It somehow informs all our writing, anyway, in the background. Owning it, shedding intentional light on it, brings power, but it’s hard. I am still working on that… Anyhow, best of luck with your writing, and thanks for reading The Someday Birds!

  2. Judy McSweeney says:

    You’re certainly on fire now, my dear. Beautiful words about the process of getting there. Happy book launch, and here’s to many more!

  3. I so agree about reading widely. I get a lot of fiction ideas from science, history, religion, classic literature — and I write women’s fiction. Thanks for sharing!

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