Writing a Novel: Controlling the Chaos

The writing process

It’s important to feel in control of the process when you’re writing a novel, but there’s also an element of uncertainty involved in writing fiction. That’s part of the creative process — happenstance, accident, and serendipity.

The trick is to balance the uncertainty with a clear overview of what you want to achieve.

Problems occur in the writing process when writers lose themselves in a fog of possibilities. There have too many ideas. They are not able to properly deliver many of those ideas. They have ideas that contradict one another.

Or they don’t have ideas (good ones at least).

The creative process is part magic (the sub-conscious) and part rational (conscious). It’s a delicate fusion. Because of this, it’s dangerous to over-rationalise it. Or to be completely intuitive. When the creative process is too regimented it stifles the magic and leads to procrastination. When the process is too loose it can fall into chaos.

The writing process requires self-doubt as well as confidence. This is a delicate dance between being open to self-criticism and having the confidence to believe in what you’re doing. Too much doubt can ruin your confidence and motivation. Too much confidence can lead too arrogance, stubbornly pursuing the same old ideas (ones that don’t work, breaking basic rules like having stories without interesting or likeable characters).

Walls and dead ends

A crisis can hit the writing process suddenly, like running into a wall. Bam! Or it can happen slowly like walking down a trail that you know isn’t leading anywhere except a ‘dead end’. You can see it happening, but you might not be able to stop it. You don’t know how.

Either way — hitting a wall or walking down a trail to nowhere — the effects mostly lead to fear and confusion. The palpable sense of being lost and the disappointment of having spent a lot of time and work apparently getting nowhere. The fear can manifest itself in different ways: procrastination, boredom, frustration, and panic.

If you go back to what you were doing before you will probably repeat the same mistakes. The only way forward is to work out how you got here. You have to leave your comfort zone.

So, being productive is all about finding the right creative balance — controlling the chaos. You need to feel good enough about the process in order to settle into a routine and maintain your discipline, both of which are important if you want to complete a novel.

The most likely reasons for getting into a crisis during a writing project are:

  • You’re not technically able to deliver on the ideas in your head
  • You are not sure what you are trying to achieve
  • You’re stuck in a loop of repeating the same mistakes

Knowing yourself is an important part of the creative process — being able to be critically self-honest. How can you achieve genuine clarity without this?

The first three questions you should ask are:

  1. What kind of story am I writing?
  2. Who is my audience?
  3. How do I tell my story in a way that can reach my audience?

Part of the problem is that a lot of writing advice is well-meaning but otherwise generalised cliché that doesn’t help much:

  • Write what interests you.
  • Write for yourself.
  • Write what you know.
  • Use the force.

The plan

There comes a point when you have to have a plan. You have to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve. Part of this clarity comes from knowing what kind of story you’re telling.

Most writing exercises and workshop classes are designed to give an insight into how the various parts of the writing process work. Join them together and hopefully you have a birds eye view.

Once you have the basic skills it comes down to planning, retaining a certain simplicity, and not getting too bogged down by the technicalities.

‘Real artists ship’

At some point, you have go from thinking about the process to actually doing the writing. You have to deliver on the promise.

Real artists ship.
— Steve Jobs

You have to get the first draft completed. It doesn’t matter how good or bad it is, just get it done.

If your plan isn’t working, change your plan. If you can’t deliver your plan, you have the wrong plan. Your plan is the one that works for you, only you and no one else.

The three new questions to ask yourself:

  1. What kind of story am I writing?
  2. Who’s my audience?
  3. How can I use my abilities (and work within my limitations) to tell my story in the best possible way that will interest my audience?

Also see:
How I Write a Novel
On Text Editors and Word Processors
Naming the Main Character
First Person, Present Tense Vs Third Person, Past Tense
Starting a novel